ANDY GREEN AND THRUST SSC: In 1997, Royal Air Force pilot Andy Green drove Thrust SSC--the 10-ton jetmobile powered by two Rolls-Royce Spey jet engines--to a new land-speed record of 763.035 miles per hour. Image: Image courtesy of SSC Programme Ltd
(Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the December 1997 issue of Scientific American magazine. We are posting it because of related news.)
Nevada's Black Rock Desert has become a staging ground for the type of event that would have difficulty finding a home anywhere else on the planet. This vast, dry lake bed—a stretch of flatness that seems to extend to infinity—attracts amateur rocketeers who claim to have launched a home-built projectile into space. Aging hippies and computer freaks have taken off their clothes here during the annual Burning Man Festival, which culminates in the torching of a 40-foot-high effigy. But the most extreme act to have occurred in these unending reaches took place in September and October, when British and American drivers launched separate attempts to punch through the sound barrier while keeping four wheels in contact with the Earth.
As of mid-October, this friendly competition had turned into a triumph for the highly regimented British contingent—some of whom had taken leave from jobs in the Royal Air Force to lodge themselves in this dusty corner of the Old West. On October 15, almost exactly 50 years after American Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, the British driver went supersonic in a car. Andy Green, an RAF fighter pilot in his real job, drove Thrust SSC—the 10-ton jetmobile powered by two Rolls-Royce Spey jet engines—to a new land-speed record of 763.035 miles per hour. The sound barrier, which varies with temperature, measured about 750 mph during Green's record-setting runs.
The supersonic milestone broke Green's own record of 714.144 mph, set three weeks before. And Green did so two days after two earlier jaunts down the 13-mile course that also ripped through the sonic barrier, but which missed a record by a minute. To achieve a record, the International Automobile Federation requires two runs through a measured mile in opposite directions within one hour of each other.
During his stay at Black Rock, the tall, iron-confident Oxford graduate–cum–fighter ace had also smashed the previous land-speed record of 633 mph set in 1983 at Black Rock. That earlier mark was held by the man who had recruited Green. Richard Noble had decided against driving the car while devoting himself to the enormous logistical difficulties entailed in building Thrust SSC and financing this private, 30-member British expeditionary force. Noble and Green's labors produced a remarkable spectacle for any visitor to this remote desert outpost. Spectators heard sonic booms and could see evidence of the supersonic shock waves. Buildings were reported to have shaken in Gerlach, a town some 12 miles distant. The neck-craning speed and the cloud of dust shooting from behind the car recalled a guided missile spewing rocket exhaust while traveling in a horizontal trajectory.
The man who had repeatedly risked his life, meanwhile, displayed a dispassionately analytical attitude about the experience of driving a land-hugging car at a velocity higher than any commercial airliner but the Concorde. "It's just like a fast jet, but less maneuverable around corners," Green says of his 110,000-horsepower monster.