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.
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.
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.