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July 14, 2009 2:20 AM   Subscribe

The North American X-15 Rocket Plane, which turns 50 this year, flew faster and higher than any manned rocket powered aircraft in history excepting the space shuttle.

With a range of only 280 miles, it achieved speeds exceeding 4500mph and flew at an altitude exceeding 60miles, becoming the first airplane to cross Mach 4, 5 and 6. It is still a record holder for manned rocket powered craft.

Launched from underneath the wing of a B-52 Stratofortress at 45000 feet flying at 500mph, the plane would accelerate for one to two minutes with the remaining 10-15 minutes of the flight a glide to earth and a 200mph landing.

The X-15 was from a time where rocketry was cutting edge engineering, where the experimental X-plane aircraft series provided valuable research that was later brought in to the space program. Some of the pilots in the program would go on in their careers to walk on the moon, another woudn't leave the research program alive.

Behind the scenes were dozens of engineers, working without modern computers or models, with materials that were invented specifically for the project, on a concept that was to push modern aircraft engineering to the next level. These engineers and the support staff would go on to join the technical team at NASA and work on the evolving space program.
posted by iamabot (47 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
"...the X-15s were roughly 50 ft long, with a 22-ft wing span. The wedge-shaped vertical tail was 13 ft high. " Wow, I had no idea they were that big - they seemed so much smaller from their air-drop photos beneath the B-52s.
posted by Auden at 3:34 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


"I feel the need..."
Thanks for the post, Auden!
posted by njbradburn at 4:24 AM on July 14, 2009


*blushes* Great post, iamabot!
posted by njbradburn at 4:40 AM on July 14, 2009


I think of stuff like this whenever I see shows about UFOs, and people who think we've been visited by aliens already.

The X-15? Fifty years old. Likewise the fastest non-rocket-powered plane around that anyone knows about, the SR-71, was designed back in the late fifties.

Go back fifty years before that, and you're looking at the Wright Brothers' "Military Flier" and Louis Bleriot winning a thousand pounds for being the first man to fly across the English Channel. Fifty years before that, the fastest thing in the air was a motorized balloon.

I doubt all that has just stopped happening, you know?
posted by mhoye at 4:45 AM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


It took a lot of nerve to climb into the seat of that thing back in the early days of manned rocketry. But there's always somebody who wants to be the fastest man alive, so I doubt there was a lack of volunteers.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 4:46 AM on July 14, 2009


The X-15? Fifty years old. Likewise the fastest non-rocket-powered plane around that anyone knows about, the SR-71, was designed back in the late fifties.

Go back fifty years before that, and you're looking at the Wright Brothers' "Military Flier" and Louis Bleriot winning a thousand pounds for being the first man to fly across the English Channel. Fifty years before that, the fastest thing in the air was a motorized balloon.


The problem is that there is a pretty steep cliff in terms of price/performance of the materials available to aeronautical engineers. For the past forty years, new aircraft that are only a mild step forward in the state of the art take billions to engineer and tens of millions to manufacture.

This is slo-o-o-o-ly starting to change as companies like Scaled Composites start figuring out how to make super-strong, super-durable, super-light materials at mere-mortal price points... and they're still pretty far away. I mean, carbon fiber has been around for a quarter-century, and if anything, it's easier to lay up than fiberglass, and it's still way out of the price point of, say, steel... and carbon fiber is pretty old hat by now.

As an aside, I don't like spaceplanes.

The best space vehicle of the past fifty years was the Delta Clipper - effective, amazingly maneuverable, dirt cheap because it used off-the-shelf components and microcomputer control systems. The next-stage prototype was going to cost fifty million, which meant that the production model would probably be a lot cheaper. That's in jumbo-jet territory. For a re-usable single-stage, orbit-capable spacecraft. This is a no-brainer, smash-hit home run for NASA, right? Right?

It was killed in favor of various space-plane concepts that never got off the ground or produced anything more than a good concept video and tens of billions of dollars in waste, fraud and abuse. The NASA administrators of the time liked the elegance and simplicity of the spaceplane, and fought like lions to murder anything else, and yet were never able to get it elegant or simple enough to get off the damn ground.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:30 AM on July 14, 2009 [5 favorites]


God, I love the X-15. When I walked into NASM last fall and saw the one hanging from the ceiling, I started giggling like a little kid.

I think it's pretty awesome/interesting that after a 40-year detour, civilian aircraft designers are sort of revisiting the X-15 concept; SpaceShipOne has some system similarities...
posted by COBRA! at 5:31 AM on July 14, 2009


It's hard to consider the Delta Clipper as a space vehicle since it never flew in space and there was no obvious way forward to build an SSTO vehicle of that design with sufficient mass fraction to do anything useful. But yes, it was a neat engineering project.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:44 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


...they seemed so much smaller from their air-drop photos beneath the B-52s.

That's just because the B-52 is so huge. Like others I was captivated by the aeronautical exploits of the SR-71 and X-15 as a child; when I was about 9 or 10 my stated ambition in life was to become a test pilot. I also wonder about why the records set by those plane decades ago still stand. In addition to the reasons already mentioned, the need for high altitude reconnaissance planes has been greatly eliminated by improved spy satellites, and R&D has been moving in other directions, such as stealth technology and unmanned drones.
posted by TedW at 5:54 AM on July 14, 2009


The space shuttle cannot maintain flight under its own power.

Winner: X-15.
posted by absalom at 6:15 AM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


So what you're saying Slap*Happy is; no bucks, no Buck Rogers.
posted by Molesome at 6:22 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


...there was no obvious way forward to build an SSTO vehicle of that design with sufficient mass fraction to do anything useful.

From what I understand, the initial full-scale design was good enough to get a crew of six to orbit and then back again. That's a pretty useful payload size - not a big-rig like the shuttle, but enough to get a couple astronauts and a medium-sized satellite up - or a repair crew and some spare parts for satellites already in orbit. It was originally designed as a way to get a repair crew into orbit to service military sats, remember? There's a lot of stuff in orbit, and it would make satellite communications and astronomy cheaper and more reliable if there was an easy way to get technicians up there and back again. Subsequent designs could capitalize on improvements in propulsion and materials... bit the space plane as a SSTO has been completely useless, a complete and enormous waste of time and money with zilch to show for it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:23 AM on July 14, 2009


I love this stuff. Especially the continuation into skunkworks and the forementioned SR-71..
posted by hypersloth at 6:59 AM on July 14, 2009


btw, what's up with the SCRAM jet technology these days? Sure, it's integrated and compromised into stealthy fighters, but what did replace the Blackbird when it was decomissioned?
posted by hypersloth at 7:03 AM on July 14, 2009


Video: check out the structural damage to the x15 after a mach 6.7 flight:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHuBsBOF4R8

heat/air resistance I'm assuming. Talk about a wild ride. Must've been scary to look out the cockpit and see your plane literally melting.
posted by thisisdrew at 7:17 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


RIP X-15 pilot Scott Crossfield (d. 2006).
posted by crapmatic at 7:18 AM on July 14, 2009


but what did replace the Blackbird when it was decomissioned?

Satellites (because they couldn't be shot down)
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:34 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Slap*Happy, I think that the main problem with the Delta Clipper may have been this:
On February 15, 1989, Pournelle, Graham and Hunter were able to procure a meeting with Vice-President Dan Quayle. They "sold" the idea of SDIO by noting that any space-based weapons system would need to be serviced by a spacecraft that was far more reliable than the Space Shuttle, and offer lower launch costs and have much better turnaround times.
First, Star Wars was a boondoggle of the first order (I assume that that's the "space-based weapons system" mentioned); blowing untold billions on a program with dubious probability of success isn't the best star to hitch your wagon two. Second, Dan Quayle, who really is as dumb as a box of rocks; I've always suspected that George H.W. Bush re-established the National Space Council just to give Danny-boy something to do.

And, finally, Jerry Pournelle, who as a space visionary is a so-so SF author (seriously, how many people would have ever heard about him, even in SF, without his long association with Larry Niven? None too many, I think).
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:40 AM on July 14, 2009


thisisdrew: some of the visible burning was an ablative coating put on the aircraft for that attempt at the high-speed record. The plane was still damaged too badly to fly again, or at least fixing it wasn't cost-effective as the program was ending soon anyway.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:42 AM on July 14, 2009


btw, what's up with the SCRAM jet technology these days? Sure, it's integrated and compromised into stealthy fighters, but what did replace the Blackbird when it was decomissioned?

I wish I could find the exact quote... but after a relatively recent scramjet test, someone made a comment like: 'The rocket launched the test vehicle and accelerated it up to mach 10, and the scramjet then managed to briefly not slow down under its own power. This was considered a huge success for the scramjet, and utterly unremarkable for the rocket.'

I thought it pretty nicely summed up the current state of the art in scramjet technology vs. good old rocket power.
posted by FishBike at 7:48 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Cobra!, it's interesting to see that shot of the x-15 from below. You can clearly see how that fuselage and wing shape went on to be one of the most beautiful fighter jets of all time IMHO: The F-104 Starfighter.

Whereas viewed from the side, the X-15's far forward cockpit placement and long narrow fuselage, seems like an obvious parent to the SR-71, Which is just a beautiful monster of a plane. The Intrepid museum, here in NYC, had a prototype of the SR-71, I think the YF-12, or one of those "YF" variants, and I was amazed actually at how small it was compared to the image of it in my mind. I think it's still there, you can climb around it (not in it, sadly) and everything. Although as a warning all the various jets on the deck of the Intrepid Air-Space Museum have been all been de-engined, which I found a melancholy state. All these sublimely aerodynamic behemoths sitting there empty shells of their once formidable selves.
posted by Skygazer at 8:35 AM on July 14, 2009


I thought the Aurora was supposed to replace the blackbird?

There is no way we do not have some aerial recon capabilities post-blackbird, significant ones, even. One cloudy day is enough to shut down all your intel, otherwise.

Actually, now that you mention it, that DOES sound like US intel services typical level of competnece, doesn't it?
posted by absalom at 8:38 AM on July 14, 2009


another great video about the X15 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yk1KtY9bJWg&feature=related
posted by thisisdrew at 8:39 AM on July 14, 2009


(More than likely, the shift was to unmanned drones - obviously - rather than some hypersonic big-dick plane)
posted by absalom at 8:39 AM on July 14, 2009


Apparently a 2:30am post paid off, I didn't want to mention it in the post but my grandfather worked on the X-15 project and was one of those engineers who went on to work for Rockwell International NASA. I don't want to link to my own content, but before he passed away a couple of years ago we did a life history download from him and there was a lot of X-15 data in there, I'll upload it and you can grab it off my profile.

He told us stories of encountering a problem and just going out to the shop to machine a new part, the space between the engineers and the machinists and trades working on the project was very very thin and that proximity allowed them to really make some incredible advances in how they handled materials and dealth with the forces at work on the plane.
posted by iamabot at 8:52 AM on July 14, 2009


I love this stuff. It's the right stuff. (Great FPP title, by the way.)
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:15 AM on July 14, 2009


This NASA poster about the X-15 was linked to about a week ago by The DEW Line, a Flight blog about the military aviation industry.
posted by theclaw at 9:18 AM on July 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


I think the F-104 beat the X-15 out the gate by a few years. The F-104 design actually ended up getting slower, turning into the U-2.
posted by ChuqD at 9:23 AM on July 14, 2009


Would have loved to have seen this as the follow-up to the x-15.
posted by Mcable at 9:30 AM on July 14, 2009


The space shuttle cannot maintain flight under its own power. Winner: X-15.

I doubt the X-15 would do very well if it weren't first carried up to 45,000 feet. Could it even take off from the ground?
posted by exogenous at 9:37 AM on July 14, 2009


...and THAT is why the American definition of "astronaut" is ridiculously low altitude.

one of the most beautiful fighter jets of all time IMHO: The F-104 Starfighter.

Tell that to the Germans!
posted by Artw at 9:37 AM on July 14, 2009


The F-104 is, as far as i know, the only fighter plane to have it's own prog rock concept albulm.
posted by Artw at 9:38 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


The X-15 was not designed to take off from the ground from what I could tell from researching the post, so it's under-wing launch only.
posted by iamabot at 9:42 AM on July 14, 2009


I doubt the X-15 would do very well if it weren't first carried up to 45,000 feet. Could it even take off from the ground?

There was a proposal to launch the x-15 from a conventional launch pad using a Navaho booster as the first stage.
posted by Mcable at 9:46 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Could it even take off from the ground?

I don't think it could. Apart from anything else, it didn't have wheels, it had landing skids. Not only would these have to drag along the ground during takeoff, they're in the wrong place relative to the center of gravity to allow the aircraft to rotate nose-up to get off the ground. And you can't steer very well with a nose skid instead of a nose wheel.

Also if you compare photos of the X-15 in flight vs. coming in to land, you'll notice the tail looks different. There's a lower portion of the tail fin that sticks down a long way, and is jettisoned before landing. You couldn't take off with that attached because it would be stuck in the ground.
posted by FishBike at 9:52 AM on July 14, 2009


Here's a better link on the Navaho booster plan
posted by Mcable at 9:59 AM on July 14, 2009


theclaw - that poster is AWESOME.
posted by iamabot at 10:07 AM on July 14, 2009


This is a tiny bit off-topic, but judging from the general tenor of the comments here I think some might find it fun. It's an elapsed time video that shows an F-18 SuperHornet being built in 3 mins and 32 secs.

The engineering and planning that goes into the manufacture of a plane like that is mind-boggling. All the platforms that have to be built and re-built etc...

SlapHappy: The problem is that there is a pretty steep cliff in terms of price/performance of the materials available to aeronautical engineers.

I find it ironic that where once there was a sound barrier, now there is a very earth-bound barrier: That of producing the composites from minerals and chemicals to withstand the immense gravitational forces and the next Bell-X1, is really some polymer slowly coming to life in some bleeding-edge materials laboratory.
posted by Skygazer at 11:06 AM on July 14, 2009


R.I.P. Major Michael J. Adams. This is an interesting, if sad, read.
posted by Danf at 11:27 AM on July 14, 2009


ArtW: The F-104 is, as far as i know, the only fighter plane to have it's own prog rock concept albulm.

Yeah, I know. I picked it up a record fair a few years ago. I played it a few times, but I thought it sounded goofy and dated. And then my turntable died.
posted by Skygazer at 11:49 AM on July 14, 2009


Thanks Artw, I'll have to dig my copy out and listen to it now.
posted by hardcode at 11:57 AM on July 14, 2009


I'm fighting the urge to print out the awesome poster theclaw linked to and tape it to the railing at NASM.
posted by djb at 12:06 PM on July 14, 2009


I've always loved this Life Magazine cover.
posted by rlk at 12:06 PM on July 14, 2009


Really liked the FPP title, BTW.
posted by Artw at 12:14 PM on July 14, 2009


I didn't link it originally, but a great read on the program is from the 30th anniversary event.
posted by iamabot at 12:24 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the poster:
Test pilot Scott Crossfield helped to design the ejection seat, which enabled "safe ejection at speeds up to Mach 4, in any attitude and at any altitude up to 120,000 feet." After the canopy was jettisoned, the seat fired upward and, once clear of the aircraft, deployed a pair of fold-out fins and telescoping booms for stabilization. A face-heater battery activated to keep the pilot's visor clear of ice, and oxygen was supplied from two under-seat tanks. Despite the seat's sophistication, none of the pilots wanted to see it used on a mission.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:23 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


absalom: "There is no way we do not have some aerial recon capabilities post-blackbird, significant ones, even. One cloudy day is enough to shut down all your intel, otherwise."

Until very recently, the U-2 filled this role. The SR-71 was designed to replace it, because of the whole Gary Powers incident, but was only impossible to shoot down for a relatively short period, until the Soviets got better anti-aircraft missiles.

Once the USSR had better missiles, the SR-71 became practically as vulnerable as the U-2, and much more expensive to operate. So we essentially axed the '71 and went back to using the U-2 for the missions where satellites weren't adequate. There was also a camera package for the F-117A, but I don't know how often (if ever) it was used.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk is slated to replace the U-2 in most missions. It's unmanned, so no risk of a downed pilot, and longer hover time over the target area. It's an interesting platform not only because it's unmanned, but because it's semi-autonomous, unlike the small UAVs that are basically big RC airplanes. The Air Force is, however, not a fan of this concept.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:00 PM on July 14, 2009


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