July 27, 1962
Long before the first astronaut soared into orbit, test pilots had been tantalized by the dark vaulting dome of purple sky where space begins about 50 miles above the earth. As planes flew higher and higher, it often seemed just out of reach—an unknown vastness that dared venturesome flyers to penetrate it. Last week the nation's newest spaceman took the dare.
Air Force Major Robert White piloted a black needle-nosed X-15 rocket plane to an altitude of 59.6 miles—the highest man has ever flown in a winged aircraft, and a respectable second to the hundred-mile-high orbits of U.S. and Soviet astronauts. "For the first time," said Test Pilot White, 38, "it seemed as though I was up in this dark blue sky, instead of looking up at it." Like the astronauts before him, he was overwhelmed by the "fantastic view."
White's record-breaking flight over California's Mojave Desert (highest previous flight: 47 miles) made him the fifth man to receive NASA's pilot-astronaut badge, awarded to those "qualified to operate or control a powered vehicle in flight 50 miles above the earth." But White is the only man to have won the badge in an airplane rather than a Mercury-caosule, and he took full advantage of the X-15's greater flexibility. Though the X-15 was programmed for 80 seconds of powered flight after it broke loose from the B57 that carried it to 45,000 ft., White held the throttle open one additional second. This brief extra burst added 284 m.p.h. to his speed—which reached 3,784 m.p.h. —and six miles to his maximum altitude, disrupting the carefully planned flight pattern. But since he was flying an airplane rather than a capsule, the remedy was simple. White simply maneuvered the X-15 back on course, and made a perfect touchdown practically atop the magenta-smoke landing marker on California's Rogers Dry Lake. He emerged from the plane to greet his seven-year-old son trailing his air-conditioning tube behind him like an umbilical cord....
... New Mystery.
After the sky-stabbing record flight last week, four Xis pilots —White. Walker, North American's Scott Crossfield and Navy Commander Forrest Petersen—journeyed to Washington, where President Kennedy gave them the Robert J. Collier Trophy, presented annually since 1911 for outstanding achievement in flight. But for White and his fellow X-15 pilots, the greatest reward for their work is the satisfaction of probing the mysteries inside the sky. In last week's flight Bob White found a new mystery for scientists to puzzle over: through the X-15's thick left quartz window, he saw a strange sight. "There are things out there," he said dramatically over his voice radio. "There absolutely is." As White later described one "thing": "It looked like a piece of paper the size of my hand tumbling slowly outside the plane. It was greyish in color, and about 30 to 40 feet away. I haven't any idea what it could be."