The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings into Space

The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings into Space

The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings into Space

The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings into Space


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.

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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.

Although the X-15 was sleek from a distant perspective, a closer look revealed construction much heavier than might be expected. Protuberances such as bug-eyed cameras and antennae bulged from the heat-resistant hypersonic skin, while surfaces at the rear were corrugated for strength rather than aesthetics. Seeing the intricate details of the craft reminded one more of an industrial boiler rather than of the sculpted visage people were used to seeing in the science fiction of that period.

Yet the X-15 was still a beauty in its own right, not created to please an audience, but instead was the vanguard of a far-reaching research program that dealt with the real idea of being able to fly a fully reusable spacecraft out of the atmosphere and land it safely back on terra firma under a pilot’s control. And even though the experimental data garnered from more than nine years of flight testing often lent itself to technical journals and scientific publications, the program also inspired people about the real excitement and promise of air and space exploration.

A generation earlier, a silver, single-engine, high-wing monoplane, with only a periscope for forward viewing, swung in over the ocean and landed at a small field. Local military men, with arms linked, tried to hold back the swarm of onlookers who attempted to rush the field. Inside the Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh shut down the engine and organized his materials and thoughts, then climbed out of his airplane to the waiting jubilation of the people. This was not the evening of 21 May 1927 at the Le Bourget . . .

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