Artist's conception of what a 21st Century "Concorde" jet might look like. Image source: NASA.

Developed by Aerospatiale and British Aircraft Corporation in 1969, the Concorde jet was a wonder of 20th Century aeronautical engineering. Capable of carrying as many as 128 passengers at speeds in excess of Mach 2, a Concorde jet could make the run from JFK to London, Heathrow in under three hours. Air France and British Airways, which operated the jet, retired it from service in 2003 -- and there hasn't been a commercial supersonic plane in regular service since.

Until now.


NASA goes on a QueSST
Last week, in an announcement that promises to shake up the airways -- and the airlines that fly them -- the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (yes, NASA) announced the first in a series of contracts that it's awarding to private businesses interested in upgrading the entire concept of air travel.

The award in question, which goes to Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), grants the nation's biggest contractor $20 million to design a new supersonic civilian passenger jet. After screening several proposals on the Quiet Super-Sonic Technology (QueSST) project, NASA decided that Lockheed Martin has the best idea for building a new supersonic jet capable of flying at Mach speeds without creating the telltale "sonic booms" that helped make Concorde so unpopular with people on the ground.

What's a "sonic boom"?
Civilian supersonic flight over the U.S. has been banned by the Federal Aviation Administration since 1973 -- so many U.S. readers may have forgotten how much of a nuisance sonic booms can be. Here's how it works, in a nutshell.

The sound produced by an airplane's engines travels at the speed of sound (naturally). When an airplane travels faster than the sound its own engines create, however, the soundwaves it emits are continuously catching up with each other, compressing, and creating a ripple of noise (and vibration -- sonic booms used to be blamed for causing actual structural damage to buildings) that reverberates on the ground in the plane's wake.

NASA's QueSST project seeks to design a plane that can fly at supersonic speeds but produce no more than a series of soft thumps resembling a "heartbeat," when heard from the ground. NASA is hiring Lockheed Martin, in cooperation with engine-maker General Electric (NYSE:GE) and privately held Tri Models of Huntington Beach, Calif., to work up "baseline aircraft requirements and a preliminary aircraft design, with specifications" for such a "low boom" supersonic jet.

Assuming everything looks good, Lockheed Martin would then be given the go-ahead to build a half-scale version of a full-size civilian QueSST aircraft, run it through wind tunnel tests, and then eventually test-fly the aircraft.

What it means to investors
Rome wasn't built in a day, and designing an entirely novel aircraft isn't something that will happen immediately either. It took Lockheed Martin took nearly 20 years to take its F-22 stealth fighter jet from concept to introduction into the Air Force, for example. That said, NASA has set a pretty ambitious timetable for QueSST, and hopes to test a prototype low-boom supersonic jet by 2020.

$20 million is just .04% of Lockheed's $46 billion annual revenue stream. The speed at which NASA plans to move, however, suggests that this contract, which is currently pretty minuscule by Lockheed Martin standards, could quickly turn into a project capable of "moving the needle" even on a business as big as Lockheed's. (If General Electric's engines are key to the design, that could be good news for GE as well.)

Given Lockheed Martin's demonstrated interest in diversifying its business away from the shrinking U.S. defense budget -- moving into green energy, and into civilian market planes -- this is an opportunity we'd expect to see Lockheed Martin pursue aggressively, even if it takes a few years to play out.

Trust that we'll be watching, and that we'll keep you informed as the story develops.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.