Watching SpaceShipOne reminded me of a schoolboy crush I had on a rocketplane from the 1960′s.
I grew up watching the Apollo flights to the Moon, but when I was able to read and haunt the school library, I learned about the X-15, the rocket-powered space plane NASA flew out of Edwards Air Force Base during the 1960′s.
The X-15 came straight out of science fiction (remember, the Shuttle didn’t fly until I started high school) a sleek black plane with a rocket motor that flew to the edge of space and glided back to earth instead of a scorched capsule splashing into the ocean with half a naval task force chasing it.
Flying to the Moon was a hell of a feat, and it’s no surprise NASA chose Neil Armstrong for the first landing, he’d already distinguished himself as a pilot flying the X-15 and Gemini. But to me, even if landing on the Moon was amazing, flying a space plane was cool.
The X-15 still holds the unofficial altitude record for aircraft: 108 kilometers. SpaceShipOne barely broached 100 kilometers when it flew Monday morning.
The black dart remains part of California culture and politics. Before the late state senator Pete Knight campaigned to write discrimination into the California Constitution, he became the fastest pilot on Earth, flying an X-15 to Mach 6.7.
In 1961 Richard Donner made a movie about the X-15 with Charles Bronson as the perfect pilot, Mary Tyler Moore as the perfect pilot’s wife, and Jimmy Stewart as the narrator (in USAF uniform.)
The Right Stuff, from 1983, remains the better movie about test pilots and astronauts, even it doesn’t have X-15′s.
Eleven years later, Shôji Kawamori, and Shinichirô Watanabe revisited the test pilot mythology in Macross Plus where the colony world of New Eden looked like California from the giant hangers at the “New Dryden Flight Test Center”, the ranks of wind turbines in the mountains, to a barely disguised Fisherman’s Wharf ‘ship’s wheel’ sign. They mixed the test pilot story with Top Gun. Two pilots compete over a military contract for a next generation mecha, and for the affections of their high school sweetheart.
And seeing that we’re back to thinking about our old crushes, I’ll finish.
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