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At the height of the Cold War during the 1960s the U.S. Air Force and NASA tested an experimental rocket-powered research aircraft code-named X-15.The X-15 experiments were conducted at Edwards Air Force Base.The X-15 aircraft set altitude and speed records by reaching the edge of outer space.The project is managed by U.S. Air Force Colonel Craig Brewster and scientist Tom Deparma. The main test pilots are Matt Powell, Colonel Lee Brandon and Major Ernest Wilde.During the test flights the X-15 aircraft is dropped from a B-52 Stratofortress mother ship before starting its engine.The whole test team is enthusiastic about the project but the project is plagued by setbacks and near disasters right from the start. Written by
Baby Boomers like me often wonder why manned space exploration seems so far behind the expectations of the 1960's. Instead of seeing humans walk on Mars, we're left with an all-but-useless space station serviced by 40-year-old Russian capsules and dangerously obsolescent American shuttles.
X-15 offers a glimpse of how things might have turned out. It's hard to believe there actually was an alternative to such dead-ends programs as Project Apollo, Skylab, and the Space Shuttle. The legendary rocketeer Werner Von Braun thought that America should enter space in stages: i.e., build a reusable orbiter, construct a large, permanent space station, and then use that platform to construct inexpensive, reusable vehicles for further exploration. Unfortunately, President John Kennedy's Race to the Moon made such a logical course of action impossible. X-15 shows, in part, how the U.S. Air Force wanted to fulfill Von Braun's vision.
The film is, for the most part, historically and technologically accurate. Few remember how exciting the X-15 rocket plane was as it left Earth's atmosphere years before the "tin cans" of Project Mercury. Despite negative claims from NASA (which coveted the millions of space research dollars going to the Air Force) a follow-up of the X-15, the X-20 Dyna Soar, might have orbited the Earth by the mid-1960's. Interestingly, the film includes cameo appearances of actual network TV correspondents who were convinced the X-15 would help America establish a permanent presence in space. A combination of factors: the urgency of Kennedy's race to the moon; the economic demands of the Viet Nam War; and reasonable fears of militarizing space killed off the Air Force's more-logical approach to earth orbit.
The film's dramatic climax, which depicts an X-15 actually orbiting the Earth, is a clear case of cinematic license. (The real X-15 was capable of sub-orbital flights only.) Nevertheless, a larger, two-man version, the X-15B, was designed by North American Rockwell, and there are many that still believe it could have achieved low earth orbit.
It's clear that director Richard Donner was given unprecedented access to the Air Force's facilities at Edwards Air Force Base/Dryden Research Center. The battle for funding with NASA was a make-or-break challenge, and the USAF clearly recognized the value of the mass media, and of providing a heroic and practical image of its X-15 program to American filmgoers. Although the film X-15 might be criticized on a number of artistic levels, it nevertheless stands as a valuable bit of early-1960's nostalgia that offers a rare glimpse into a forgotten chapter of space exploration.
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