NASA does wonderful things, and wonderful things often cost big money - but should supersonic flying without big booms be one of them?

If somebody says “NASA”, what do you think? Space? Apollo? Astronauts? Exotic technology? All good responses, but consider for a moment the very terrestrial matter of money, which for the current fiscal year means a budget pushing $23 billion.

A sliver of that is being spent to build a Mach 1.4 jet to test ways to reduce sonic booms, maybe even low enough to make supersonic overflight tolerable on the ground. As part of a broader $583 million low-boom demonstration project, Lockheed Martin is getting $248 million to deliver this X-59 aircraft.

X-59 landing_001 c

Source: Lockheed Martin

Sounds expensive

That money is being spent over a few years, but still represents a big chunk of spending on the Aeronautics part of what is, after all, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – about $666 million for 2020, not quite twice what has been allocated, this one year alone, to the Hubble-replacement James Webb Space Telescope.

Whether $666m is a lot or a little – and whether the other $22 billion spent on space is too much or too little – depends on priorities. Aeronautics is clearly low on the NASA’s to do list.

Those who would rebalance priorities get little guidance from the agency’s vision statement – “To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity” – which is vague enough as to be meaningless and include pretty much anything that is not explicitly destructive.

But low-boom doesn’t stack up well. While the cost may be eye-watering, nobody could really argue that a new space telescope doesn’t expand beneficial knowledge. And, alas, nobody could really argue that supersonic air travel is, for humanity, a meaningful goal.

There is always some argument for basic science, such as testing design concepts whose validation or otherwise might illuminate the physics of sound propagation. But half a billion dollars is a lot of money for that in a world of tight budgets and more pressing scientific priorities – which leaves us wondering, is this project a publicly-funded nod to the imagined value of rich people’s time? Initiatives like this are best left to the private sector alone.