(Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of Scientific American magazine. We are posting it because of some related news.)
Before Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947 in the X-1 experimental plane, engineers had predicted that the buffeting produced by supersonic shock waves might tear apart his sleek craft. As drivers—one might call them pilots—of two custom-made supersonic cars recently prepared to punch through Mach 1, the engineering community voiced similar concerns, perhaps this time with more reason. "Anything that upsets a vehicle at 600 miles [around 965 kilometers] per hour or more puts it in a regime you don't want to be in," comments Make McDermott, a professor of mechanical engineering at Texas A&M University. "Aerodynamic forces make a ground vehicle not a ground vehicle. They make it want to fly."
This article was originally published with the title Driving to Mach 1.