In less than 50 days, a company will unveil what it hopes will be the plane to kickstart a new generation of supersonic flight. On October 7th, Boom Supersonic is planning to show off the XB-1, its single-seat test craft, with flights planned for next year. It’s early days, but what happens in Colorado in the next 18 months could have lasting consequences on how we fly.
We’ve been here before. In the 1960s, the British and French governments came together to build a supersonic liner. Concorde began flying in 1969 and entered commercial service in 1976, with its last flight taking place in 2003. There’s only been one other civilian supersonic transport (SST), the Russian-made Tupolev TU-144, but it barely counts. Most students of aviation history know that the plane made less than a hundred passenger flights before retirement.
Concorde’s life played out the latter half of the 20th century in microcosm. Created in an optimistic era by engineers who solved the plane’s challenges in longhand. This mechanical marvel, fast and reliable, flew at Mach 2.04 and, along with the moon landing, marked the high point of humanity’s technological achievement. By the time that it came into service, much of that optimism had given way to cynicism.
In the righter-wing decades that followed its birth, we simply decided to walk back from the future. Concorde wasn’t abandoned because we improved upon it, but because it was cheaper to do something worse. Why let a handful of people cross the Atlantic in a couple of hours when the jumbo jets (that were developed concurrently) can do the same at far lower cost?
Two decades later, and a new generation of entrepreneurs, tired of waiting for another optimistic age, are trying to build it themselves. That’s where the Colorado-based Boom Supersonic and its founder, Blake Scholl, come in. Scholl describes himself as an Objectivist (a follower of the teachings of Ayn Rand) and previously worked for both Groupon and Amazon. He freely admits that, beyond his private pilots license, he does not have an aerospace background.
During our talk, Scholl referenced SpaceX a number of times, and it’s clear that Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company is the model Boom is striving to emulate. “You know, when SpaceX got started, it was a joke that a startup could build a rocket,” he said “and not that many years later, they’re landing rockets vertically on pads.” Scholl’s ambition is to do for supersonic travel what SpaceX did, and is doing, for the space industry.
1/ In the pre-founding days of @boomaero I worried “what do *I*—an Internet prod/eng guy—bring to the table?”— Blake Scholl (@bscholl) July 31, 2020
One of the things that Scholl and Boom are banking on is the advances in computer-aided design and materials science. The single-seat, 71-foot long XB-1 is designed to test if these advances will make building a supersonic plane far more efficient and cheap than it was in the ‘60s. XB-1 will use a variety of molded carbon fiber composites for its body that should hold up better against the heat and stresses caused by supersonic flight. The company says that the plane should be able to withstand temperatures exceeding 300 Fahrenheit (148C).