First Spaceplane

StarDate: June 8, 2009

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Spaceplanes could become a common sight over the next few years. Several companies are building craft to carry passengers into space for a few minutes before flying back to land at an airport.

The first spaceplane took flight 50 years ago today: the X-15. It was one of the most advanced machines of its time. Its flights provided valuable information about operating in space. And engineers eventually applied many of its lessons to the space shuttle.

The sleek, black X-15 was carried aloft under the wing of a B-52 bomber. For most flights, it fired its rocket engine after it was dropped, flew like a rocket as it built up speed and altitude, then used its stubby wings to glide to a landing like an airplane. But as this newsreel reported, pilot Scott Crossfield made the first test flight without the engine:

NEWSREEL: The X-15 is cut loose seven miles over the Mojave Desert to fall free and glide back to Earth, testing the stability of the most radically different aerodynamic structure ever engineered -- a craft designed to reach speeds of up to 4,000 miles an hour, to skim the upper limits of the world's blanket of air, and then to handle like a conventional plane in landing. [:22]

Over the next decade, the X-15 flew almost 200 missions. It reached a peak altitude of 67 miles, and a speed of 4500 miles an hour. Several of its pilots earned astronaut wings for flying beyond the atmosphere.

And although it was retired long ago, engineers are still applying the lessons learned with the X-15 as they design a new generation of spaceplanes.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

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