Environment: SST: Boon or Boom-Doggie?

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The supersonics are coming−as surely as tomorrow. You will be flying one version or another by 1980 and be trying to remember what the great debate was all about.

−Najeeb Halaby

What the great debate is all about is whether the U.S. supersonic transport, a sleek, needle-shaped bird programmed to fly above the weather at 21 times the speed of sound, will be a boon, as Pan American World Airways President Halaby predicts, or if, in the words of Ecology Buff Arthur Godfrey, it will be "a boom-doggie." To a growing number of critics, the latter seems likely.

While chairing a joint congressional subcommittee hearing on the SST two weeks ago, Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire labeled the program a waste. At issue was whether Congress should appropriate another $290 million to help industry develop the aircraft. The Government has already spent more than $700 million, and plans to spend a total of at least $1.3 billion. Along with the spiraling cost, Senator Proxmire was angered by the Department of Transportation's failure to present reports on the ecological effects of the SST to Russell Train, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Bang-Zone. Like Proxmire, ecologists are concerned about the potential threat of the SST to the environment. Many of their misgivings are documented in the S/S/T and Sonic Boom Handbook, a hot-selling (150,000 copies to date) paperback edited by William Shurcliff, director of a pressure group called the Citizens League Against the Sonic Boom. The Handbook contends that a single SST, flying from New York to California, would leave a "bang-zone" 50 miles wide by 2,000 miles long. But some tests indicate that this bang at SST's operational height of 60,000 ft. will resemble distant thunder rather than a full-scale sonic boom.

While SST flights may be banned from populated areas, some ecologists fear that economic necessity may reverse this pattern. If this happens, they say, sonic booms generated as SSTs fly at speeds in excess of the speed of sound could upset people who do delicate work (brain surgeons) and may also harm persons with nervous ailments.

More ominously, some scientists have warned that SSTs could envelop the earth in a "global gloom" by dumping water vapor into the stratosphere, where it could hang suspended for long periods of time. Presidential Adviser Russell Train himself warns that a fleet of 500 SSTs flying at 65,000 ft. for a period of years could raise stratospheric water content by as much as 50% to 100%.

"This could be very significant," Train told the Proxmire subcommittee, "because observations indicate the water vapor content of the stratosphere has already increased about 50% over the last five years." A water-vapor blanket, Train contends, could lead to greater ground-level heat and hamper the formation of ozone that shields the earth from the sun's ultraviolet rays.

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