By David Kurlander

President Biden this week visited Queens in the aftermath of floods caused by Hurricane Ida. Biden connected the storm to the ongoing climate-related natural disasters across the country, stating that “the nation and the world are in peril” and pushing for the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion infrastructure package, much of which would go toward fighting climate change. On “Climate Control,” this week’s episode of Now & Then, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed past political moments of environmental reckoning, from Teddy Roosevelt’s championing of national parks, to Kennedy’s partial nuclear test-ban treaty, to Reagan’s work to protect the ozone layer. “We can do these things when we get together and there is political will, both in the streets and pushing up towards our lawmakers,” Joanne said about Reagan’s environmental protections. 15 years before Reagan, another ozone controversy involving a proposed supersonic jet program offered a telling tale of the political tug-of-war inherent in environmental protections. 

On June 5th, 1963, President Kennedy announced the formation of the Supersonic Transport (SST) program at the Air Force Academy commencement in Colorado Springs. “We are talking about a plane in the end of the 60’s that will move ahead at a speed faster than Mach 2 to all corners of the globe,” Kennedy said. “This commitment, I believe, is essential to a strong and forward-looking Nation.” 

In April 1964, the President’s Advisory Committee began working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric a reality. They envisioned a fleet of 500 SSTs that would fly up to 2,000 miles per hour at a lofty altitude of 60,000 feet. Federal funds would cover most of the development costs, with private companies vying to build the craft. 

One issue, however, became clear early on: the fear of constant sonic booms that would accompany so many planes bursting past the sound barrier. For five months in 1964, the FAA conducted a sonic boom test on Oklahoma City. A jet fighter flew over the 300,000 residents and hit them with booms eight times a day. The study found that 27% of Oklahoma City’s test subjects believed they could never learn to tolerate the booms. FAA Administrator Najeeb Halaby received death threats when he visited to check in on the tests, and 15,000 residents filed complaints detailing broken windows and mental distress. Critics also began to home in on the potential air pollution from the water vapor in the SST’s fuel.  

Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, by this point an aging, globetrotting conservationist, was a vocal member of the Advisory Committee. Initially exhilarated by the possibilities of commercial supersonic travel, Lindbergh quickly became disillusioned by the growing boom issues. At an early PAC meeting, biographer Leonard Mosley wrote that Lindbergh “experienced a sudden revulsion of feeling. It so happened that he had a rendezvous in Nairobi which he had postponed because of this meeting, but now he was filled with a compulsion to put as much space as possible between himself and all this talk of a glorious supersonic future.” Lindbergh left the meeting and immediately headed to Africa. 

By 1966, Lindbergh’s aversion had further calcified. He told Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and other Advisory Committee members that the STT was “another step upward on the exponential curve of tempo, mechanization, and distraction followed by our western civilization…without a basic appreciation of nature, I believe an over-emphasis on science will destroy us.” 

In 1967, the FAA selected Boeing’s sleek and comparatively quiet “swing-wing” design for the project. Within a year, however, Boeing admitted it would have to create a larger plane—and a larger boom. The FAA and the White House, while hesitant, decided to move forth. The first commercial Boeing SST, the 2707, was slated to ascend by the end of the 1970s. 

As Boeing struggled to craft an effective prototype, it brought on journalist Bob Considine to narrate a 12-minute film, “You and Me…and the SST.” Considine’s script focused on the Cold War-era competition embodied in the quest for SSTs. He highlighted the British and French collaboration on the Concorde, which took its first test flight in 1969. The Soviets had also commissioned an SST called the Tu-144. Considien stressed the economic and geopolitical importance of American carriers buying American planes: “If they buy an American model, the money stays in the family, so to speak.” 

The environmental concerns, however, would not go away. On the first Earth Day, April 22nd, 1970, foes of the SST—mostly Democrats—sprang into action. Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale compared the $200 million yearly welfare budget for “feeding hungry children” to the $290 million 1971 allocation for the SST. Illinois State Treasurer Adlai Stevenson III, who was in the midst of a successful campaign for the U.S. Senate, noted that SST funds were twice those of the proposed Clean Air Act. Boston Police at Logan Airport arrested twelve protestors who had climbed into coffins to protest the SST’s noise and air pollution. Critics had organized into a massive grouping of environmental organizations called the Coalition Against the SST.  

Less than three weeks after Earth Day, in early May 1970, Russell E. Train, the Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Economy in Government. Train, breaking with the Nixon administration, acknowledged that the ozone layer, not just boom-sensitive Americans, was at real risk from the SST: “Clearly the effects of supersonics on the atmosphere are of importance to the whole world…the effects should be thoroughly understood before any country proceeds with a massive introduction of supersonic transports.” 

Train’s warnings were bolstered over the next year by two prominent climate scientists. At another set of House hearings in March 1971, Dr. James McDonald, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Arizona, presented findings that potential ozone damage from the SST could lead to 10,000 additional cases of skin cancer each year. McDonald’s testimony was undermined somewhat when McDonald’s dogged study of UFOs led some legislators to question his reliability. Still, his assessments were co-signed by a large group of reputable scientists, including voices from the American Cancer Center. 

Lindbergh lobbed a final volley against the SST in a February 1971 letter to Illinois Congressman Sidney Yates: “As a citizen, I feel we are already subjected to more than enough technological noises…my impression is that the SST is within the state of the art technically but not economically and environmentally.” 

SST Program Director William Magruder described critics as “Chicken Littles, afraid that the sky will fall down.” Washington Senator Henry Jackson, closely connected to Boeing, also had strong words: “I haven’t been through such an irrational period since the McCarthy days…The SST became the focal point for all the things in the world that are bothering people.” But Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater probably went the furthest in his condemnation of the environmentalist detractors, writing a scathing editorial in the New York Times: “Never in my experience has the ‘big lie’ technique, popularized by Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister in World War II, been used more effectively to describe a needed program of research and development.” 

Congress, however, had seen enough demonstration of the potential environmental cataclysm associated with the new plane. In March 1971, both houses of congress voted down further SST funding. Nearly $1 billion in government funds had been expended on the SST. 13,000 airplane industry workers would be laid off. 

The FAA and the White House desperately scrambled to revive potential revenue streams, with Michigan Congressman and eventual president Gerald Ford leading a successful charge for a House amendment to an appropriations bill that would retain some of the government SST funding.  

Ford’s gambit, however, was short-lived. Just days after the House vote, Dr. Harold Johnson, a renowned UC Berkeley chemist who had pioneered the measurement of ozone depletion, had bad news. If the projected 500 SSTs really took to the skies—possibly a reachable goal by 1985—Johnson warned that its fuel could so diminish the ozone that “all animals of the world (except, of course, those that wore protective goggles) would be blinded if they lived out of doors during the daytime.”  

Other SSTs continued to fly until the Concorde was retired in 2003, but never at the speeds or quantities proposed in the scuttled American program. Scientists also continued to battle over the likelihood of ozone damage and the potential disruption of sonic booms. NASA and Lockheed Martin are currently looking into the feasibility of a low-noise SST. In other words, the potential for supersonic commercial flight remains alive. Perhaps more significant than the eventual fate of the staggeringly fast plane, however, is the battle between environmental and technological forces that continues to define so much of our national discourse—and whose consequences are increasingly clear in our climate today.

For more on the SST, read Chapter 2 of Joel Primack and Frank von Hippel’s 1974 Advice and Dissent: Scientists in the Political Arena, available for free on Princeton’s Science & Global Security Book Archive. And check out Mel Horwitch’s 1982 book on the saga, Clipped Wings: The American SST Conflict.  

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