The X-15 flew faster and higher than any other aircraft.

The X-15 flew faster and higher than any other aircraft.

Before the Mercury astronauts went into orbit with the Redstones, before the Gemini astronauts rendezvoused and docked, and before the Apollo astronauts roamed the lunar surface, the aerospace community was wrestling with one more question. basic: What agency would take Americans into space, and how would they get there?

The US Air Force strongly believed that they should get astronauts into space, not the newly created NACA (soon to be NASA). And they believed that a plane, and not a capsule, would be the most appropriate vehicle to get there. The premise that a would-be pilot would be launched into space, stuffed into a tiny capsule, before parachuting back to Earth was offensive to the Air Force. To prove that a man could fly into space and back with some dignity, the Air Force employed a unique machine: the tallest and fastest aircraft ever built: the North American X-15.

Holds the biggest records

Yes, the X-15 is technically a plane. But in many ways, it’s a rocket with wings and a cockpit. Built around the Reaction Motors XLR99, the X-15 packs a serious punch. The XLR99 can generate almost 60,000 pounds of thrust, using anhydrous ammonia and liquid oxygen to propel the craft. You might imagine that the XLR99 has a voracious appetite for fuel, and you’d be right. In just 80 seconds, it could burn seven and a half tons of fuel.

The X-15 still holds the speed record. On October 3, 1967, Air Force pilot William J. “Pete” Knight guided the X-15 to 100,000 feet and “lit the sail.” Knight topped Mach-1 and Mach-2, and kept going, eventually reaching Mach 6.7, or 4,520 miles per hour. No one has ever traveled faster inside the Earth’s atmosphere. The X-15 also holds the altitude record. On 13 separate occasions, the X-15 flew more than 80 kilometers high, thus crossing the official space threshold. Indeed, several X-15 pilots received their astronaut wings for having flown in space. The X-15 holds the altitude record, flying 67 miles high on August 22, 1963. (Note that commercial airlines only fly to about 11 kilometers high.)

Like the X-1, the X-15 was mounted on the external pylon of its mothership, which was a B-52 Stratofortress.. The eight-engine B-52 carried the X-plane to the proper altitude and then released it to fire its rockets and take flight.

Before NASA’s Mercury capsule was chosen as the inaugural ship of American space exploration, the X-15 was envisioned. Air Force and NACA officials thought they could launch an X-15 into space aboard an SM-64 Navaho missile. Although the X-15 was never tethered to a rocket, the arrangement predicted the space shuttle configurations that would dominate American space exploration during the 1980s and 1990s.

The X-15 flew faster and higher than any other aircraft.
X-15. Image Credit: Artist Interpretation – Creative Commons.

Not a space traveler, but a movie star

Of course, the space race continued without the X-15, which was retired in 1968, a year before former X-15 pilot Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon’s surface. In fact, the X-15 not only helped give the first moonwalker the resume and experience needed to get into NASA, it also the X-15 also offered valuable insights into aircraft and spacecraft design.

Only three aircraft were built. One of them hangs from the ceiling of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, alongside Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and Yeager’s Glennis. Although less well known than its roof mates, the X-plane is equally deserving of immortalization.

You can also see the plane in a movie. Featured prominently in First manwhich features Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstorng. The film begins with Armstrong’s flight in the X-15, during which he bounces off the atmosphere upon re-entry. The scene is intentionally choppy and disconcerting, to give the viewer an idea of ​​the power, speed and difficulty of the plane.