NASA broke a speed record Tuesday afternoon by accelerating a sub-orbital plane to 9.6 times the speed of sound. The success was overshadowed, however, by severe funding cuts that will ground the plane.
The plane bears the name X-43A and employs a supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet) that, like conventional jet engines, accelerates air in an enclosed space, which pushes the plane forward. The new technology, however, compresses the air much more, creating more thrust and thereby accelerating the plane much more than previously possible. As the plane uses the oxygen present in the atmosphere to achieve this, it cannot work outside the Earth’s atmosphere, but it could be a more efficient way of propelling objects in sub-orbit before conventional booster-rockets give them the needed extra push to break free of earth’s atmosphere.
NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe said to the BBC, “This flight is a key milestone and a major step toward the future possibilities for producing boosters for sending large and critical payloads into space in a reliable, safe, inexpensive manner.” He also stressed, “These developments will also help us advance the vision for space exploration while helping to advance commercial aviation technology.”
The flight was the last in a sequence of three. Plans for a larger plane, the X-43C, were also discontinued when President George W. Bush announced his initiative to land a manned spaceflight on Mars. President Bush has also proposed several billion dollars to arm space with an anti-ballistic missile system that has yet to be tested successfully.
Aside from its somewhat awkward name, the X-43A is a runaway success. It could lead to a successor to the Space Shuttles, which are based on technology from the ’60s and early ’70s and are in dire need of replacement. The new technology is promised to be easier to service than existing technology, which would mean more frequent and likely cheaper missions. It could also lead to innovations in commercial aircraft, making jet engines more efficient and environmentally friendly while at the same time cutting travel time considerably.
Instead of arming space, which would be a direct violation of international treaties, our government should rethink the funding plans for NASA. The technological advantages of the advancements are so readily apparent that it would be an easy sell to the American public; arming space after the end of the Cold War is not.