NASA successful in scramjet test flight

Unmanned X-43A reaches 7 times speed of sound

first try 3 years ago failed

March 28, 2004|By Peter Pae | Peter Pae,LOS ANGELES TIMES

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - A 12-foot experimental plane equipped with a special jet engine streaked across the Pacific Ocean at more than seven times the speed of sound yesterday, shattering a technological barrier and brightening future prospects for super-fast airline flights.

Flying faster than any aircraft ever built, NASA's X-43A "Hyper X" plane reached a top speed of about 5,000 mph, or about a mile and a half per second, before the unmanned craft was intentionally ditched into the ocean.

The previous record holder for a jet aircraft was the SR-71 spy plane, which reached speeds of 2,100 mph. The X-43A also surpassed the Mach 6.7 speed record set by the X-15 rocket-powered plane in 1967.

The world's fastest flight came after five decades of research that was fraught with frustration and setbacks. For a while, aerospace analysts asserted that developing a jet plane that can reach hypersonic speeds, or exceeding five times the speed of sound, was harder to accomplish than sending a man to the moon.

"It worked wonderfully," said Joel Sitz, the project manager for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's X-43A program at Edwards' Dryden Flight Research Center. "Today was a grand slam in the 12th inning."

"Everything went as planned." The hypersonic flight lasted only about 11 seconds, but it demonstrated a technology that could lead to an airliner flying from Los Angeles to Tokyo in two hours, or a bomber that would be too fast to shoot down.

"It's a big step forward for aerospace technology," said Charles Vick, a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, an aerospace research company.

The successful flight, nearly three years after the first attempt failed, is also likely to bolster efforts to expand development of jet technology. Since President Bush announced an initiative this year to send a person back to the moon and then to Mars, many of NASA's aeronautical research efforts have been in jeopardy.

"A lot was riding on this flight," said Vincent Rausch, program manager for NASA's hypersonic research.

NASA officials felt they could not afford another failure. In June 2001, NASA officials destroyed a nearly identical plane after its booster rocket fell apart shortly after launch.

Under a $230-million program, NASA engineers built three X-43A aircraft, one of which was destroyed in the 2001 attempt.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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