Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Sunday, July 05, 2009

  Capitalizing on the Concorde

This article is the second (out of four) in replies to Chip's arguments in this blog post of mine, as well as this one. My first reply, attempting to combat some of his futilitarianism, is here. (I miss usenet, it was far more suitable to long, winding conversational threads, but I digress)

Chip wrote:Yes, today's standard of living is temporary. It may well be that humanity as a whole has peaked, and is headed towards a downward spiral, or it may still be on an upward one. One thing I am sure of is that the standard of living will change. It may get better in China, and worse in America. Or both systems decline, and South America and Africa see their day in the sun. Secondly I disagree with the concept of a "standard" of living entirely. Does it mean two cars in every garage, a 50 inch tv, and sushi every night? A "standard" implies that there is a universal evaluation of the valued items of living itself. I, personally, am a million times happier now that I no longer have to work 18 months out of the year to keep a roof over my head. There are plenty of things I miss, however. I'd like to get some more advanced vehicle in my house than sandals, and could use an x-ray on my knee. And I wouldn't mind if I could find some agency willing to fund some of the things I think are important for the survival of the species.

Chip then wrote:I heartily disagree with your last two sentences. For starters, an "experiment" is an experiment. By definition, you don't know what the results are going to be.


At the time of Concorde's development, no-one knew the full extent of our oil and gas resources. We still don't, although current surveys appear compelling. We didn't know, when Concorde was started, how efficient such an airliner could be. We couldn't forecast demand accurately, and we didn't know the extent to which sonic booms would inflame the populace against overland crossings. These are some of the direct results of the supersonic experiments. More:

Concorde pushed Duralumin based construction to its limit. More use of titanium would have helped, but in the 1960s the state of the art in use of that material only existed in the SR-71 Blackbird. Over the past 30+ years the use of titanium, has gone from that very specialized use into laptops, and cars, and a variety of everyday devices, including pens. The upcoming Dreamliner aircraft (as well as SpaceShipOne, Two, and Three) make extensive use of composite materials to further reduce weight and fuel consumption.

When operating Concorde at its design point at Mach 2, it was the world's most efficient jet engine.

The amount of fuel used by all the supersonic aircraft in history is a drop in the bucket compared to our "normal" energy uses.

Concorde travelled, per passenger, 17 miles (27 km) for each imperial gallon of fuel — 17 miles per imperial gallon (17 L/100 km; 14 mpg-US). This efficiency is comparable to a Gulfstream G550 business jet (16 miles per US gallon (15 L/100 km; 19 mpg-imp) per passenger), but much less efficient than a Boeing 747-400 (91 miles per US gallon (2.6 L/100 km; 109 mpg-imp) per passenger).

The Dreamliner is expected to be 20% more efficient than the 747.

Research continues into supersonic flight. Aerion has 3 billion dollars in pre-order sales on it's supersonic business jet.

Discarding an idea because it didn't work the first time is a false efficiency. I believe in constant, incremental change, and experiments to determine future directions for that change.

Research also continues into hypersonic flight, as well as into aircraft that emit a more minimal sonic boom.

[I will have more to write about this later, I am just trying to break a very long email reply into more sane component parts right now]

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Nice Post. Well considered and expressed.

I like "futilitarianism", pretty good word.

However, like a lot of folks, I completely reject the notion that the future is futile without extreme high technology. I think, despite everything I've read, including Samuel Florman's most excellent treatise 'The Existential Pleasures of Engineering' (which I have read numerous times) that the fix to the ills of technology is not more of the same. At the same time, Florman expressed quite eloquently that engineering and innovation is basically a social service, and it's practitioners basically move in the direction that society points them. Fair enough. This is a huge subject, and I'd gladly go more deeply into it, but I've other things to add so I'll set this aside for now.

To your point that "
At the time of Concorde's development, no-one knew the full extent of our oil and gas resources. We still don't,,,": To the best of my knowledge, the Concorde project began in the late 50s, and Hubbert published in 1956. Going back to some earlier discussions we've had, here and elsewhere: Brunner's The Sheep Look Up was published in '72. The Concorde first flew in '69, and put into service in '76. To say we 'didn't know' is debatable. To say 'we didn't care' is easier to defend. In the late '50s, the US government, and the governments of Western Europe were already deeply embroiled in wars, coups, 'nation building' and so on in the middle east, and central america, northern Africa, anywhere energy resources were thought to be abundant. Blah Blah Blah.

As to the technological innovations brought to the fore by the Concorde, I'd argue that all of these came to the fore through the various space programs, and that the Concorde did exactly squat toward getting us OFF this planet, and in fact, merely made getting off this planet all the more important.

It's completely arguable that at least here in the US, that no airline has turned a nickle that didn't come straight out of the pocket of the taxpayer. The entire airline industry as defined by US standards is a massive exercise in subsidy. I think this is true in Europe at large as well.

At best, the concordes fuel miles per payload unit were laughable compared to ground based rail. Well, that's true for all air travel. The only upside I see here is the inane desire for immediate gratification. How many folks took the Concorde from DC to Paris to eat lunch simply because they had so much disposable income that it didn't matter?

Look, I used to ride my bicycle down the then nascent WO&D rail trail (which then was a bridle path only) in northern Va, and I'd stop and watch the concorde begin it's eastward journey. It was a beautiful aircraft. True enough. But even then, when I admired it, I knew that it should have never happened, that it was pointless.

To your final point: "Discarding an idea because it didn't work the first time is a false efficiency. I believe in constant, incremental change, and experiments to determine future directions for that change." Yeah, overall I agree. However, we are talking about air travel. Air travel gains us exactly what? Air travel is *NOT* space travel. As the Rutan brother's have shown us, the best innovation is done by small groups with a deep and abiding vision. Governments and huge corporations by their very nature, have no such impetus. Spaceship One is cool. The concorde, much less so.

In fairness, from back in those days of riding the abandoned rail line which is now the WO&D, watching
the concorde, these lines were running through my head:

Well, I watched the beginning of the end for her
When I saw my first jet airplane
Flying high overhead like a bird of prey
While the mighty fell
in the land of the brave

Now I'm alone.

--Adrian Belew:
The Rail Song.
 
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