X-15 Pioneers Honored as Astronauts

In a turbulent era of 1960s Cold War confrontations, Moon race headlines, and war in southeast Asia, eight test pilots quietly flew the radical X-15 rocket plane out of the atmosphere and into the record books, earning astronaut status. Until Aug. 23, 2005, three of those early astronaut test pilots never received official recognition of their lofty membership as astronauts because only the military had astronaut wings to confer on their pilots at that time. Civilian NASA pilots had no such badge.

That was rectified when retired NASA pilot Bill Dana, and family members representing deceased pilots John B. McKay and Joseph A. Walker, received civilian astronaut wings acknowledging their flights above 50 miles high. The men were honored in a quiet ceremony Tuesday at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base in California, site of their achievements. Bill Dana was philosophical about it; NASA pilots didn’t wear wings anyway, and the concept of winning special wings was probably more crucial to a military pilot’s career ladder, he explained.

Dana’s first of two flights into space took him 58.13 miles above the Mojave Desert on Nov. 1, 1966 as he tried to collect micrometeorite samples while learning about issues of sky brightness at that height. Joe Walker’s third X-15 foray into space claimed the unofficial world altitude record of 354,200 feet, or 67.08 miles, on Aug. 22, 1963. Walker’s unofficial record also marked the highest altitude to which the X-15 was ever flown. John McKay attained 295,600 ft or 55.98 miles on Sept. 28, 1965 during several research experiments.

The X-15 program used three piloted hypersonic rocket planes to fly as high as 67 miles and as fast as nearly seven times the speed of sound. Volumes of test data gleaned from 199 X-15 missions helped shape the successful Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle human spaceflight programs. Two X-15s are displayed at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., and the Air Force Museum, Dayton, Ohio.


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