Neil Armstrong and the X-15

Posted on Tue, July 23, 2019

This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the stunning achievement of Apollo 11, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Moon. Since that time, the National Air and Space Museum has diligently collected and carefully preserved thousands of artifacts from that mission as well as all of the other flights from America’s early spaceflight programs. In honor of the historic flight of Apollo 11, the museum is exhibiting the recently conserved spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong that he wore during his time on the lunar surface. While the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia that took Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins safely to and from the Moon tours the United States, the Museum displays another Armstrong-related object proudly in our centerpiece Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall – the North American X-15.

Before Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon and before he flew on Gemini 8, he was a NASA test pilot. Armstrong enrolled in Purdue University in 1947 under the innovative Holloway Plan, which paid for the student’s education in exchange for service as an officer in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps. After two years at Purdue, Armstrong was called up by the Navy and, after completing flight school, flew 78 combat missions in Grumman F9F Panthers during the Korean War.

Neil Armstrong with X-15

NASA research pilot Neil Armstrong following a mission in the first X-15 rocket plane. Image via NASA Dryden Flight Research Center

Released from duty in mid-1952, Armstrong returned to Purdue where he earned his degree in aeronautical engineering in 1955. His love of flight and engineering drew him to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) where he was accepted as an experimental test pilot soon after his graduation. While at the NACA, which was the predecessor to NASA, Armstrong flew a wide range of different aircraft including all of the Century series fighters for which he was the project pilot. All told, Armstrong flew more than 200 different types of aircraft in his storied career.

Noted for his engineering excellence and technical capability as a pilot, Armstrong became one of only 12 pilots to fly the ultimate experimental aircraft – the North American X-15. The X-15 was a joint research program sponsored by the NACA, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, and private industry. It was designed to explore the upper limits of supersonic flight above Mach 2 and hypersonic flight beyond Mach 5.

Over the course of its extensive test program, the three X-15s built set numerous records, becoming the fastest and highest flying aircraft in the world, reaching a maximum speed of Mach 6.72 (4,534 miles per hour) on one flight and an altitude of 354,000 feet (67 miles) on another flight. These records still stand.

North American X-15 in the "Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall"

North American X-15 is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall.

Eight X-15 pilots actually flew into space in an X-15; ironically, Neil Armstrong was not one of them. Instead, he flew seven of the X-15’s 199 flights, including the first flight of X-15 #3. His fastest flight occurred in X-15 #1 – the one hanging in the Museum – when, on July 26, 1962, he reached Mach 5.74 (3,989 miles per hour). In fact, Armstrong flew hypersonically (i.e. above Mach 5) three out of his seven flights and reached a maximum altitude of 207,000 feet on his sixth flight.

Armstrong left the X-15 program in 1962 after he was accepted into the second class of NASA astronauts, bringing his extensive knowledge of engineering and hypersonic flight to further advance America’s space objectives and realize President John F. Kennedy’s call to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade.

The X-15 was one of the most successful research programs in aviation history and made significant contributions to the exploration of space. So when you visit the Museum, take a moment to see the aircraft that helped Neil Armstrong take one small step closer to the Moon and make Kennedy’s dream a reality.