(CNN) — The age of supersonic jet travel may be a tiny bit closer to making a comeback.
NASA announced Monday it has awarded a $20 million contract to Lockheed Martin to develop a preliminary design for a quiet demonstration passenger aircraft designed to fly faster than the speed of sound.
The piloted test aircraft would use so-called Quiet Supersonic Technology, or QueSST, to create a supersonic "heartbeat," a kind of soft thump instead of the annoying sonic booms usually associated with supersonic planes.
The planes are aimed at making "flight greener, safer and quieter -- all while developing aircraft that travel faster, and building an aviation system that operates more efficiently," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during the official announcement Monday at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia.
Sonic booms come from shock waves created as supersonic planes cut through the air. The waves cause sudden air pressure changes, which trigger booming sounds that can be heard for miles.
NASA is calling its quieter sonic boom design "low boom" technology. The agency has been working with engineers from Lockheed's legendary Skunk Works aviation facility in Palmdale, California, birthplace of iconic aircraft designs such as the U.S. Air Force SR-71 Blackbird surveillance plane and the F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack aircraft. Together NASA and Lockheed have been learning how to "tune" or "shape" a plane's sonic boom "signature" through its design.
"We're confident that our low boom flight demonstration technology solution meets mission requirements," said a statement Monday from Rob Weiss, Skunk Works general manager and executive vice president.
Industrial designer Charles Bombardier has come up with a new concept plane called the Antipode. Using rocket boosters, a scramjet and an aerodynamic technique called long penetration mode
, it could theoretically fly from London to New York in 11 minutes.
Some of NASA's low boom design concepts include aircraft with sleek fuselages, needle noses, delta-shaped wings or wings that are highly swept.
Supersonic commercial passenger airline travel ended when the British Airways and Air France Concordes stopped flying in 2003. The planes had struggled to make profits in the wake of a crash in Paris in 2000 that killed 113 people. The planes used a lot of fuel, required special parts and were high maintenance. The noise from the Concordes created an entire set of restrictions anywhere it flew, except over the ocean.
Aerion Corp. says a supersonic business jet it is developing in partnership with Airbus can make the flight from New York to London in 4.5 hours.
Supersonic flight obviously would shorten travel time for countless routes around the world.
Depending on funding, NASA said it expects the design and build phase for this half-scale first version of the aircraft to last several years, with the flight campaign starting around 2020, the agency said.
When it's finished, the single-engine demonstrator aircraft will be used as a valuable tool to gather data to develop future supersonic airliners, Lockheed Martin's chief engineer for QueSST Mike Buonanno told CNN.
To cut costs, the plane will be built using off-the-shelf parts from existing aircraft when possible, including landing gear from F-16 fighter jets, he said. The cockpit likely will be set about 40 feet behind the nose of the aircraft, and pilots likely will use a synthetic generated vision system for takeoffs and landings.
How close will the QueSST X-plane be to an airliner that aircraft makers might actually develop?
"A full-scale vehicle would not be a scale up of this product," Buonanno said.
"The shaping guidelines that we follow and the tools would be the same, but it may have a different number of engines or other features that may be different for a commercial product."
In other words, even after this X-plane starts breaking ground with new supersonic aerospace design, it sounds like there will be a lot more design work to do before the world's air travelers will be able to routinely break the sound barrier aboard commercial airliners.