NASA X-59 Cleared for Final Assembly

Illustration of the completed X-59 QueSST landing on a runway. Lockheed Martin

NASA’s first large scale, piloted X-plane in more than three decades is cleared for final assembly and integration of its systems following a major project review by senior managers held December 12, 2019 at NASA’s headquarters in Washington.

The management review, known as Key Decision Point-D (KDP-D), was the last programmatic hurdle for the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft to clear before officials meet again in late 2020 to approve the airplane’s first flight in 2021.

“With the completion of KDP-D, we’ve shown the project is on schedule, it’s well planned and on track. We have everything in place to continue this historic research mission for the nation’s air-traveling public,” said Bob Pearce, NASA’s associate administrator for Aeronautics.

Construction of the X-59, under a $247.5 million cost-plus-incentive-fee contract, is continuing at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company’s Skunk Works factory in Palmdale, California. “It’s pretty obvious when you look at it on the production floor. You can see there’s an aircraft starting to get built,” said Craig Nickol, NASA’s project manager for the X-59, which also is known as the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator. And with the recent completion in September 2020 of a major project milestone–known as the Critical Design Review (CDR), the X-59 will rapidly accelerate its evolution from an airplane on paper toward an airplane ready to roll out of the factory and take flight.

The general shape of NASA’s X-59 QueSST airplane, including parts of its wing, can be seen on the Skunk Works factory floor in Palmdale, California. Lockheed Martin

According to NASA, the X-59 is shaped to reduce the loudness of a sonic boom reaching the ground to that of a gentle thump, if it is heard at all. It will be flown above select U.S. communities to generate data from sensors and people on the ground in order to gauge public perception. That data will help regulators establish new rules to enable commercial supersonic air travel over land. Supersonic flight over land without sonic booms is something that aerospace engineers have been trying to achieve since the 1960s when engineers in the United States and Europe were developing civilian supersonic transports such as the SST and Concorde. In 1973, the FAA banned aircraft from flying over land faster than Mach 1 (the speed of sound). Although the SST program was canceled in 1971, Concorde went on to fly for British Airways and Air France from 1976 to 2003, its supersonic cruising near the United States limited to only over the Atlantic Ocean. The X-59 is a research aircraft specifically being designed to learn if supersonic airplanes can operate without producing loud sonic booms.

Major work areas are being actively set up for building the airplane’s main fuselage, wing, and empennage. Final assembly and integration of the airplane’s systems, including an innovative cockpit eXternal Visibility System, is targeted for late 2020.

Management of the X-59 QueSST development and construction falls under the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator project, which is part of NASA’s Integrated Aviation Systems Program.

Three U.S. companies are currently developing private supersonic aircraft. Boom Supersonic is in development of their XB-1, Aerion Supersonic is working on flying their AS2 in 2024, and Spike Aerospace claims their S-512 is a “low sonic boom” model that is being designed to fly at Mach 1.6. Look for more information about NASA’s aeronautics research site here.

Dan Pimentel is an instrument-rated private pilot and former airplane owner who has been flying since 1996. As an aviation journalist and photographer, he has covered all aspects of the general and business aviation communities for a long list of major aviation magazines, newspapers and websites. He has never met a flying machine that he didn’t like, and has written about his love of aviation for years on his Airplanista blog. For 10 years until 2019, he hosted the popular ‘Oshbash’ social media meetup events at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.

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