Fly Coast-to-Coast in 40 Minutes via Rocket PlaneS

In 1949, Qian Xuesen, Goddard professor at the California Institute of Technology, proposed a boost-glide hypersonic aircraft with a 3,107-mile range. It would take passengers from New York to San Francisco in a little under 45 minutes.

The transcontinental passenger carrier would have been 78.9 feet long, 16.5 feet in diameter, with a wingspan of 18.9 feet, and weighed about 48 tons, of which 36 tons consisted of hydrogen and fluorine propellant. Taking off nearly vertically, all of the fuel would be consumed within the first 60 seconds of flight, at which time the rocket would be ascending at a speed of 9,140 mph and at an altitude of 100 miles.

Fly Coast-to-Coast in 40 Minutes via Rocket PlaneS

Leaving New York at 12 noon, the stubby-winged ten-passenger craft would travel in sub-orbital ballistic arc to an altitude of 300 miles—6 minutes after takeoff—before descending back into the stratosphere. It would reenter the atmosphere near Des Moines, Iowa, 1,200 miles from its takeoff point. It would then glide from an altitude of 27 miles the remaining distance to the west coast. As it neared its destination a 5,000-pound thrust ramjet engine would permit a controlled landing in San Francisco at 150 mph. Time: 9:45 a.m., 2 1/4 hours ahead of the sun and only 45 minutes after leaving New York.

Moments after take-off, over New York: Fly Coast-to-Coast in 40 Minutes via Rocket PlaneS

Qian was convinced that his plan was practical. All the problems “concerning materials, thermochemistry and chemical kinetics,” among others, would be investigated by the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech. Also know as GALCIT, it eventually became JPL. Earlier, the Guggenheims had financed Robert Goddard’s experiments in Roswell, NM.

Qian believed that the short operating time of a rocket gave it advantages over turbojet and gas turbine engines. “By designing for minutes,” he said, “instead of for thousands of hours...we can use material stressed for ultimate strength and not for...slow change[s] in dimensions. It can be stressed six times higher than material intended for long operating time.”

125 miles above Pennsylvania:

Fly Coast-to-Coast in 40 Minutes via Rocket PlaneS

Chesley Bonestell vividly illustrated the stages of such a flight in a pictorial article for the October 1947 Pic magazine titled“Coast to Coast in 40 Minutes.”

Over eastern Nebraska:

Fly Coast-to-Coast in 40 Minutes via Rocket PlaneS

In a vaguely snide (and short-sighted) commentary on the production of the article, the editors say: “Speaking of daydreaming, there’s something to excite the scientific-minded in a striking full-color picture layout [of] an artist’s conception of a rocket ship streaking through the heavens from New York to San Francisco at a rate exceeding 3,600 miles per hour. Chesley Bonestell, visionary West Coast architect, travelled the skyways and pored over maps for months to visualize what a jet-borne passenger might see on such a fantastic excursion providing, of course, that clouds, fog or frosted portholes did not obscure his view of the good old U.S.A. 500 miles below. Mr. Bonestell failed to provide us with such information as fare rates (pending Civil Aeronautics Board ruling) and whether babies in mothers’ laps would ride for free. But he did calculate [that the passenger would land 2 hours 20 minutes earlier than he took off]. Maybe it’ll be one way of making up for time lost in butter and meat lines . . .”

300 miles over Utah:

Fly Coast-to-Coast in 40 Minutes via Rocket PlaneS

Unfortunately, there is a bittersweet postscript to this story...

Fly Coast-to-Coast in 40 Minutes via Rocket PlaneS

Qian was born in China but came to America as a young man, where became one of that country’s foremost experts on rockets and high-speed flight theory. He was also one of the co-founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. At the close of World War II, Qian entered fallen Germany with American troops in order to secure key documents and personnel from the German aircraft and rocketry programs.

He applied for US citizenship in 1949, but in a political climate rife with McCarthyism, a top-level Chinese scientist was viewed with suspicion. He was accused of spying for the Red Chinese and in spite of the protests of his colleagues and lack of any evidence (a list of “security codes” turned out to be a table of logarithms written in Chinese) he was placed under house arrest and eventually deported. He wasn’t allowed to take any of his papers or books with him.

In China, he became the foundation for the development of the modern Chinese rocket and spaceflight program. It was a Qian-developed rocket that put China's first satellite into earth orbit in 1970, and in 1978 his Qian spaceplane—-the godchild of his coast-to-coast airliner—-was launched. Considered the father of Chinese astronautics, he died in Beijing in 2009.

Top illustration by Jack Coggins

Additional art by Chesley Bonestell