The Last Hope for Supersonic Transport: A Concorde Tribute

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There was a time when the big controversy over high-technology didn't involve a single computer. In the 1970s, supersonic transport (or SST, as it became known) was a hot-button issue. And it was in December of 1970 that the beginning of the end began for supersonic transport.

It was in early December 40 years ago that a chamber of Congress -- the Senate -- voted against funding the development of SST for the first time. Though it took some wrangling with the House, by March of 1971, the construction of an American commercial jet that could break the sound barrier was effectively mothballed.

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For many engineering types, the end of supersonic transport in America was appalling. To them, it made perfect -- almost inevitable -- sense that planes would continue to get faster and faster. After all, it had been increasing since the first Wright Brothers' airplane flights at Kitty Hawk around the turn of the century. Why would it stop? The idea that people might still be flying regular old jets around the world 40 years would have been unthinkable.

Environmentalists, who had opposed the SST on noise and pollution grounds, celebrated a hard-fought victory. It was an indication that the limits could be set on the march of technology. The people could socially determine which technologies would be used to travel the globe.

With the U.S. out of the race, the Concorde, a joint British-French plane, became the lone supersonic commercial jet in development. It made its first flight in 1969 and entered commercial service in 1976, but it never became more than a bit player in the aviation scene. With dedicated SST opponents in many cities, the Concorde never could gain market share in the U.S., almost locking it out of a huge market.

After a Concorde crash in 2000, the program entered its final phase. It was grounded in 2003, ending the dream of supersonic commercial transport, a dream that took its first serious political hit 40 years ago in the Senate.

Here, we look back at the Concorde that was.

Citation: Much of the narrative here was drawn from Joshua Rosenbloom's 1981 article in Social Studies of Science, "The Politics of the American SST Programme: Origin, Opposition and Termination"

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Alexis Madrigal & Rebecca Greenfield

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor and lead technology writer at TheAtlantic.com. Rebecca Greenfield writes for and produces the National channel.

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