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High-Speed Dreams: NASA and the Technopolitics of Supersonic Transportation, 1945–1999 (New Series in NASA History) Paperback – October 1, 2008
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
"Of interest to historians and social scientists concerned with the politics and economics of public policy... An important book on a fascinating topic."(Choice)
"A concise and thoroughly fascinating history of the train wreck that was the U.S. supersonic civil transport programs."(Air and Space Magazine)
"A readable narrative on the interplay between politics, technology, and economics."(Airways)
"Conway seems to have struck the right balance between the nuts-and-bolts of aircraft design and discussion of larger issues, particularly state support for advanced technology... An original and valuable contribution to the saga of a dream deferred."(Virginia P. Dawson Technology and Culture)
"Conway does an excellent job of explaining the nationalism inherent in supersonic transport during the Cold War and the domestic American politics surrounding the project."(Stephen G. Craft Isis)
"A serious academic work... likely to interest historians and those interested in aerospace research."(Satellite Evolution Group)
"Comprehensive and enjoyable... A cautionary tale of half-baked federal technology and economic policies high-jacking public funds for a concept aircraft that was an engineering boondoggle, a financial black hole and an environmental fiend."(Thomas Yates History and Technology)
"[Conway's] examination of the development of supersonic aviation and the various SST programs provides a fascinating internal look at how the technology developed, while also connecting that development with the issue of the larger meaning of technology in society."(Andrew Baird Journal of American History)
"Impressive and thorough. An important contribution to our understanding of state-supported large-scale technological development in America. It will be of interest to aerospace enthusiasts, historians of technology, and students of public policy."(Alex Roland, Duke University, former president of the Society for the History of Technology)
From the Back Cover
Erik M. Conway constructs an insightful history that focuses primarily on the political and commercial factors responsible for the rise and fall of American supersonic transport research programs. Conway charts commercial supersonic research efforts through the changing relationships between international and domestic politicians, government contractors, private investors, and environmentalists. He documents post–World War II efforts at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA, and the Defense Department to generate supersonic flight technologies; European and American attempts to commercialize these technologies during the 1950s and 1960s; environmental campaigns against SST technology in the 1970s; and subsequent attempts to revitalize supersonic technology at the end of the century.
"A concise and thoroughly fascinating history of the train wreck that was the U.S. supersonic civil transport programs."― Air and Space Magazine
"Conway seems to have struck the right balance between the nuts-and-bolts of aircraft design and discussion of larger issues, particularly state support for advanced technology... An original and valuable contribution to the saga of a dream deferred."― Technology and Culture
"Conway does an excellent job of explaining the nationalism inherent in supersonic transport during the Cold War and the domestic American politics surrounding the project."― Isis
"Comprehensive and enjoyable... A cautionary tale of half-baked federal technology and economic policies high-jacking public funds for a concept aircraft that was an engineering boondoggle, a financial black hole, and an environmental fiend."― History and Technology
"[Conway's] examination of the development of supersonic aviation and the various SST programs provides a fascinating internal look at how the technology developed, while also connecting that development with the issue of the larger meaning of technology in society."― Journal of American History
Erik M. Conway serves as historian, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
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Starting with America's response to the Anglo-French Concorde effort it tells the continuous history of NASA led SST R&D up until the end of the High Speed Research program in 1999. During this period there were two major and one more minor attempts to develop an SST.
The first, the American program to develop a competitor to the Concorde, was an unmitigated disaster. In the early 1960's neither the market to support an SST nor the technology to develop one existed. (Witness the sad saga of the Concorde.) This didn't deter the FAA and the politicians in general from setting a completely unrealistic set of requirements on the American aerospace contractors to develop an aircraft; requirements with the sole goal of upstaging the Concorde. These requirements were politically driven and set before comprehensive economic and technology feasibility studies (the normal place to define requirements) were completed. As such they had no real economic or technical foundation and were impossible to meet. To add insult to injury the politicians then set a ridiculous schedule so that any resulting aircraft would reach the market more or less concurrent with the Concorde. In spite of this the aerospace contractors responded with some highly innovative ideas and tried very, very hard to meet the requirements. Unfortunately though the compressed schedule the politicians had allowed resulted in the most promising technology ideas, which were also the most revolutionary and required the longest time to develop, being dropped. In the case of Curtiss-Wright's SST engine proposal, which was widely believed to be one of the best engine proposals ever put forward, not only was the concept denied funding but the loss put the company out of business. While struggling with impossible requirements the SST soon became the symbolic target of environmentalists who launched a concerted campaign against it. The program soon unravelled and was abandoned. Although the resulting Boeing 2707-300 design could not meet its requirements, the nation missed an excellent opportunity to build a low cost prototype to extend the knowledge of supersonic transports through an X-plane type flight research program, one that could help plant the seed for a future supersonic blossoming.
After the cancellation of America's answer to Concorde NASA and the aerospace industry continued to investigate technologies that could overcome the problems that clipped the 2707's wings, and with a relatively large deal of success. The results of this research eventually led to a second attempt to actually produce an American SST in the late '80's to late '90's under the HSCT / HSR (High Speed Civil Transport / High Speed Research) programs. By this time there was significant potential for a transpacific SST market, and it seemed possible that the technologies existed to produce one economically. HSR produced a large amount of excellent SST configuration and technology research, but ultimately failed to produce an aircraft, again. The environmental requlations, particularly takeoff noise restrictions, had become too stringent during the course of HSR for any of its design technologies to yield an FAA certifiable SST. The "too short" schedule of HSR again prevented the most promising technologies from being researched. NASA also is far less capable of turning research results into flying aircraft (their spacecraft record is quite different) than the Air Force, since NASA traditionally won't pay for concept demonstration and validation, the most expensive but also the most necessary part of R&D.
The author does an excellent job of recording all the technological challenges, R&D progress -with its successes and failures-, and the politics of SST development. This book is certainly the most comprehensive work of its kind, and has more than enough explanation of the big picture as well as delving into the details to keep your interest. Although the history of SSTs is generally a dark cloud there is some significant silver lining in this cloud. Reading the book left me with a general appreciation for the hard work and ingenuity of the aerospace contractors, and a sense of how sorely politicians without significant technical background can ruin a project.
As a history book the author does a good job of handling the bias he brings to it, which is apparent as you read but kept to such a minimum that it generally doesn't detract from the book overall. For example he on occasion refers to aerospace enthusiasts as ideologues but never to environmentalists as such. Republicans are often cited as conservative or right wing or strident and are usually anti-this or anti-that, whereas Democracts are just Democrats. He constrains his bias until it comes out freely in the conclusion section, which is where authors have free reign to say what they feel, and it's no surprise that he's a liberal environmentalist. Oh well. There are also some not terribly convincing attacks on "free markets" vs. the European statist system throughout, but the author is also correct that Aerospace has never been as free a market as most other industries.
After reading this book I feel that there is a chance for a relatively "free market" development of an SST eventually, with the help of the Air Force. IF airline travel continues to grow, especially long range travel such as New York to Singapore (currently an 18 hour flight!), a lucrative market for a commercial SST may develop. IF private attempts to produce a supersonic business jet are successful, as several companies are attempting now, then private capital for larger SST's may suddenly appear as will a horde of operational data on which supersonic technologies work and which don't for commercial use. IF the Air Force proceeds with its LRSA (Long Range Strike Aircraft) and QSP (Quiet Supersonic Platform) research, currently residing in DARPA, to the flight demonstration phase - or even eventual operational status- then the technologies necessary to finally produce an economic and environmentally "friendly" large SST airliner could become validated and available. If all these stars align, which is not all that implausible, we could see an SST perhaps in 20 or 30 years. Sorry about it taking so long, but flying supersonically is indeed rocket science.
Given the fact that HSR could've produced an economical SST that was as quiet on takeoff as a 747-400 (and "failed" because it could NOT produce one quieter) the author's environmental argument against SSTs in his conclusion is philosophical and, in my opinion, unconvincing. It's basically "energy consumption is bad, supersonic flight will always consume more energy than subsonic flight, therefore SST bad." In my opinion energy is the foundation for higher standards of living, and getting to Singapore from New York in eight hours versus eighteen isn't an outdated concept of progress.
Despite the fact I disagree with the author's view on the desirability of an SST this book is incredibly informative, highly interesting, was a fun read, and about 99% fair. All in all an impressive achievement and if this book looks even slightly interesting to you then I highly recommend you go ahead and buy it! (The author probably deserves to get on the NYT bestseller list after so thoroughly research a topic he wasn't in favor of!)
The lesson is author doesn't emphasize is that unlike previous generations of modern commercial aircraft, the SST didn't have a military precursor to break the trail. He correctly points out that cost of the SST development made it extremely unattractive to the commercial aircraft industry, however, and how that was ultimately the final nail into both coffins of the SST programs.
His view of some of the programs is also somewhat skewed. This is especially the case with the hypersonic "Orient Express" and some of the related Single State To Orbit vehicles that were more-or-less offshoots of those programs.
He does point out that while noise and ozone depletion were major stumbling blocks to the program, they were ultimately not what killed it. The SST designers solved the noise problem not once, but twice, in the face of ever-tightening noise restrictions and the major problem was noise at takeoff, not the sonic boom.
There's a lot of good information here, even given the focus and some of the author's conclusions.