The NASA-led US national High Speed Research (HSR) programme, aimed at developing a second-generation supersonic airliner, is threatened with closure following the team's decision to raise the noise targets beyond Stage 3, delaying development by as much as 10 years.

The surprise move comes as NASA seeks urgent funding for the International Space Station and, some sources say, it could lead to the cancellation of virtually all aeronautics research in the next Presidential budget. A similar move was attempted by the US Government's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) last year, but was withdrawn amid protests from elements of NASA, the research community and the US aerospace industry.

Problems began when Boeing opted to push for more stringent noise targets for the High Speed Civil Transport (HSCT) in mid-year. Crucially, it also recommended that these targets be met with no cost penalty, which "-raises the technology bar considerably", says General Electric HSCT programme manager, Leigh Koops. "We had been working to meet a 3dB, a 5dB and a 7dB margin on noise, and we met all of those, but not the 18-22dB margin that was put forward," he adds.

Although technically successful to date, the HSR team says that the decision to refocus the programme goals met a cool reaction at the OMB, the success criterion of which "-is to see an aircraft programme launched". NASA submitted its budget recommendations for Phase IIA of the HSR programme to the OMB, which is poised to "pass back" its review of the recommendations to NASA by the middle of the month. Based on the review, the Presidential office will generate a budget request to US Congress by early February.

Pratt & Whitney HSCT programme manager Dick Hines says: "I don't know where it is going. NASA's got severe funding problems on the International Space Station and they're looking for places to get the money." Hines adds that pressure to withdraw funding from the HSCT has been increased by sliding the development timetable. "If you are not going to start development before 2015 for entry into service in 2020, you start to wonder what the urgency is," he says, stressing the need to keep momentum going and teams heading towards their goals. "If the USA is not competing in high speed research, it will ruin the US industry," he says.

NASA says that its team members are "-allowed to speculate" about the forthcoming budget, "-but we can't talk about it".

With Concorde services operated by British Airways and Air France unlikely to continue beyond 2015, the US actions may bring an end to supersonic commercial travel. The best prospect for high speed travel appears to lie with corporate supersonic jet developments being studied by companies such as Dassault and Gulfstream, although the environmental lobby against air transport makes that questionable.

Meanwhile, the HSR team has drawn up plans for an 18-month study into alternative propulsion concepts "-which work around the 2D mixer/ejector nozzle and turbofan" configuration adopted for the technology concept aircraft (TCA). The study will also look at alternative aircraft configurations, some of which will not be based on the four-engined layout of the present TCA. "At the end of this period, we will downselect to a new technology set," says Koops.

According to Hines, the studies will also focus specifically on lightweight materials to reduce engine weight, higher temperature capability materials, hot section technology, lower emissions from the combustors and further noise-reduction efforts.

Source: Flight International