Book Review: X-15: The World’s Fastest Rocket Plane and the Pilots Who Ushered in the Space Age

March 9th, 2014

X-15: The World’s Fastest Rocket Plane and the Pilots Who Ushered in the Space Age by John Anderson and Richard Passman; Zenith Press/Quayside Publishing Group, Minneapolis, MN.; Licensed by Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum; $30.00 (hard cover); 2014.

This account of the pioneering X-15 program (flying from 1959 into 1968) is a highly enjoyable read. The authors have written a superb book, detailing how this experimental space plane effort proved essential to mastering hypersonic aerodynamics, winged reentry from space, and gave NASA a leg up on developing the Space Shuttle decades later.

Rocketing out of the “sensible atmosphere,” the X-15 was a “need for speed” development. And as the authors note, the unique craft remains today the fastest and highest-flying piloted airplane in existence – although one does wonder about those classified craft that surely benefited by the X-15 experience.

Three X-15s were built, with the last flight taking place on October 24, 1968 – the 199th flight of the program.

The book takes the reader from the genesis of the X-15 and backing by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) – the precursor group to NASA – through nearly 200 flights by the rocket plane. The volume’s 144-pages are peppered with a striking roundup of images that showcase the X-15’s impressive run.

But more than hardware is spotlighted in this book. Winding through the pages are captivating tales of the risks and dangers of flying the X-15, manhandled by crack test pilots that included Neil Armstrong, Scott Crossfield, Joe Walker, Bill Dana, Bob White, and Joe Engle.

The book also reports on the tragic loss of Mike Adams, the only pilot to lose his life flying the X-15.

“Each of the X-15 test flights was an example of intense man-machine interaction,” the authors write, “and each of the twelve pilots who flew the X-15 were as finely tuned and technologically sophisticated as the machine itself.”

In closing words, Anderson and Passman explain that feasible hypersonic manned flight still lies ahead, “and when that happens, the X-15 will indeed be the ‘Wright Flyer’ of its kind.”

So when you walk through the halls of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, don’t forget to look up at the X-15 suspended in the Milestones of Flight Gallery – a history-making craft that nosed its way into the future.

For more information on this book, go to:

By Leonard David