Major Robert White in 1961 with the X-15.
Back in 1961, NASA was struggling to get an American into orbit. The Soviet Union had beaten us to that goal, and was making great propaganda from the feat. But while NASA engineers overcame problem after problem with turning the Atlas missile into a launch platform for the Mercury space capsule, there was another program that prepared NASA for flying in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and even into space.
The X-15 rocket plane was an engineering descendent from the X-1 that Chuck Yeager flew to break the Sound Barrier back in 1947. But the X-15 was an incredibly advanced creature compared to our first X-plane. Like the X-1, the X-15 was dropped from a high flying bomber (the B-52) and then ignited its rocket engine to propel it at tremendous speeds as high as it could go. In the atmosphere, the pilot used traditional controls from the stabilizer and elevator controls. But once in the thinnest of air, and even when the craft reached the technical limits of outer space, the X-15 used reaction control jets similar to those placed on the Mercury Capsules. The program started in 1959 and continued through 1969.
50 years ago, on October 11, 1961 USAF Major Robert White piloted his X-15 to a new altitude record of 217,000 feet (about 40 miles up!). He was traveling at a speed of 3,647 mph. This altitude was so high that he was actually above 99.9 precent of the Earth's air! At that height, he had to rely on the reaction control thrusters. When returning to the Earth, the outer skin of the X-15 heated up to about 900 deegres F.
For those of you at the CMSEC, when you use thrusters to position the spacecraft at our Helm or navigation systems, you're basically flying the simulator in the same way.
From L to R: Robert White, Bill Dana, Neil Armstrong, Joe Engle. All x-15 pilots.
On August 25, 2005 NASA continued presenting Astronaut "Wings" to X-15 pilots. Rob WHite, Joe Engle and Neil Armstrong had already been given theirs, and Bill Dana was being given his when the picture above was taken. Robert White passed away last year, on March 17, 2010. The other pilots in the picture are still alive today. Neil Armstrong you know about. Bill Dana was also a test pilot on F-15s, F-18s, and NASA lifting body test planes that helped develop the Space Shuttle. Joe Engle, like Neil Armstrong, became an astronaut and flew the Test shuttle Enterprise during testing, and later flew on shuttle missions STS-2 (Columbia) and STS-51 I (Discovery).