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Only The Space Shuttle ‘flew’ Faster Than This Rocket Plane Designed With A Slide Rule


Today’s retrospective is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) film “Research Project X-15.” Shot during the mid-1960s at various NASA locations and Edward Air Force Base (AFB) in California, the film highlights the development of not only the X-15, but several of the other previous X planes as well. Interviews with designers, builders, and pilots highlight the narrative history of a program that peeled back the mysteries needing to be solved in order to explore space and visit the moon. Flown by well-known test pilots like Neil Armstrong, Scott Crossfield, Joe Walker, and Pete Knight on 199 total missions, the X-15 was a program far ahead of its time in many ways.

NASA X-15 carried by the NB-52B mothership 52-008 The Challenger and a T-38 Talon chase plane alongside.

Featured prominently in the film are the B-52 motherships The High and Mighty One (NB-52A Air Force serial number 52-003- Balls 3) and The Challenger (NB-52B Air Force serial number 52-008- Balls 8). 52-003 was retired in 1969 and can now be viewed at the Pima County Air Museum in Tucson Arizona. 52-008 remained in service supporting NASA and private space initiatives until December 17th 2004, when the venerable aircraft was retired to gate guard duty at Edwards AFB and replaced by a slightly younger, but far less experienced, B-52H mothership.

X-15A2 (Air Force serial number 56-6671) with external fuel tanks fitted.

The three X-15s were flown to investigate high-speed, high-altitude flight characteristics between June of 1959 and October of 1968. X-15s set world speed records of Mach 6.7 and altitude records of 354,200 feet. Those speed and altitude records stood for almost 40 years. Information gained from the highly successful X-15 program contributed to development of the NASA Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle manned space flight programs, as well as development of materials and systems used in high-speed high-altitude aircraft designed and built after the program came to its conclusion. Other programs followed the X-15 but for sheer envelope-pushing the X-15 Research Project was unmatched before or since.

 

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.