Under the new program, Boeing will be the prime contractor and McDonnell the principal subcontractor, though the two will get about equal funds and responsibilities, said Louis J. Williams, the program's manager at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Williams said the research program is intended to produce enough data to allow U.S. industry to begin industrial development of the supersonic jet by 2001, which would put the aircraft into service by the middle of the next decade.
"This is the biggest aeronautics program NASA has ever had," Williams said.
Although industry and NASA officials estimate that the market for supersonic jetliners may eventually reach $200 billion and support about 140,000 jobs in the United States, the current research program is modest. McDonnell will have fewer than 100 engineers assigned to the effort, company spokesman Don Hanson said.
Boeing would conduct its work in Seattle and McDonnell at its unit in Long Beach. Lockheed, Rockwell International and Northrop also have small roles as subcontractors in the program, Williams said.
For jet-lagged international travelers, the plane promises to cut transoceanic flights in half. A flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo, for example, would take a little over four hours, compared to the current 10 hours.
The jet would carry 300 passengers--three times as many as the European-made Concorde--fly twice as far, consume less fuel and emit just a fraction of the pollutants that could damage the Earth's ozone layer.
But to achieve those tough objectives, the program is investing heavily in developing new materials, aerodynamic structures, jet engine controls and new cockpit electronic systems. Among the tasks will be finding materials for the airplane skin that can withstand the 350-degree heat generated by air friction at sustained supersonic speeds.
The effort, known as the high-speed civil transport program, would be the first joint effort for the two rival aircraft builders.
Building the jet would require a massive investment, estimated by some industry experts at $15 billion--far more than either Boeing or McDonnell alone could afford. But supporters of the jet say passenger fares would not rise much because the plane could fly nearly as efficiently as airliners currently in use and could make two trips for every one made by subsonic jet.
Williams said NASA intends for the plane to have as much U.S. content as possible.