Flying Reentry The X15

There is no necessity to defend an aviator for trying to put things in a perspective from which they've crept and get things back into balance. There is also no challenge on the part of aviators to automatic systems or electronic systems or sophisticated mechanical systems; it's the challenge of putting them into the perspectives that are necessary so that they are the best complement and augmentation and supplementary support you can give an aviator, an astronaut, or a pilot or whatever you want to call him.

—A. Scott Crossfield, ''Pilot Contributions to Mission Success,'' 1963

If something is unmanned, I say, ''The hell with it.'' This is a human endeavor we're living in____

I'm a pilot and an aviator. And I think that if we're going to do anything like go into space, or fly fast, it's pretty much an experience that a man wants to do. We're a human race, not made of machinery.

—A. Scott Crossfield, interview with Merlin, 1998 A Meeting at Edwards

In October 1954, the NACA Committee on Aerodynamics held its biannual meeting. Chairing the group was Preston Bassett, president of the Sperry Corporation, the pioneering control systems company that developed automatic pilots, gyroscopes, and a host of other aircraft instruments. The committee also included leading lights of aeronautics: Clark Millikan, the aerodynamicist from Caltech, Allen Puckett, a guided missile pioneer from Hughes Aircraft, helicopter designer Bartram Kelley, and a variety of other notable academic and industry representatives, including decision makers from the U.S. Air Force and Navy. Their meeting lasted two days, the first at the NACA Ames Research Center in Palo Alto, just south of San Francisco. Here the committee discussed their usual business: the need for more funding in automatic control, engine research, plans for conferences, and proposed projects.

On the second day the group flew south for a tour of Edwards Air Force Base, in the high desert of Southern California, and the NACA facility on the grounds of the base, the High Speed Flight Station. Great things were happening here, making the area second only to Kitty Hawk as sacred historical terrain for American aviation. In the American lore of flight, Edwards is a sort of shrine celebrating the flying machine in the garden of the west.

The NACA facility at Edwards had begun as a satellite of the famed Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia, bringing from Langley both its people and its culture of flight testing—without the wind tunnels. Its leader, Walter Williams, was an old Langley hand, had worked on stability and control during World War II, and had been the NACA project engineer for the X-1, in which Chuck Yeager broke the proverbial ''sound barrier.''

Now, in 1954, the desert station was marking a banner year. What had been barely a collection of huts and barracks during Yeager's flight seven years before now had a new, permanent building and a new institutional identity. It had just become its own center, the NACA High Speed Flight Station (HSFS, later renamed the Flight Research Center or FRC), independent of Langley and free to develop a culture of its own or, more accurately, to build upon the unique culture that had already developed out in the desert (it would later become the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, and exists in this form today). Some felt that the laboratory-like atmosphere of the wind tunnel still dominated Langley, but the pilot reigned supreme at FRC.1 Here, engineers and pilots established what center historian Michael Gorn describes as ''the ground rules of modern flight research''—careful, graduated experiments, precise and electronic data collection, and, above all, intimate collaboration among engineers, pilots, and technicians.2 At the same time, Williams established clear directions for the work: higher and faster.

In the afternoon the NACA committee sat down for an executive session to discuss the ultimate successor to these highly successful research programs, following Wil-liams's higher-and-faster imperative. Two years earlier, the committee had recommended that NACA look at the problems of manned and unmanned flight between twelve and fifty miles high, and at unusually high Mach numbers, between four and ten times the speed of sound. Now the NACA group heard a report from a study group headed by Langley's John Becker, an expert on supersonic flow. His team, which included Langley engineer and Gilruth disciple Max Faget, studied the problem of high-altitude hypersonic research and concluded that the critical work concentrated in two problem areas: the heating of an aircraft's structure due to supersonic shockwaves, and the ''achievement of stability and control at very high altitudes at very high speeds, and during atmospheric re-entry from ballistic flight paths.''3

Stability and control: here was the same problem the Wright brothers had encountered, the critical problem of aviation, extended into new worlds. Becker's report noted that while some of these problems could be addressed in the laboratory, much of the work would have to be done in actual flight. The experts pronounced a project feasible to the limits of Mach 7 (seven times the speed of sound) and several hundred thousand feet, the point at which the structure would simply melt or fall apart. They went on to suggest that the best way to approach these flight regimes would be a piloted aircraft, because test flights could begin in relatively benign conditions and proceed gradually to the most extreme. They recommended a new research airplane.4

Was it even possible to build an aircraft to fly on the edge of space? What would such a bird look like? Becker's team argued the aircraft should be launched from the air and powered by a rocket and should be ''a piloted aircraft capable of being landed in a normal manner.'' Their arguments were not only technical but also pragmatic: build the simplest conceivable aircraft to accomplish the stated goals and get it flying as quickly as possible. And by all means put a man in it. They considered a man in the loop a high road to simplicity, eliminating the need for fancy electronics and employing the adaptive powers of the pilot to accommodate uncertainty.

The NACA committee reviewed the Becker report with enthusiasm. ''It was the general sense of the majority of the members,'' the minutes reported, ''that there are no known limits in flight to which we will or can take human beings, [and] that guided missiles have not eliminated the use of manned aircraft.''5 They recommended that a project to build this new aircraft be initiated immediately. The air force and navy representatives concurred, and the project was born, soon to be known as the X-15.

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