Supersonic Climate Impacts No Concern for NASA

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Thursday, January 11, 2024
Jeff Ruch (510) 213-7028

Supersonic Climate Impacts No Concern for NASA

Agency Has Not Come to Grips with Eco-Consequences of Supersonic Flight


Washington, DC —This week marks the scheduled maiden voyage of the prototype for what may be a new generation of supersonic passenger jets. The launch of the X59 QueSST (short for Quiet Super Sonic Technology) culminates a half-billion-dollar investment by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in partnership with Lockheed-Martin, but this achievement will come at the expense of carbon neutrality goals for the aviation industry, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Supersonic flight carries a heavy carbon footprint. Reaching supersonic speeds requires between 7 to 9 times more fuel than conventional jet travel. Yet, supersonic emissions are far more long-lasting, with an atmospheric residence as much as 20 times greater than the subsonic baseline.

U.S. aviation currently accounts for around 2.5% of global CO₂ emissions and is on course to triple by 2050 at current growth rates, not counting a new generation of supersonic jets. By that time, it could consume one-sixth of the planet’s 1.5-degree Celsius carbon budget.

The NASA-sponsored research aims to overcome the deafening sonic booms that led to a ban on commercial supersonic flight over land back in 1973. Instead of a boom, there will be a “thump” that NASA and other supersonic boosters hope will open U.S. airports to these high-speed jets.

“Unfortunately, NASA mistakenly believes that the only environmental barrier to supersonic aviation is noise,” stated Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch. “NASA’s supersonic agenda is on a flight path to blow apart any net-zero climate goal for the aviation sector.”

Documents obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that NASA –

    • Ignored findings of independent technical management panel experts who categorized “Not addressing climate and ozone impacts of supersonic aircraft” as a Major Concern;
    • Dismissed employee concerns raised in its “Organizational Silence” program intended to prevent the groupthink leading to the Columbia and Challenger disasters; and
    • Brushed off emission concerns as having “no or minimal long-term impact at supersonic cruise altitudes.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has boldly declared that “Climate change is an all-hands-on-deck, global challenge that requires action – now.” But he has yet to respond to a year-old letter from PEER urging him to subject the supersonic program and other aeronautics industry initiatives to “a rigorous, independent, and publicly accessible climate impact analysis.”

“NASA cannot count ‘all hands on deck’ to combat climate change if half the crew is down below scuttling the ship,” Ruch added, pointing out that with ticket prices averaging $12,000 for a round trip from New York to London on the Concorde, supersonic travel will be available only to the wealthy. “Supersonic travel may be a form of corporate welfare the planet cannot afford.”


Examine negative climate implications of reviving supersonic flight 

Trace the aviation industry’s growing climate footprint 

Revisit expert panel “major concern” finding 

See the futile “Organizational Silence” employee protest (pages 98-9 plus pages 101-3 as one document) 

View NASA’s minimization of emission concerns (page 5) 

Read unanswered PEER letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson 

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