The incredible capabilities of the X-15 were illustrated in the recent film First Man – the biopic about astronaut Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Dr Kevin Wright examines the rocket-powered aircraft and the test work it was involved in.
The dramatic start to the film First Man shows the exceptional capabilities of the North American X-15 and the challenges of piloting the aircraft. It portrays Neil Armstrong in a potentially catastrophic situation during a flight on April 20, 1962 which in part was intended to test X-15-3’s MH-96 Adaptive Control System. Having accelerated to 3,789mph (6,098km/h) and with the fuel expended, he commenced an unpowered descent from 207,500ft. On the way down he gradually raised the nose to increase the g-force so it would activate the 5g limiting device under test. At 140,000ft he was directed by the ground controller to make a right turn as he had overshot the assigned landing site, however the aerodynamic controls were ineffective at that altitude. The ground controller stated: “Neil, you’re bouncing off the atmosphere.”The X-15 started to climb, and to induce a descent Armstrong fired the Reaction Control System (RCS/hydrogen peroxide jets, also known as puffer jets) three times which put the aircraft onto its right side.