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The Story of America's First Space Ship
By Richard Tregaskis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1961 Richard Tregaskis
All rights reserved.
The First Flights
February 26, 1959. With Dick Barton, from the Public Relations Department of North American Aviation, and Raun Robinson, one of the two assistant chief engineers on X-15, I went down to the West High Bay section of the factory to get my first look at the X-15.
It's a big, light, open factory bay, with two X-15s lined up in tandem. The one closest to the airfield is much farther on, constructionwise, than the other. It looks just about finished, where the other one still has the appearance of a skeleton, as if the basic structure were still being put together. These are Birds Nos. 2 and 3. Bird No. 1, the first of the three in the $121.5 million program, has already been taken (by truck) up to Edwards Air Force Base, where pretty soon it will make its first flight under the wing of a B-52 mother ship.
Bird No. 2 — the one closest to the field here in the West Bay — will be ready for its first public roll-out tomorrow, Dick Barton said. In a week or two it will probably be trucked up to Edwards.
Bird No. 2 looks very impressive — sleek, black, powerful — a missile with stubby little wings and a cockpit on top of the nose. When we came into the bay the cockpit canopy was up and a group of technicians in sports shirts clustered around that part. The canopy was being raised and lowered. One man held a flashlight so he could check something in the relative darkness when the canopy was lowered. The slit eyes of the cockpit windows are made of dark blue glass, to keep the glare of space to a minimum.
We went to the cockpit and climbed up the work ladder beside it. The plane seems very solid, sleek, and well finished. The metal of the exterior is largely Inconel X, a high nickel-steel alloy especially resistant to heat.
"Most of it is tanks," Dick said, and pointed to the middle of the ship's body. There, under the slick black surface, are the two huge tanks, in tandem, that make up most of the fuselage. They will hold 1,200 gallons of water alcohol, the fuel, and 1,000 gallons of liquid oxygen or lox, the oxidizer needed to burn it. There are other, smaller tanks, for hydrogen peroxide, helium, and nitrogen — all the gases needed to make the various systems of the bird work.
We looked into the cockpit. There is a huge aluminum brace set up as a kind of semicircle behind the head of the pilot.
"That'll hold his head if there is buffeting," Dick said.
We looked at the steel seat, which can be blown clear of the aircraft by an explosive charge if the pilot has trouble.
"The seat is the pilot's office," Dick said. "He'll stay with it, even if he ejects. He won't leave it until he's well into atmosphere."
He pointed out the metal wings that flanked the chair. "If the pilot bails, the wings will fold out and give him some stability so he won't tumble so much." I looked into the big gap behind the cockpit, an empty compartment with scores of switches set up on one wall. Raun Robinson indicated a large black box of instrumentation sitting beside it on the factory floor.
"About 400 pounds of instruments will be put into the compartment," he said. "Some will connect with the instrument panel, some will send dope to the ground." (The total weight of the instrumentation in various compartments is 1,300 pounds.)
He took me around to one of the stubby little wings and pointed out a kind of grid pattern of holes in the lower side of the black surface.
"These taps are for pressure," he said. And Barton explained that this is a research aircraft, that the main purpose of it is to explore the close reaches of space, so there are 790 taps on it to record temperature and pressure.
We stopped at the nose, a solid-feeling cone of black metal. Raun said: "It's a heat sink. It'll soak up the heat of re-entry." He explained that the heat here would get up as high as 1,200°, depending on how fast the bird is flying when it comes back into atmosphere. Some other parts of the bird, the belly and the underside of the wing, will get nearly as hot as the nose — that is, if it comes back into atmosphere in the proper attitude, nose down. But if something goes wrong with the space controls and it re-enters upside down, or tumbling, lots of the other parts are going to get excessively heated. "If that should happen, the pilot'll be in plenty bad trouble," Dick Barton said.
I asked Dick about the reason for painting the ship black. I'd heard that black paint was supposed to emit more of the re-entry heat than a white color. The engineers have a fancy word for this. They call it high emissivity.
The early aircraft in our Air Force series of rocket planes were painted for visibility in light colors like the light orange of the X-1 in which Captain (now Lieutenant Colonel) Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in 1947. But the engineers on X-15, confrontedwith more outer skin heating than ever before, wanted a paint which would give off a maximum of the ship's heat as it hit atmosphere at high speed. They had the answer after heat-chamber tests. [Paul F. Bikle, director of the NASA facility at Edwards Air Force Base, points out that black generally has better emissivity, and that the X-15 was also painted black to provide a uniform color over the materials of various colors in the structure, thus giving a minimum of temperature differences.]
February 27. Today was the time for roll-out of Bird No. 2. A bright, clear, warm morning. On the smooth concrete expanse outside the West High Bay Barton and I saw a knot of men and women gathered around the bird. The bird, even in the sunlight, has a sinister look about it — that slick, black body with the two bulges (side tunnels) like muscles along its flanks, the nose as sharp as a mosquito's. It's as sinister as a mosquito would be if the mosquito weighed sixteen tons and had the horsepower of the Queen Mary, and carried a man on its back.
Beside the X-15, this morning, sat the big metal mass of the ejection seat. It had been taken out of the cockpit area, and blinds hung up inside the cockpit to mask it from rubbernecks. Some of the stuff inside is still, apparently, on the classified list — although Newsweek magazine has already printed a photograph of the supposedly secret instrument panel, the one with the stable-platform (gyro) gauges on it. As in a war, there's always an officious type who hasn't the correct word about what is or isn't on the secret list.
Near the ejection seat stood a man hi the Silver Suit — the Air Force calls it MC-2 — which the pilots lined up to fly the X-15 will wear. The man in the suit today was not a pilot, but Rex Martin, a technician from North America's Human Factors Department, demonstrating the equipment. The people gathered around the X-15 were stockholders, Dick Barton said. Most of them were men, middle-aged or older, wearing business suits, quite formal for the bright Los Angeles sun. A company guide was answering questions.
"How many men will be in it?" one youngish woman wanted to know.
"One man," said the guide, poker-faced.
The guide moved to the ejection seat, a formidable pillar of metal — gray steel, with convolutions of tubing and wiring twined through the mass of it.
"Unfortunately we can't show you the cockpit," the guide said. "There are some classified things in it. This is the ejection seat." He pointed to the heavy planes of metal, like wings, which were folded up beside the flanks of the steel chair.
"These guide wings come out to avoid tumbling," he said.
There was a pause, a silence. "Because he has a long way to fall," he went on. He pointed out the steel ankle straps that extend automatically to protect the pilot's legs if he has to eject.
"Does he have a chute?" a well-dressed, middle-aged man asked.
"Yes." A nervous titter ran through the crowd, and the man reproached the guide: "You didn't say anything about it."
"An aneroid pulls out the chute at 15,000 feet," the guide went on. "It opens automatically in case he should be unconscious."
Again there was a silence. The stockholders seemed ill at ease in the presence of this space ship, the first rocket ship ever built by North American, also the company's first creature of pure science.
An elderly woman, standing between me and the ejection seat, pointed to that complicated mass.
"My, isn't that an intricate thing," she said to me.
I agreed while the head guide was saying: "If you will break into smaller groups, the hosts will answer questions."
One stockholder pointed to the man in the Silver Suit, and asked the guide as the group began to drift apart:
"Is that the suit the pilot will be wearing?"
"Yes. He can tell you about it." The stockholder walked toward the silver-suited Martin and I tagged along with him.
Martin looked warm. He was not wearing the helmet and beads of sweat stood on his forehead, even though the air-conditioning system of the suit was working; I could hear the hissing of the ventilating nitrogen gas from the rubber tube ends that projected from his circular collar. I was asking how many layers of cloth there are under the outer envelope of flexible aluminum, when another company employee came bustling up.
"What authority do you have to make notes on this?" he asked me. "The suit is classified."
I explained that I was writing a book about the X-15 and this was part of the job. I pointed out that the other people here were also looking at the suit.
"Yes, but you're making notes," he said, scandalized.
Barton came to my rescue, pacified the self-appointed intelligence agent, and explained to me that certain things about the suit — such as the number of layers and how they are fashioned underneath — are on the secret list.
The theory, I know, is that the suit, which will be the working garb of our first space man, may have some features the Russians might be able to use when they send men into space. The pretext for censorship is that the Russians, if they knew about it, might be able to make some military use of the space suit.
That's the theory, but I doubt its validity. Ever since the beginning of the Space Age, when the Russians fired Sputnik I into orbit on October 4, 1957, there have been repeated reminders that we'd have reason to copy the Russians rather than vice versa.
I was miffed by this first bout with security on the X-15 project, but Barton changed the subject by introducing me to a neat, rather stubby man standing nearby. He was A1 White, the company back-up pilot, assigned to the X-15. The first company test pilot, Scott Crossfield, wasn't here today.
White seemed serious, thoughtful, and engaging. Barton explained that besides being the company back-up pilot on the X-15, White was also the first pilot on the B-70, the 2,000-mile-an-hour bomber North American is building behind veils of secrecy.
Neither White nor Crossfield will make any of the X-15 flights to record altitudes and speeds, Dick said. Those will be reserved for Air Force and NASA pilots. The company pilots will have the job of demonstrating that the ship is flyable and its various complicated systems workable.
I asked White what was the most immediate worry in testing the X-15. He said: "The landing — because Scott [Crossfield] won't know about it until he does it. Once he's in, he'll know it can be done."
White said the landing speed is pretty hot — about 180 knots, which translates to 212 miles an hour. With its tiny wings, the X-15 isn't exactly built for a comfortable kind of landing. White pointed out the landing skids, two steel skis that fold down beneath the tail to provide main gear. There is also a nose gear of two rubber-tired wheels.
"That first time," White said, "we'll know. She'll just be in and she'll be down." He didn't say what I suppose must be on his mind: that the engineers could assert the plane was landable, but that nobody could be sure until a test pilot had done it. No matter how good a ship is theoretically, how many times it can be attested with a slip-stick or on paper, there always is a time when it must prove it can, in fact, fly. The test pilot is like a soldier in the field: no matter how enthusiastic the scientists are about a weapon in the laboratory, unforeseen difficulties always develop in combat use, and the soldier's life or death depends on how serious the difficulties are.
I asked White what the biggest over-all worry will be after the X-15 has been over the hurdle of the first landing.
"Re-entry," he said without hesitation. "When you cut loose from the B-52 [the mother ship which will carry the X-15 up to launch altitude], you have to choose your angle of attack. If the angle is too steep, you'll come in too fast and you could burn up from reentry heat when you hit atmosphere, because you'll be coming down at the same angle as going up. If it's 45° going up, you'll be coming down at 45."
That, he explained, was what they meant by the ballistic curve of the X-15 flight. Like an artillery shell, the X-15 will have power only at the first stage of the flight. Then it will arc up and back like a shell — just as the curve of the artillery projectile depends on the angle of the barrel when the gun is fired.
An elderly stockholder had been listening in and blinking at A1 through his bifocals. "Will the plane be out of control, then?" he asked, his eyes bugging.
"Well, the pilot has to select his angle of attack," A1 said. "Naturally, he wouldn't go straight up. If he did, he'd come straight down and burn up. He'd buy the farm."
It was refreshing to hear the old RAF slang for being killed — which had seeped into our American pilot language during World War II. Refreshing, that is, to hear the possibility of death phrased with such candor and intimacy.
I asked A1 about the reaction controls, the small rocket jets in the nose and wings which are supposed to give the pilot the power of changing the attitude of the X-15 during the ballistic phase of its flight. They can't alter the curve of the flight itself, but they can theoretically trim the plane so that it will stay upright over the curve — and so it won't be entering atmosphere upside down when it comes back from space.
"They've never been tried before in space," A1 said soberly. "They had some small ones on the X-1B [the X-1B was a modification of the early rocket plane, X1, which first broke the sound barrier]. But they didn't have the power to get up there where the controls could be tested in thin air — so they had to simulate space conditions by flying at less dynamic pressure — slower speed at lower altitude. But it didn't work out."
White came back to one of the favorite themes of test pilots: that sometime, in the ultimate, a man has to take it up and fly it. "It's one thing to fly the simulator," he said, meaning the ground-based mockup of the X-15 in which pilots can make imitation flights through the use of a roomful of electronic calculators. "But you really don't know till you fly it."
March 9. The first flight of the X-15 is scheduled for tomorrow. It'll be a captive flight — i.e., the X-15 will stay attached to the wing of the mother ship B52 — to check out some of the systems.
I had tried to set up a place on the North American ferry plane that will carry some engineers up to Edwards for the flight. But Earl Blount, the public-relations chief at the aircraft company, said there were no places available — every seat was taken and there was a waiting list among the engineers.
So I set out to drive up. The road is one of the noble highways that abound in California, a smooth ribbon winding through the rugged brown San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles to the Mojave Desert.
Edwards Air Force Base is a collection of big bare buildings in a big bare wasteland. It isn't completely a wasteland, since the dry lake beds of the Edwards vicinity make ideal natural landing fields for hot military planes and rocket ships of the X-1, X-2, and X-15 ilk. Such fast birds characteristically need plenty of runway space for their landing — the rocket ships especially, since they always have to make glide landings, their power always spent in the first few minutes of the flight. Hence the Air Force Flight Test Center and the corresponding facility of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) have been installed here; also the civilian contractors concerned, such aircraft firms as Douglas, Convair, North American, and Lockheed.
Excerpted from X-15 Diary by Richard Tregaskis. Copyright © 1961 Richard Tregaskis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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