Proceedings of the X-15 First Flight 30th Anniversary Celebration
Dr. Dale L. Compton
Deputy Director, NASA Ames Research Center
Thank you, Ken. Usually when I am asked to welcome a symposium, I ask one of the organizers of the sym
posium to put together some notes for me. It turns out in this case I didn't have to do that because I can tell you a
couple of things from personal experience about the X-15, both of which are relevant to this symposium. Let me
first, though, do the formal welcome.
On the behalf of the Ames Research Center and the Dryden Flight Research Facility, I'd like to welcome you
here this afternoon. It looks like an interesting agenda, an exciting afternoon, and an evening of great memories,
and I'm sure you all will enjoy it.
Let me turn to the two items that I can tell you from personal experience; the first one really is personal. 1.
probably would not be standing here were it not for the X- 15. When I was a college student-that was at the design
time of the X-15-1 was a mechanical engineering student and was looking at what I wanted to do with my career
and what I wanted to focus my graduate studies on. I knew I wanted to do graduate studies, and the choice was sort
of between boilers and heavy diesel engines and aircraft. It wasn't a hard choice because that was right at the design
time of the X- 15, and I could see in the popular press and in the engineering material that came across through the
university that this kind of aircraft was going to be our future. It seemed to me that it made very good sense for me
to focus my graduate studies on aeronautics, which I subsequently did, and so I really think I can credit the X-15
for my getting involved in aeronautics so long ago. I think that is one of the importances of programs like this quite
beyond the importance of the program in and for itself.
One of the things that this nation lacks at this point is a trained cadre of engineers that are coming forward to do
the technological gains of the future. The education system is not turning them out in the numbers that we need. If
programs like the X-15 are visible that bring high technology to the attention of students, that makes students think
about where they want to put their futures. That brings students forward into high-tech adventures and eventually to
be the leaders of technology and the leaders of our economy and the leaders of our military strengths. I think these
programs are extremely important, and I guess I will anticipate a little bit of what will occur at the end of the day and
hope that the X- 15 translates itself into the X-30 through a hypersonic single-stage-to-orbit vehicle at some point in
time. And that program, which is so much in jeopardy now with funding concerns, ends up in a continuation in one
sense or another. And that continuation includes a flight vehicle. I think that it is through those flight vehicles that
we really learn what it's all about-really learn and really bring the excitement to the nation.
Now a second item is almost from personal experience-not quite, because I started into practical engineering at
NASA-Ames in 195 8-just a year before the X- 15 had its first flight. It turns out that we can also, at NASA-Ames,
claim what I call the first flight of the X-15 two years earlier than the manned flight. I want to show you a picture of
the first flight (fig. 1) which I'm told occurred on June 14, 1957, at 9:15 in the morning. This is a picture of a scale
model of the,X-15 taken from a hypervelocity free-flight facility at the Ames-Moffett site, and as you can see this is
one of the few pictures that shows the shock patterns that develop over that vehicle in flight.
Now I can't say that most of these flights-this happens to be a successful one-I can't say that most of those
model flights were successful. Many times what we saw going down the tunnel were pieces of the X-15 rather than
the whole airplane, and that's because this model was about 3 or maybe 4 in. long, and it was very fragile-probably
made out of aluminum, cast aluminum, some of them were made out of cast bronze, some of them were made out
of cast plastic.
In launching a vehicle like this from a gun, it has to undergo many thousands of 9's loading, and it was quite
frequent that we found the wings coming out one side and the fuselage and tail coming out the other and the whole
thing flying down the range sideways as a result. We happened to do a fair amount of stability work on the airplane,
so I am going to say that this was a first flight of the X-15 vehicle, one that I think was not as nearly as historic as
the first manned flight that can be claimed out here and which the symposium celebrates. But it does symbolize the
resources that NASA was able to bring to bear on an aeronautical problem of importance at the time.
With that I want to again welcome you to the symposium, and I'm sure that we will all have a very interesting
afternoon here. Thank you very much.
Figure 1. X-15 model in Ames hypervelocity free-flight facility.