Little Bits of History

First American in Space

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 22, 2014
Joe Walker

Joe Walker

August 22, 1963: Joe Walker pilots an experimental X-15 rocket powered aircraft. Walker was born in Pennsylvania in 1921. He graduated from Washington and Jefferson College in 1942 with a degree in physics. He joined the United States Army Air Force during World War II. During the war he piloted both the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter and the F-5A photo aircraft (used for weather reconnaissance flights). He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross once and the Air Medal with seven oak leaf clusters. After the war, he left the army and went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio. While there, he became a test pilot.

He transferred to the High-Speed Flight Research Station in Edwards, California in 1951 and worked there for 15 years. Today, the facility is known as the Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center. Just a few years after arriving, Walker was a Chief Research Pilot and worked on several different projects. He flew three versions of the Bell X-1 and on one of those flights, disaster struck. The rocket aircraft was damaged in an explosion just before being launched from the JTB-29A mothership. Walker was uninjured and made it back safely to the mothership. Undaunted, he continued to fly several other prototype/research aircraft.

In 1958, Walker was one of the men selected for the US Air Force’s Man In Space Soonest (MISS) project. Nothing came of it. Instead, the NACA became NASA and in 1960 Walker became the first NASA pilot to fly an X-15 and the second overall with only the manufacturer’s test pilot having flown one prior to Walker’s flight. Walker did not know how much power the rocket held and the G-forces pushed him back into his seat. He would go on 24 flights in the craft and flew the two times the X-15 broke the 100 km (62 mile) altitude barrier. He was the first American civilian to make a spaceflight, and the second civilian overall. With his second 62+ mile trip, he was the first human to man multiple spaceflights.

On June 8, 1966 Walker was killed while flying in formation for a General Electric publicity photo. He was flying an F-104 Starfighter and was unable to see another plane in the formation, a North American XB-70 Valkyrie. Unable to visualize the nearby planes, it is assumed Walker was holding his position by sighting on the forward XB-70. The F-104 drifted into contact with the XB-70’s right wingtip. Walker’s plane flipped over and struck the second plane’s vertical stabilizers. Carl Cross, the second pilot, was also killed. An investigation into the accident acknowledged Walker’s inability to see the near plane and adjust position. Since the flights had been unauthorized, several Air Force colonels lost their careers.

It is not enough to just ride the earth. You have to aim higher, try to take off, even fly. It is our duty. – Jose Yacopi

I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things. – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Aeronautics was neither an industry nor a science. It was a miracle. – Igo Ivan Sikorsky

To most people, the sky is the limit. To those who love aviation, the sky is home. – Jerry Crawford

Also on this day: “Excuse My Dust” – In 1893, Dorothy Parker is born.
The Temperature at which Paper Burns – In 1920, Ray Bradbury was born.
America’s Cup – In 1851, the first America’s Cup race is run.
Monsters – In 565, St. Columba turns away the Loch Ness Monster.

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