NASA’s Supersonic X-59 QueSST Being Built at Famed Factory

The general shape of NASA’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology airplane, including parts of its wing, can be seen in this overhead view of the Skunk Works factory floor where Lockheed Martin workers are assembling the experimental supersonic jet in Palmdale, California. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

In the high desert of California, where some of the most important aircraft in aviation history have been built and flown, the next airplane destined to make history continues to take shape on a legendary factory floor. That airplane is NASA’s X-59 QueSST (short for Quiet SuperSonic Technology), an experimental piloted aircraft designed to fly faster than sound without producing sonic booms.

The factory is better known as the Skunk Works, a renowned Lockheed Martin division that for the past 76 years has used an out-of-the-box approach to design and manufacturing that has produced some of the nation’s most advanced airplanes. Now that legacy continues as the company assembles the X-59 for NASA in Palmdale, California, where, for the first time since the initial machined parts were delivered in November 2018, workers can see the familiar outline of an airplane forming.

“It’s pretty obvious when you look at it on the production floor. You can see there’s an aircraft starting to get built,” said Craig Nickol, NASA’s project manager for the X-59, which also is known as the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator. And with the recent completion in September of a major project milestone – known as the Critical Design Review, or CDR – the X-59 will rapidly accelerate its evolution from an airplane on paper toward an airplane ready to roll out of the factory and take flight.

“The CDR showed us the design was mature enough to continue into the next phase and essentially finish the assembly,” Nickol said, noting the next milestone will come in December when an independent review board will present their findings from the CDR – a gathering known as a Key Decision Point.

“They’ll go through their review of the CDR, present any findings or issues that need to be addressed and then will make a recommendation if we should proceed with the project,” Nickol said. Based on the results from the CDR, no show-stopping issues were identified and the pace of assembly work on the X-59 is already ramping up.

The X-59’s mission is to gather data that has the potential to aid in the opening of a new era of commercial supersonic air travel over land. Perhaps it’s only fitting the future of commercial supersonic aviation in the form of the X-59 is being built by the company responsible for the fastest airplane in history – the SR-71 Blackbird – using innovative production processes that go back 76 years.

That’s not to say the company isn’t using the most modern technology available in delivering their aircraft. It is. But what makes the Skunk Works unique in its approach to manufacturing is embodied in 14 rules originated by aviation legend Kelly Johnson, who led the Lockheed team in World War II that designed and built the nation’s first jet fighter – the XP-80 – in only 143 days. Those rules call for small teams, simple approaches, close communication, streamlined paths of authority, and a healthy dose of common sense all summarized by the words quick, quiet, and quality.

Today that manufacturing heritage is guiding Lockheed Martin as it builds the one-of-a-kind X-59. “We still hold true to those rules that Kelly Johnson came up with 76 years ago, especially of having engineers on the floor ready to respond to issues, with the key goals of keeping drills drilling and wrenches turning on a regular basis,” said Tom Alexander, Lockheed Martin’s special projects operations manager.

The X-59 assembly work taking place on the Lockheed Martin production floor is concentrated within three major sections of tooling. The forward jig is home to the X-59’s fuselage, the center section to the airplane’s single-piece wing, and the rear jig is set up for the fabrication of the airplane’s tail holding the vertical fin and the horizontal stabilizer – a section also known as the empennage. Most of the activity right now is focused on the fuselage and wing jigs, but the empennage section (which also includes the airplane’s single jet engine) will receive more attention starting in November, all of which keeps things right on schedule going into 2020.

Initial flight tests to ensure the vehicle is operating well in 2021 will be followed by a series of supersonic flights to validate if it is producing quieter sonic booms as expected. After that, the X-59 will begin its community overflights to gather public response data, with the plan to present that information to the FAA and others in 2023.