Putting on the Brakes: Mankind Nears the End of the Age of Speed
As Space Shuttle Nears Retirement, Flyboys Pause to Reflect on a Slowdown
By DANIEL MICHAELS
The human race is slowing down.
When the U.S. space shuttle completes its final flight, planned for June, mankind will take another step back from its top speed. Space shuttles are the fastest reusable manned vehicles ever built. Their maximum was only exceeded by single-shot moon rockets.
The shuttles' retirement follows the grounding over recent years of other ultrafast people carriers, including the supersonic Concorde and the speedier SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. With nothing ready to replace them, our species is decelerating—perhaps for the first time in history.
It has been a good two-century sprint, says Neil Armstrong, who in 1969 covered almost 240,000 miles in less than four days to plant the first human footprint on the Moon. Through the 18th century, he noted in an email exchange, humans could travel by foot or horse at approximately six miles per hour. "In the 19th, with trains, they reached 60 mph. In the 20th, with jet aircraft, we could travel at 600 mph. Can we expect 6,000 mph in the 21st?" he wondered.
"It does not seem likely," Mr. Armstrong continued, although he holds out some hope.
The trappings of humanity's race are on display in London's Science Museum. At one end of a cavernous hall sits the first practical steam locomotive, designed in 1829 by George Stephenson, an English engineer. It was called "the Rocket" for its previously unimaginable speed of 29 mph.
Before Mr. Stephenson's marvel of wood and cast iron, "express" generally involved a pony. Railroads, Britain's gift to the world, shrank continents and slashed travel time.
Thirty seconds across the museum from the locomotive sits part of an actual rocket that achieved humankind's highest speed ever. The command module of Apollo 10, America's gift to Britain, reached nearly 25,000 miles per hour as it returned to the Earth eight weeks before Mr. Armstrong's trip.
"These artifacts are now history, verging on ancient history," says Doug Millard, a senior curator at the museum.
Eugene Cernan, one of three astronauts in the Apollo 10 capsule—and the holder of the lunar speed record driving a moon buggy during Apollo 17, says "25,000 mph is at the edge of people's ability to comprehend." In space, it was "easier than riding a roller coaster," he added. "We won't go that fast again until we return from Mars."
Inside the atmosphere, physics makes blinding speed impractical or unaffordable, Mr. Van der Linden says.
Faster than around Mach .85—or 85% of the speed of sound—friction, turbulence and sonic boom cause big headaches. People become excess baggage. Unmanned craft have left us in the dust.
Humans' first burst of acceleration started around 1815 with railroads, steamships and industrialization. By 1905, race cars were topping 100 mph.
Starting around 1915, conflicts supercharged things. By the end of World War II, jet planes hurtled military pilots at 600 mph. Over the following four decades, the Cold War and the Space Race catapulted humans past the sound barrier, into orbit and beyond.
Celerity brought celebrity to some. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and astronaut Alan Shepard—the first men in space—became household names. Air Force test pilot Joe Kittinger made the cover of Life magazine in 1960 for becoming the first human to go supersonic without a vehicle, during a skydive from 19 miles up.
Others zipped about in secrecy. When Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, the U.S. government stayed mum.
Around 1960, work began on the fastest jet airplane ever, the SR-71 Blackbird. The futuristic snooper could reach at least Mach 3.2 while soaring above 85,000 feet. It could cross the U.S. in an hour. Nobody came close to shooting one down, even as it flew deep inside hostile territory.
"Speed doesn't seem to be on anyone's mind anymore," says Rich Graham, a retired Blackbird squadron commander, pilot and author of three books about the plane.
Blackbirds were replaced in the 1990s by spy satellites. But satellites follow predictable orbits, Col. Graham notes. Enemies can play hide-and-seek with them. "We always arrived unannounced."
Col. Graham says he irked officials at a British aviation museum, who were showing off their Concorde, which could top Mach 2. "Too slow for me," he quipped.
For civilians, however, Concorde "created a new definition of time," said British TV personality David Frost, who flew on the plane roughly 300 times. It could arrive in New York earlier in the day than it left London—"a possibility not normally given to human beings," Mr. Frost observed in an interview following the crash of a Concorde in 2000.
One result: Pop musician Phil Collins in 1985 was able to perform at the Live Aid concert outside London, hop on a Concorde and play at the twin concert outside Philadelphia on the same day.
Speed did pose some challenges. Mr. Van der Linden at the Smithsonian says he barely had time to finish his lavish French meal when he flew on the Concorde that Air France donated to his museum in 2003. "I thought it was a shame they couldn't make this work economically," he recalls.
Today, jet-setters are back around 600 mph, the same speed their grandparents reached on early jetliners 60 years ago. Is speed passé? Mr. Armstrong takes hope from the past. Nobody in the 18th or 19th centuries, he notes, "would have been willing to predict the speed…achieved in the next century."
Corrections & Amplifications
Construction of the first SR-71 Blackbird spyplane began around 1960. A previous version of this article said it began in 1947.
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