It has been well over a year since I last posted here, but I haven’t been idle during that time and now I can finally discuss what I’ve been doing. I’ve spent the last eighteen months or so researching and writing my first book. Beyond Blue Skies: The Rocket Plane Programs That Led to the Space Age is due for publication in Fall 2020 on the University of Nebraska Press as part of their highly respected Outward Odyssey series.
In Beyond Blue Skies, I take a look at the various rocket plane programs that took place out at Edwards AFB (formerly Muroc AAF) between 1946 and 1975. This period saw the envelope of powered flight extended from subsonic to hypersonic (Mach 5+) velocities, and up to extreme altitudes in excess of sixty miles – the lower reaches of space. During this time, the succession of research aircraft programmes helped to build the skills necessary for the United States to contemplate piloted space vehicles.
My own journey with these X Planes began when I was only five or six years old. Already fascinated by aviation and spaceflight (I was born during the latter stages of the Apollo program, so the afterglow of the moon landings was still very much part of popular culture during my early years), I remember my grandfather bringing a children’s book back from a trip to the United States during the bicentennial celebrations in 1976. I seem to recall that he had bought the book at the newly opened National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC, but the important thing for me was that it featured an illustration of the X-15 soaring above the Earth – an aircraft that could fly into space! Something clicked in my young mind as the previously separate worlds of aviation and spaceflight suddenly fused together, and a lifelong fascination with spaceplanes began.
Soon I was reading everything I could on the subject, but unfortunately my local library didn’t cater for the junior aerospace enthusiast too well. Undeterred, I turned to National Geographic magazine, tracking down back issues with features on the X-15 and related programs and persuading my mum to photocopy these for me whilst at work. When I went into a local toy shop and found they had three of the Heller X-15 kits, I bought the lot with my meagre savings (at the time I didn’t know that there had been three X-15s manufactured).
Whilst my research spread back to the X-1 and forward to the lifting bodies, the age of the Space Shuttle was approaching – albeit not quite as quickly as any of us hoped. Having watched reports of the ALT tests during the late Seventies, it seemed like an age before the system was finally ready to make its first orbital flight. Finally in April 1981, I was able to watch the launch of STS-1 on the twentieth anniversary of Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight. As John Young and Bob Crippen brought Columbia home from orbit two days later, I was ready to talk my family through the event, explaining the significance of the dusty High Desert lakebed where they would land.
Edwards AFB was already something of a mecca to me; home to the X Planes, to Yeager and Crossfield and the iconic Joshua Trees that looked so alien to me as a kid growing up in the North East of England. Looking through my brother’s copy of the Guinness Book of World records I had memorised details of the aircraft and pilots who had flown over this parched landscape, setting new speed and altitude marks through the years (although these records were often unofficial). Names like Pete Everest, Milburn Apt, Bob White and Joe Walker stuck in my mind as subjects for further research.
Gradually I was able to find books that covered the golden age of the research aircraft. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff introduced me to many aspects of life out in the western Mojave Desert during the early days of supersonic flight, but as I progressed through my teenage years I was able to find and – more or less – understand more technical books on the subject of high-speed flight. In that pre-internet age, information was not always easy to come by and it was many years before I tracked down a copy of Jay Miller’s excellent X Planes book. When Milt Thompson’s account of the X-15 program, At The Edge of Space, was released in the early 1990s I was finally able to get a really good look inside the programme that had fascinated me for so many years. Thompson introduced me to the people and the places, the realities of being involved in an exacting research programme as well as the character of NASA’s Flight Research Center, located within Edwards on the shore of Rogers Dry Lake. As my library of spaceflight and aviation books grew, my interests widened to cover the space race in general as well as the ongoing planetary missions that would crop up on news broadcasts.
When other priorities took more of my time during my twenties and thirties, my interest in aerospace took a back seat but never truly waned, and as more and more information became available via the internet I soon found myself drawn back towards my earlier fascinations, this time approaching the subject with a more formal historical interest as I sought to uncover the ‘Whys and Hows’ that lay behind the exploits that had so captured my imagination as a child.
The internet, together with an increase in my disposable income, now allowed me to track down books by authors such as Hallion, Jenkins and Peebles to mention but a few. As my understanding of not only the events, but also of the context in which they took place developed, I found myself wanting to use the knowledge that was now filling up my mind. I started to become active on social media and this blog soon followed. It took me a while to find my voice and decide how I wanted share my interest, and my early posts show this. I’ve never deleted them although I know they are in many cases lacking in detail or fail to explain their subjects in a balanced way. Some contain errors which I should really fix, and in time I hope I can work backwards and revise many of the articles, but eventually I was able to build a clearer idea of what I wanted to achieve. In part I was inspired by this article by space historian David Portree, which really resonated and made me take a look at how I wanted to approach things and, just as importantly, what I didn’t want my contributions to be.
Gaining confidence as a writer, I began to wonder whether I might be able to produce a more in-depth examination of my area of interest. Fortuitously, this coincided with my first meeting with my now good friend Erik Reedy. Erik’s grandfather Jerry had worked out at the NASA Flight Research Center for the majority of his career, and as Erik shared some of his grandfather’s stories and items from Jerry’s collection, I began to understand that there was a wider story to tell around the rocket plane years at Edwards.
Where previous books had concentrated on individual programmes, offering in-depth technical and operational histories, there seemed to be few accounts of the period as a whole. Furthermore, whilst some of the social history of these programmes had been recorded in a series of oral history interviews, much of the public perception of the era has been shaped by The Right Stuff, or the memoirs of some of the higher profile test pilots. Having read many of these, I was all too aware that whilst they may be compelling and entertaining to read, they make for poor history books.
And so I set out on a journey to write an account of the rocket plane era, not just explaining the remit behind each of the programmes and the operational challenges they faced, but also trying to capture something of the nature of the place and the people who worked so tirelessly to keep the aircraft flying. As I began to develop this narrative, it became clear to me that there had been a definite evolutionary line running through these programmes, with each successive vehicle pushing higher and faster than the last in search of new knowledge. Many of the key components of NASA’s nascent human spaceflight programmes of the early 1960s were built directly on the experience and competence developed out in the High Desert during the preceding decade, from tracking and telemetry through to practical pressure suits. Key personnel involved in NASA’s tentative steps into orbit and then onwards to the Moon had cut there teeth on the research plane programmes, indeed one of the early X-15 pilots would go on to become perhaps the most famous space traveller of them all – Neil Armstrong.
Through my research, I was lucky enough to travel out to Edwards AFB and meet with current custodians of the site’s history, both on the NASA and Air Force sides. As I began digging through countless flight reports, technical memorandums, magazine articles and oral histories, I was also lucky enough to interview some of the individuals who had spent their careers working on the rocket planes.
In speaking to aeronautical engineers, flight planners, crew chiefs and technicians, I was able to find the context and detail I knew would be vital to create a compelling account of the three-decade period from the X-1’s arrival at Muroc AAF in 1946, through to the final rocket powered flight of the X-24B lifting body in 1975. Along the way I unearthed details which challenged my prior understanding of events, but all the while strengthened my admiration for the cadre of pilots, engineers, computers and technicians who helped push back the boundaries of flight until winged vehicles were able to reach beyond the atmosphere and fly into space itself.
I hope the resulting book helps in some small way to build an appreciation for these people and for what they achieved. Although the narrative does look back at this golden age of flight research with a certain degree of nostalgia, I am left with the belief that the story is not finished yet, and that the work undertaken by pioneers such as Ezra Kotcher, John Becker, Dale Reed and Alfred Draper during this period will go on to inform the design of a new generation of vehicles, offering routine access to low earth orbit and beyond.
I hope you will enjoy the journey as much as I have.
Beyond Blue Skies: The Rocket Plane Programs That Led to the Space Age can be pre-ordered via the University of Nebraska Press here.
The book is scheduled for publication in November 2020