"Without a basic appreciation of nature, I believe an overemphasis on science will destroy us," said Charles Lindbergh.
That was in 1966, and the elderly Lindbergh, a member of the board of directors of Pan American World Airways, was talking to Interior Secretary Stewart Udall about the effects of sonic booms--the startling shock wave heard when a jetliner "goes supersonic" as it literally catches, collides with, then passes through the wall of compressed air created by its own sound.
The bigger the plane, the bigger the boom, and in those early days of the American supersonic transport (SST), the boom and the problems of convincing people it was good for them were major concerns for those who were trying to build an SST and for those, like Pan Am, who might buy it.
Lindbergh's comment came when the American SST program was still mostly the property of bureaucrats, scientists and manufacturers, and five years before dramatic votes in both the House and the Senate killed the American SST for good, but it brilliantly outlined the eventual shape of the debate.
In his new book, author Mel Horwitch, an assistant professor of management at MIT, walks us through the history of the U.S. SST program in sometimes excruciating detail, but establishes that this debate was a watershed in the environmental movement. The SST itself started in the late 1950s, grew with government sponsorship but little public attention through most of the 1960s, then was summarily executed in 1971 by a combination of environmental concerns and economic question marks.
Coming as it did at the time of the Vietnam war, it accompanied a growing awareness on the part of ordinary people that they were entitled to challenge the technocrats, even if they did not possess their superior knowledge.
It is difficult not to fall in love with aviation's technology, since it's obvious that we aren't supposed to fly. But by the time the SST debate was over, the right to question was firmly established; the SST defeat came despite arguments about supersonic flight being the next logical step in mankind's never-ending search for faster transportation, about progress for progress' sake, about national pride, about reaching for the higher ground.
The SST protest movement really started with concern about the sonic boom, which the Federal Aviation Administration knew from tests in Oklahoma City in 1964 would not be all that well received. One transcontinental flight would boom 5 million people, it developed, and the FAA became so skittish about the subject that it declined to make more tests in civilian areas. Jewell C. Maxwell, the SST director for the FAA, advised in one meeting that jets had been introduced at Washington National Airport without a lot of fuss, and that the noise had simply been tolerated. Had the FAA made tests, he said, "I would doubt seriously that there would be jets in Washington National Airport today."
Thus subsequent tests of the boom's impact on civilian populations were suspended and the FAA restricted supersonic flight to over-ocean routes.
By the time Congress took its final SST votes in 1971, new issues had also been raised: The exhaust of hundreds of SSTs would hasten the destruction of the atmosphere's ozone layer, which shields humans from ultraviolet radiation; the government should not be subsidizing at the rate of almost $300 million annually a development program for the benefit of Boeing, which was not putting that much of its own money into the kitty.
By the time those votes were taken, the anti-SST movement had grown from the small Citizens League Against the Sonic Boom, headed by a tenacious man named William A. Shurcliff, to the enormous Coalition Against the SST, which encompassed most of the major environmental organizations.
Horwitch's book is sometimes a tedious tale of bureacracy, and how the FAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Defense Department, the Commerce Department, the Bureau of the Budget (now OMB) and the National Academy of Sciences fought for turf with memos, meetings and friends in Congress.
But the central point is important: The people knew more than the technocrats. Tbe proof is in the British-French Concorde, which itself provided fuel in the form of national pride for the pro-SST side. Only 16 Concordes have been built and nine of those were "sold" to either British Airways or Air France. The only routes that have proven worthwhile are London-New York and Paris-New York. The sonic boom precluded the one route--New York to Los Angeles--that might conceivably have made the American SST viable.
The Russians have their own SST, called the TU144, but it has been plagued with difficulties. There seems to be little future for SSTs unless some as yet undiscovered technological breakthrough eliminates the sonic boom. Congress' Office of Technology Assessment said in a report two years ago that it would cost $6 billion to $10 billion in development costs to get a second-generation SST off the ground, and that kind of money would require substantial governmental participation for what appears at the moment to be a questionable gain.