(Book Review) X-15 Diary: The Story of America’s First Space Ship

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On November 8, 2016, Dreamscape Media published an audiobook version of X-15 Diary: The Story of America’s First Space Ship by Richard Tregaskis. The book was first published in 1961, and while it has never been out of print, it has not been updated or revised since its original publication.

Richard Tregaskis was a combat news journalist in both the Second World War and the Korean War, and once suffered a severe shrapnel wound while reporting from the front lines. He later wrote a number of well-received books about those wars, including Guadalcanal Diary. Tregaskis died of an accidental drowning in 1973 at the age of 56.

I’ve had a long interest in the X-15, dating back to my early days with TRW doing preliminary studies of NASA’s Space Shuttle.  I was surprised to learn about Tregaskis’ book as I had never run across it before. I’m glad I finally caught up with it.

As background, the X-15 was an early experimental research program that tested the ability of a winged spacecraft to complete an atmospheric reentry from space, transition into flight like an airplane and land horizontally on an airstrip. X-15 was an interesting beast: part jet aircraft and part rocket ship. It was designed and built by North American Aviation (later renamed North American Rockwell) under a contract awarded jointly by NASA and the US Air Force in 1955.

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The X-15’s only purpose was research. It was chartered to explore the design engineering challenges and flight characteristics encountered during hypersonic flight, i.e. at speeds at or in excess of Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound), and to develop and test the technology required to fly this winged spacecraft to the fringes of space.

The aircraft looked like an elongated dart, with a cockpit, two stubby wings and a rocket engine added to the mix. Its airframe was the color of burnished coal, or of empty and airless space – a poster child for the description “jet black”. It was capable of powered flight but it was a voracious fuel consumer, so it was first carried aloft attached to the wing of a B-52 jet bomber and set free at an altitude of 45,000 feet and a speed of 500 mph.

Several elements of X-15 Diary  make it an absorbing read. First is Tregaskis’ compelling reporting. This book is literally his diary of the X-15 flight program as it unfolded from February 26,1959 through August 15, 1960. Tregaskis was given daily access to Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of Southern California while the X-15 was preparing to spread its wings.

Drawing on his experience as a wartime correspondent, he gives us a first person, day-by-day account of the initial checkout tests and early flights of the X-15 as they happen. He unravels the program’s sometimes dense technical and engineering jargon with writing that is clear, comprehensible and often inspired. At one point he refers to outer space as “the wild black yonder”.  And this passage:

“There was the bit about the X-15 having flown higher than a man had ever been before, the black rocket ship working its way up the ladder of space.”

Scott-Crossfield X-15 emergency landing at Rosamonds Dry Lake November 4, 1959
Scott-Crossfield X-15 emergency landing at Rosamonds Dry Lake November 4, 1959

He talks to the engineers while they assemble and test the rocket plane’s components. To the flight support crews readying a converted B-52 bomber to carry the X-15 aloft and release it. To the specialists managing the flight control room while the flights are in progress. To the test pilots selected to make those first daring rocket powered flights aloft, some of which nearly cost them their lives.

A principal player in Tregaskis’ on-the-spot reporting is Scott Crossfield, a former Navy fighter pilot who was the in-house test pilot for North American Aviation. It was he who made all the early checkout flights of the X-15, including some that didn’t go so well. Though the account was written over 50 years ago, it reads with the immediacy of this morning’s newspaper. One example is when a fire broke out inside the X-15 during the first time Crossfield rode it aloft under the wing of the B-52. The following entry is in the section dated March 10, 1959 (the day of the fire):

“If he had cut loose, with the steep gliding angle of the missile-like X-15, [Crossfield] might not have been able to pick the right landing spot on the lake bed…. And of course the fire might have blown the X-15 apart before it landed….

An alternative would have been to cut loose, then eject himself from X-15, and the plane would have been wrecked on its first mission. I’m sure the proud Crossfield would never have permitted this. He said: ‘It’s a matter of professional integrity, if you please, to get it home – that’s what I’m paid for.’”

Scott Crossfield with North American Aviation X-15
Scott Crossfield with North American Aviation X-15

And there are the long-ago voices of people who witness our first attempts at human space travel, and who don’t know what is yet to come. For example, one of the young NASA fliers selected for an upcoming X-15 mission, Neil Armstrong, is given only brief mentions as a back-up pilot.

More tellingly, there’s this exchange between Tregaskis and North American Aviation chief engineer, Harrison “Stormy” Storms, recorded on March 16, 1959, two years before Alan Shepard, in a Mercury spacecraft, became the first American in space in May 1961.

“Soon Storms got around to a subject close to his heart: the possibilities of the X-15 as an orbiting vehicle…. The Air Force once – two and a half years ago – considered this possible extension of the X-15 project….The decision was negative….

‘It could have been done,’ [Storms] said, ‘and it still can. Two years would be required to build it. It would have to have a booster to get it up to speed. That could take the form of an Atlas …What we’d have to do is get 25,600 feet per second… You’ll have to supply everything for the pilot, since there’s no air and periods of no gravity, and a high range of temperatures and g-forces, but that can be done.’ ”

Harrison Storms wasn’t just speculating.  In 1957 the Air Force had solicited proposals for a manned spacecraft and Storms was notified that his X-15B would be selected. According to Encyclopedia Astronautica, “It was expected that a first manned orbital flight could be achieved 30 months after a go-ahead at a cost of $120 million.”

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But that wasn’t the direction the Air Force took.  And though the Mercury Program led to Apollo, and humans walked on the Moon, the nation’s next human-operated and airplane-shaped spacecraft that rode a rocket into space and reentered the atmosphere to transition to an unpowered flight and landing, the Space Shuttle, didn’t come along for another 20 years.

The X-15 went on to make one short of 200 test flights between 1959 and 1968 and the list of its pilots reads like a Who’s Who of spaceflight pioneers. It could soar to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, heights well above 50 miles at the very fringes of space, which it did thirteen times, earning those test pilots official “astronaut” wings. It still holds the world record for the fastest aircraft flight, a speed of 4,520 mph or Mach 6.7.

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X-15 Diary is a must-read (or must-listen) for anyone interested in the earliest days of the U.S. venture into human space travel. My only complaint is that it took me so long to discover it.

Copyright 2016 Dandelion Beach LLC Images: NASA, US Air Force, North American Aviation.  X-15 Diary: The Story of America’s First Space Ship  copyright 1961 by Richard Tregaskis

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