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QueSST supersonic X-plane concept
Artwork shows NASA’s concept for Quiet Supersonic Technology, known as QueSST. (Credit: NASA)

NASA is laying out a vision of quieter supersonic jets and environmentally friendly X-planes as part of its agenda for aeronautics, the oft-neglected “A” in its acronym.

X-planes – that is, experimental aircraft like the X-1 and the X-15 – played a big role in the history of NASA’s predecessor agency, known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics or NACA. But when NACA was replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the focus gradually shifted from the air to the space frontier beyond.

The federal budget proposal unveiled in February shifted some of the emphasis back to aeronautics, in the form of a 10-year program called “New Aviation Horizons.” As Congress debates the budget, NASA is touting its plan to bring back the X-planes.

About $20 million already has been set aside for one project, known as Quiet Supersonic Technology or QueSST. A team led by Lockheed Martin is working on the design for a supersonic jet that produces a soft series of thumps rather than an annoying sonic boom.

Other projects could result in airliners that burn half the fuel and generate 75 percent less pollution during each flight, compared with today’s standards.

“If we can build some of these X-planes and demonstrate some of these technologies, we expect that will make it much easier for U.S. industry to pick them up and roll them out into the marketplace,” Ed Waggoner, director of NASA’s Integrated Aviation Systems Program, said on Friday in a NASA feature story about X-planes.

NACA and NASA pursued its past X-plane projects in cooperation with other parties such as the Air Force, Lockheed Martin (for the X-33) and Boeing (for the X-37). The Air Force eventually took charge of the X-37B space plane project, and one of the planes is currently in orbit for a classified series of tests.

Waggoner said the fate of future X-plane projects will depend on what kinds of partnerships go forward. For example, a startup called Boom Technology is already working on a 40-passenger supersonic jet, with help from Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company. And Boeing is already supporting research into aviation biofuel and hybrid electric aircraft.

“We’re going to let the marketplace and the community help us inform our decisions on the direction we want to go,” he said.

NASA’s future decisions also depend on the outcome of the budget debate in Congress. And so far, the prospects for aeronautics are less than stratospheric.

Last week the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $19.306 billion allotment for NASA in the next fiscal year, including $601 million for aeronautics. Space Policy Online’s Marcia Smith says that’s $39 million less than what the aeronautics program was given for the current fiscal year, and $189 million less than the Obama administration’s request.

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