Supersonic jets and hydrogen-powered trains

From April through July, American and British publications took note of the fact that NASA had awarded a $237.5 million contract to Lockheed Martin for the development of a supersonic jet plane able to break the sound barrier without creating an ear-splitting boom. An April 3, a Washington Business Week article on the subject, by Robert J. Perry, bore the straightforward headline “Lockheed wins NASA contract to build quieter supersonic aircraft,” with a photo of the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works’ X-plane whose caption explained that the airplane “will cruise at 55,000 feet, Mach 1.4, and will generate a gentle, supersonic heartbeat instead of a sonic boom.”

Two days later, a Fortune magazine article by Robert Hackett bore the seductive headline “Shh…A Quieter Supersonic Jet Is on Its Way” and began: “We’re one step closer to faster, quieter flights,” as if we were all in this luxury flight business together. Neither the Business Week nor Fortune article touched on the estimated price of flying supersonically or on the environmental effect of such flights.

Readers would have to wait a few months to get clued in on these topics. 

A July 17 Huffington Post article by Arthur Nesien, headlined “Supersonic Jets for the Ultra Rich Could be a Climate Change Disaster,” reported that a study made by the nonprofit, Brussels-based International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) had found that the planes will burn five to seven times more fuel than normal aircraft. 

Nesien went on to explain that supersonic jets emit far more carbon dioxide than conventional aircraft and that the plane’s emissions of carbon dioxide and water vapor will occur at 60,000 feet — roughly twice as high as other aircraft — an altitude at which the emissions affect the balance between the sunlight that reaches earth and the energy reflected back into space, “a process known as ‘radiation forcing,’ which may dramatically boost global warming.”

On July 25, a New York Times article by Hiroko Tabuchi headlined “Faster Than the Speed of Sound, but at What Cost?” noted that the price was expected to be equivalent to “the cost of a business-class ticket today.” Further, citing the findings of the ICCT, Tabuchi noted that supersonic passenger jets are “likely to burn three to four times as much fuel per business class passenger as standard planes, and would fail to meet existing fuel efficiency, pollution, and noise standards for subsonic aircraft.” 

With several start-up companies investing billions of dollars in the new jets, industry sources are predicting that, by 2035, between 1,000 and 2,000 supersonic jets will be ready to service those willing to pay the price.

On Sept. 17, by way of illuminating contrast, Agence France-Presse ran a story that began: “Germany has rolled out the world’s first hydrogen-powered train, signaling the start of a push to challenge the might of polluting diesel trains.”

How do you say “Vive la difference” in German? 


Jon Swan is a poet, journalist and former senior editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. Find him at www.jonswanpoems.com.