North American X-15

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Scott Crossfield

The X-15 in flight, early 1960s

The North American X-15 rocket plane was perhaps the most important of the USAF/USN X-series of experimental aircraft. Although not as famous as the Bell X-1, the X-15 set numerous speed and altitude records in the early 1960s, reaching the edge of space and bringing back valuable data that was used in the design of later aircraft and spacecraft.

During the X-15 program, 13 flights met the US criterion for a spaceflight by passing an altitude of 50 miles (80 km) and the pilots were accordingly awarded astronaut status by the USAF. Out of these, 2 also qualified for the international FAI definition of a spaceflight by passing the 62.1 mile (100 km) mark.


The original Request for Proposals was issued for the airframe December 30, 1954, and for the rocket engine on February 4, 1955. North American received the airframe contract in November 1955, and Reaction Motors contracted in 1956 to build the engines.

As with many of the X-aircraft, the X-15 was designed to be carried aloft under the wing of a B-52. The fuselage was long and cylindrical, with fairings towards the rear giving it a flattened look, and it had thick wedge-shaped dorsal and ventral fins. The retractable landing gear consisted of a nose wheel and two skids