End of the Age of Speed

A WSJ article opines that the age of speed is coming to a close. The Space Shuttle’s final flight in June marks the end of  the quest for the next fastest thing.

When the U.S. space shuttle completes its final flight, planned for June, mankind will take another step back from its top speed. Space shuttles are the fastest reusable manned vehicles ever built. Their maximum was only exceeded by single-shot moon rockets.The shuttles’ retirement follows the grounding over recent years of other ultrafast people carriers, including the supersonic Concorde and the speedier SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. With nothing ready to replace them, our species is decelerating—perhaps for the first time in history.

It has been a good two-century sprint, says Neil Armstrong, who in 1969 covered almost 240,000 miles in less than four days to plant the first human footprint on the Moon. Through the 18th century, he noted in an email exchange, humans could travel by foot or horse at approximately six miles per hour. “In the 19th, with trains, they reached 60 mph. In the 20th, with jet aircraft, we could travel at 600 mph. Can we expect 6,000 mph in the 21st?” he wondered. “It does not seem likely,” Mr. Armstrong continued, …… Eugene Cernan, one of three astronauts in the Apollo 10 capsule—and the holder of the lunar speed record driving a moon buggy during Apollo 17, says “25,000 mph is at the edge of people’s ability to comprehend.” In space, it was “easier than riding a roller coaster,” he added. “We won’t go that fast again until we return from Mars.”

Unmanned vehicles are another matter: The Scramjet  is no slouch and could theoretically operate between Mach 12 and Mach 24. The unmanned Boeing X-51  hit speeds of Mach 6 last year. Given the prevailing penchant for UAV’s, it is doubtful that we will see occupants zooming around in one anytime soon.

As the era draws to a close, the folks at the Vehicle Assembly Building remind us that it is  all about speed:

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