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Supersonic swan song

Friday, Concorde makes its last commercial flight. Its demise - and the failure of other similar planes - suggests that despite our go-go age, we have shelved supersonic travel for now.

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"For all our great willingness to adopt technology in this country, there was an undercurrent of hostility toward technology," says Irene Thomson, a sociologist at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J.

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"The image was that the SST would produce this deafening noise over American cities, that if it flew across the country, not just across the ocean, it would produce the worst of technological damage on our psyches," Ms. Thomson says.

Another factor: Supersonic planes seemed to defy "massification." The space program could offer some social trickledown, as well as a major point of pride. But here, too, SST came up short.

"There was this sense that the SST was basically a frill for rich men," says Heppenheimer. "It differed from Apollo. Nobody expected to fly to the moon, but those few people who did could stand in for all of us.

"At the time that the SST was under way as a program, only about half of the population of the United States had flown in anything," he adds. "The idea of spending a lot of government bucks just so that people could get to Paris a little bit faster didn't exactly turn on John Q. Public."

Future supersonic 'niche'?

Some experts see Concorde's failure as a kind of vindication. "In a sense, the demise of the Concorde shows that the US system for developing commercial technology with federal funding from the bottom up - when you allow a debate to take place - works," says Mel Horwitch, director of the Institute for Technology and Enterprise and professor of management at Polytechnic University in New York. "In a sense, we dodged a bullet."

He notes an upside of the Concorde program for Europe: It showed at least two nations that they could work cooperatively, paving the way for Airbus, the European aircraft consortium. Horwitch also sees potential in new markets - even as he notes a declining need for speed.

"If you can develop an SST that can go, say, from L.A. to Tokyo, that might be different," he says. "But people are now accommodating themselves to [even] this long flight. I think it's been factored into the way people do business.

People are also substituting technology for travel, Horwitch adds. "We're getting better at using videoconferencing, and that's only going to improve."

The main drawback of "niche" airplanes is that they need to fly full loads, constantly, when what's needed are new, more economical airliners - or else some great breakthough in SST technology, says Peter Field, who runs an aviation consultancy in Chesterfield, Mo.

One positive sign: Tests were performed in late summer by NASA, with industry partners, in which modifications of aircraft shapes indicated that the shape of sonic boom could also be altered - and its loudness reduced. The tests were performed on the same California range where Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in 1947.

Still, looking at SST may, for the near future, mean looking back. Late overtures by the iconoclastic - and very capable - Virgin Atlantic chief Richard Branson to keep Concorde flying are widely viewed as unrealistic.

"[Concorde] represents in some ways an era that's passed us by," adds Horwitch. "It certainly represents a kind of vision. But ... we now evaluate and invest in technology with other kinds of concerns. We view big-government, macro projects with greater suspicion. The criteria are not just environmental, they're also economic, from the very beginning."

Sara B. Miller contributed to this report from Revere, Mass.