The Brilliant Dissenter

But there was a problem. The NACA committee was not unanimous. One member asserted, in a confident, expert tone, that a vehicle to explore these flight regimes should be unmanned. With no pilot, it would be less dangerous and could be built more quickly and cheaply. Progress in remote control meant that such a vehicle could be flying within two years.

Who was this lone dissenter, arguing against putting a pilot in the X-15? Some unappreciated engineer resentful of the glamorous test pilots? Some cost-sensitive bureaucrat? One of the steely missile men in love with automatic controls? No, the man who argued against a piloted X-15 was Clarence ''Kelly'' Johnson, legendary aircraft designer, chief engineer at Lockheed, and founder of its famous ''Skunk Works.'' Johnson had already designed or helped design such pilot favorites as the P-38 Lightning, one of the highest-performance aircraft of World War II;the F-80 Shooting Star, America's first jet fighter;and the F-104 Starfighter, which NACA itself would heavily use in the X-15 program. Johnson would go on to notch his belt with the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 (designed in 1960 and still the fastest piloted aircraft ever built), and a host of other historic planes, some of which are still in use today. He had won, or would go on to win, nearly every major award in aviation, aeronautics, and engineering, some of them several times. The argument for a human pilot in the X-15 was being questioned by America's leading aerospace engineer.

Taken aback by this heresy, this challenge to their exciting new project, the others in the room vigorously countered Johnson's objections. The whole point of the proposed program, they replied, was to study ''the man'' operating a hypersonic vehicle in the weightlessness of space. NACA was already doing research into high mach numbers on unmanned vehicles using rockets (Gilruth's Pilotless Aircraft Research Division at Langley), but these tests were not adequate replacements for manned vehicles. There followed a heated discussion.

Finally, the committee overruled Johnson's objections, invoking the cold war imperative of ''maintaining supremacy in the air.'' Its members endorsed the NACA proposal for a new Mach 7 airplane.6

But Kelly Johnson would not be silenced. He attached a minority opinion to the meeting minutes. He reiterated his arguments against the manned presence in the X-15, and even questioned the very foundations of high-speed flight testing. If a manned, hypersonic vehicle were to be built, Johnson argued, it should be made useful for military purposes. Johnson simultaneously denigrated the science and impugned human presence, arguing that the FRC's much-lauded high-speed flights ''have proven mainly the bravery of the test pilots.''7

Johnson was an aircraft designer, not a researcher or systems man. He worked for a manufacturing company, Lockheed, not a government research establishment. He often made use of the aerodynamic data that NACA produced when designing his aircraft, but at this moment, in 1954, he did indeed have aircraft on the drawing board that would dwarf the performance gains made by the NACA group. His dissent may have been self-serving—perhaps he was arguing for approaches to the problem that would favor his Skunk Works at Lockheed. Perhaps he was just a headstrong man who liked contrarian arguments to push his colleagues to clarify their positions.

Whatever his motives, Johnson's arguments could not be dismissed as those of a lunatic fringe. The nation's premier aircraft designer, who created aircraft beloved by pilots, was arguing against manned, hypersonic flight. His argument had little effect on the decision to go ahead with the X-15, but it did signal the currency of the opposing arguments, and it helped put the program on the defensive: from its origin, the X-15 had to justify the manned presence in space.

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