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Next generation of flight may be slower, cheaper, faster | (KRT) In the next century of flight, Buck Rogers will get an accounting degree.

Experts say the return on investment will outweigh the flashy "gee whiz" physics that propelled the world through the sky, into orbit and beyond.

The next space vehicles will be about as sexy as a Dodge minivan.

People shouldn't count on buying tickets for the next generation of streamlined, supersonic passenger jets for a long time. The Concordes of the past will give way to Hyundais of the air, planes cheap to build, cheap to fly and cheap to maintain.

That's been a trend for some time.

The Boeing Co., America's largest manufacturer of passenger jets, dumped a plan for a sleek airliner dubbed the "Sonic Cruiser" in favor of the 7E7, a lightweight, cheap-to-fly version of current planes. The next version of NASA's space shuttle fits the same profile.

"Sometimes, a simple compact car would make traveling a lot more convenient and less expensive," the space agency said in a news release. "The same principle applies to spaceflight. That's why NASA is developing the Orbital Space Plane."

It's all about cutting the launch cost for powered flight.

Every pound of material put into Earth orbit by a rocket costs about $20,000. A communication satellite can weigh in at an expensive 5 tons.

"I'm looking for some kind of quantum leap in propulsion systems that will allow us to build infrastructure in space," said John Walsh, Colorado Springs operations manager for satellite builder Ball Aerospace.

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NASA is betting the future on Hyper-X, a stealthy-looking combination of aircraft and space plane that could replace existing rockets in the next century.

If it works.

The aircraft uses a jet engine that has no moving parts, and unlike conventional rockets, it would not have to carry huge quantities of fuel.

It's a concept that has worked in wind tunnels, but hasn't actually flown.

If Hyper-X works as planned, it would be the forerunner of a fleet of cheap, reusable launch vehicles that would dramatically cut the cost of putting things into orbit.

Cheaper satellites could mean a further explosion of space-based technology entering family life in America.

People already have access to satellite television, and some have car radios tuned to a constellation of communication craft that send music and talk shows from space.

Using the Global Positioning System that is managed by troops at Schriever Air Force Base, life will get more high-tech.

With enhanced satellites that will be in orbit in the next two decades, button-size transmitters could be used to spy on a teenage daughter or run an automated garbage truck, said Mike Rizzo, director of Boeing Co. Navigation Systems.

The tiny tracking systems will use satellites to determine location, and in the future they even will work indoors, Rizzo said.


Increasing sophistication is expected to make air travel easier.

Big, commercial jets will fly on routes determined by computers and satellites. The technology will cut the possibility of airborne collisions and allow more planes to use the same airspace, Rizzo said.

For the flying public, it will mean fewer delays.

Another concept also could make life easier on future travelers, said Gunilla Kjellin, general manager for Charlie Brown's Good Time Travel in Colorado Springs.

Airlines are considering moving away from the "hub and spoke" system that delivers travelers to huge airports in large cities such as Denver, Dallas or Chicago before they board a second plane to their final destination. The new system would put passengers on smaller planes that would deliver them nonstop to their destinations.

"The airlines need to do something to simplify things," Kjellin said.

The travel agent also wants the future to include more luxurious travel, like a few decades back to the days when jumbo jets often included a piano bar.

"People are tired of being treated like cattle," she said, noting most passengers would pay a few dollars more for a flight with fewer headaches.

In the extreme future, some envision a jetliner version of the Hyper-X space plane. Such a transport would deliver passengers from New York to Tokyo in under two hours at hypersonic speeds.

Even further out, passenger travel could include trips deeper into the heavens, said Jack McKinney, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant.

"I can see people taking trips to the moon," he said. "Who wouldn't want to go to the moon?"

Planners also see changes for military flight in the next 100 years.

World War II drove U.S. development of heavy bombers and supersonic fighters, but the battles Americans have fought since Sept. 11, 2001, have spurred research on unmanned aircraft, missile defense systems and better spy satellites.

Unmanned vehicles could take the form of planes smaller than some insects. They could fly into rooms or caves and send back pictures of what's inside. Bigger, more complex robotic planes could see combat, dropping bombs firing missiles and shooting down enemy planes.

"Thanks to Osama bin Laden, unmanned aerial vehicles are here to stay," said John Pike, director of defense think tank

Robotic planes will be augmented by even more high-tech spy and communications satellites that will direct future battles.

Blimps could come back in service as the heavy-lifting aircraft that will take soldiers and their tanks to combat.

The military also is going into the death-ray business. "Directed energy" weapons are under development to knock missiles from the sky.

Pike said the military also is seeking an aircraft-mounted laser that would be used to kill enemy troops.

Private planes probably will benefit from the computerized advances of the next century.

Small planes will get navigation systems that will use computer screens to show the pilot where to fly. And small plane safety will be enhanced with parachute systems that will allow the whole aircraft to float gently to the ground in an emergency, said Drew Steketee, president of the National Be a Pilot Association.

Steketee said small aircraft gradually will get systems that will make flying simple and mostly automated.

"There are tremendous possibilities," Steketee said.

But don't expect the next century to be as spectacular as the past 100 years. This time, flight has to keep the accountants happy, too.

"You can't just go out and do it to keep the physicists happy," said Walsh, who has studied the economics of flight.

"How do you explain to Congress why the exploration of Mars is important?"

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© 2003, The Gazette Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services