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The X-15 Rocket Plane

Flying the First Wings into Space

Joe H. Engle

Publication Year: 2013

With the Soviet Union’s launch of the first Sputnik satellite in 1957, the Cold War soared to new heights as Americans feared losing the race into space. The X-15 Rocket Plane tells the enthralling yet little-known story of the hypersonic X-15, the winged rocket ship that met this challenge and opened the way into human-controlled spaceflight.

 Drawing on interviews with those who were there, Michelle Evans captures the drama and excitement of, yes, rocket science: how to handle the heat generated at speeds up to Mach 7, how to make a rocket propulsion system that could throttle, and how to safely reenter the atmosphere from space and make a precision landing.

This book puts a human face on the feats of science and engineering that went into the X-15 program, many of them critical to the development of the Space Shuttle. And, finally, it introduces us to the largely unsung pilots of the X-15. By the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing, thirty-one American astronauts had flown into space—eight of them astronaut-pilots of the X-15. The X-15 Rocket Plane restores these pioneers, and the others who made it happen, to their rightful place in the history of spaceflight.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x

List of Illustrations

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xvi

As test pilots within the Flight Test community, my colleagues and I tend to associate significant advances in our world of flight in terms of hardware, specifically the airplanes. We give those airplanes names and personalities, and we speak of them respectfully (or sometimes not so respectfully) as living things. We often overlook the fact that it was people who conceived...


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pp. xvii-xx

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pp. xxi-xxviii

The x-15 was the first winged rocket ship to take astronauts into space and back again. It was designed in the mid-1950s, at a time when, to the public, rocket ships meant gleaming silver stilettos with swept-back fins, filled with astronauts in bubble-headed spacesuits, doing battle against aliens bent on the overthrow and subjugation — or annihilation — of Earth...

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1. The Whole Nine Yards

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pp. 1-36

Scott Crossfield started the x-15’s rocket engine and moved the throttle forward to 50 percent thrust. The bright exhaust lit up the surrounding area as a long string of Mach diamonds formed and stabilized. Scott then throttled forward to 100 percent. Firmly secured to the test stand, the aircraft strained to pull away with more than 50,000 pounds of force. At a level of 140 decibels at the cockpit, the noise generated by the lr-99 rocket was...

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2. A Record High

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pp. 37-67

“Joseph [Albert] Walker, scientist, war hero, holder of world records for speed and altitude for controlled flights, and one of those fighting for our place in outer space — this is your life!” The music swelled with those words from Ralph Edwards, in front of an NBC nationwide audience at home, watching their fuzzy, black-and-white television screens. It was 10:30 p.m. on the evening of Sunday, 4 June 1961, although the filming had taken place...

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3. Gaining Speed

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pp. 68-99

“He was about as opposite of [Joe] Walker as could be. I don’t mean this in a derogatory manner at all, but Kincheloe was a real salesman on himself. He had me sold just as much as everybody else.” Paul Bikle was talking of Capt. Iven Carl Kincheloe Jr., who was to be the prime pilot for the x-15 program, chosen by the U.S. Air Force in September 1957...

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4. Naval Engagement

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pp. 100-128

The U.S. Navy saved the x-15 program. The ambitious goals set forth required sustainable funding over many years. At times, that money was difficult to find, and was more so when the navy had plans of their own regarding high-altitude hypersonic flight...

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5. Changing Course

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pp. 129-165

Eons of hot, dry sun baked the ancient lake bottom to near-asphalt hardness, the color bleached to a dirty white. Close up, the surface was crisscrossed with fissures, giving it the look of dragon scales. Seasonal rain repeatedly scoured the top layer smooth. Roughly circular, the dry lake was more than five miles across, a perfect oasis of level ground among the scattered...

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6. Straight and Steady

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pp. 166-198

x-15 flight 2-45-81 was set up to fail. No one felt that way when it was first planned, and no one thought it possible up through the launch near Mud Dry Lake on 1 July 1966. In retrospect, most of those involved with the flight, including pilot Robert Aitken Rushworth, understood why the mission came to naught...

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7. Skipping Out

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pp. 199-228

To most of the world, Neil Armstrong was an enigma. As the first human being to set his space-suited boot on the surface of another world, he instantly became one of the most recognizable people in history. Yet he successfully avoided the spotlight, as he staunchly refused to discuss his personal life. There is something very positive to be said about someone who had the...

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8. On a Roll

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pp. 229-263

“Okay, I’ll see you in a few minutes,” Joe Engle called on the radio as he prepared to hit the release switch. “Three . . . two . . . one . . . launch!”
As he dropped away from the b-52 to begin flight 1-39-63 in the early afternoon of 7 October 1963, instead of immediately moving the lr-99 thrust control out of idle, Engle stared at his angle of attack indicator. Not long before the first launch attempt, the indicator had stopped working...

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9. Inconel Meets Celluloid

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pp. 264-296

According to the x-15 publicity machine, the purpose of the program was to take American astronauts 100 miles into outer space. The fact the x-15 was not capable of such a journey mattered little.
North American Aviation built the three x-15s, and they knew better than anyone what the altitude goal of the program was: 250,000 feet (just past 47 miles). Yet a September 1959 special report from Skywriter, the publication...

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10. Fastest Man Alive

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pp. 297-329

The t-39 Sabreliner cruised eastward through the cold early December air at 40,000 feet. Aboard, a seven-year-old boy was having a great time, being allowed not only into the cockpit but even to handle the controls. Maybe this experience was part of his reasoning to later become a pilot himself. Certainly some of that decision also came from the fact his father was one...

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11. Chasing Experiments

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pp. 330-361

It was a Thursday morning, as it was for a majority of x-15 flights. Lt. Col. Ted Sturmthal and Sq. Ldr. John Miller boarded b-52 no. 003 and successfully ran through their pre-flight checklist. In the life support van Bill Dana was helped into his A/P-22s pressure suit, one layer at a time, by NASA supervisor Roger Barniki. It was the 199th time Roger was there for an x-15...

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12. In the Line of Duty

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pp. 362-401

Freida Adams made a point of attending each flight of the x-15 that her husband, Mike, flew for the U.S. Air Force. She recalled the first one, saying, “It was scary, but exciting. It was like Flash Gordon. You’d just get caught up in it.” Freida watched what preparations she could. “They would bring us out in a trailer and get us pretty close. You’d watch him walk across [to get into the x-15].” She waved, hoping he would see her but knowing that...

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13. Snow at Edwards

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pp. 402-417

Thirteen days prior to x-15 flight 199, America’s Apollo program finally kicked into high gear. Apollo 7 launched on 11 October 1968, with the crew of Walter M. Schirra, Donn F. Eisele, and R. Walter Cunningham. After the triumphs of the Mercury and Gemini programs, Apollo had started horribly with the loss of three astronauts in a launch pad fire on the evening of...

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pp. 418-426

Many of the people associated with the x-15 are gone now. At the time of this writing, nineteen out of the sixty-seven people I interviewed have died. I had the great fortune to speak with nine of the twelve pilots, and it is sad that seven of them are now lost to us. I never had the opportunity to meet the three who died at or near the time of the x-15: Joe Walker in the midair...


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pp. 427-430


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pp. 431-434


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pp. 435-450

Further Reading

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p. 480-480

E-ISBN-13: 9780803246843
E-ISBN-10: 0803246846
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803228405

Page Count: 488
Illustrations: 45 photographs
Publication Year: 2013