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The First Reusable Spacecraft: The Origins & First Test Flights of the X-15

10 Mar 2019, 14:11 UTC
The First Reusable Spacecraft: The Origins & First Test Flights of the X-15
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Ask the typical space enthusiast to name the first reusable piloted spacecraft and the most likely answer would be NASA’s Space Shuttle. While the Space Shuttle’s external tank was discarded on each mission, its pair of solid rocket boosters as well as the highly complex and expensive orbiter (the actual “spacecraft”) were certainly reusable. But the Space Shuttle was not the first piloted spacecraft that could be flown over and over. Nor was some little known piece of Soviet engineering genius from decades ago. The honor belongs to the grandfather of all modern aerospace planes, the X-15 built by North American Aviation (which, after decades of corporate mergers, is now part of Boeing).
Three views of the North American X-15. Click on image to enlarge. (NASA)
While the X-15 is certainly the most famous of all the X-series aircraft, the fact that it flew high enough on no less than 13 occasions to qualify its pilots for USAF astronaut wings while the Mercury and Gemini programs came and went is frequently overlooked. Even in many “official” counts of American manned space missions, the suborbital X-15 flights are notably absent. This despite the fact that eight NASA and USAF pilots earned ...

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