The outer skin of the X-15 consisted of a nickel-chrome alloy called Inconel X, employed in a heatsink structure to withstand the results of aerodynamicheating when the aircraft was flying within the atmo-sphere. The cabin was made of aluminum and wasisolated from the outer structure to keep it cool.
The first X-15 arrived at the NASA High-SpeedFlight Station in the early months of 1959, and ScottCrossfield, who had helped with the design of theaircraft, soon began the contractor demonstrationflights. During its research program, the aircraft setunofficial world speed and altitude records of 4,520mph (Mach 6.7—on Oct. 3, 1967, with Air Force pilotPete Knight at the controls) and 354,200 ft (on Aug.22, 1963, with NASA pilot Joseph Walker in thecockpit).More important than records, however, were theX-15’s probing of hypersonic aerodynamic perfor-mance and heating rates, research into structuralbehavior during high heating and high flight loads,study of hypersonic stability and control during exitfrom and reentry of the atmosphere, and examinationof pilot performance and physiology.In the course of its flight research, the X-15’spilots and instrumentation yielded data for more than765 research reports. As Dryden Chief Scientist KenIliff and his wife, aerospace research engineer MaryShafer, have written, “The aircraft returned benchmark hypersonic data for aircraft performance, stability andcontrol, materials, shock interaction, hypersonic
The X-15 was a follow-on research aircraft to theearly X-planes, which had explored the flight regimefrom just below the speed of sound (Mach 1) to Mach3.2. In 1952 the NACA had begun preliminary re-search into space flight and associated problems. Twoyears later, NACA’s Research Airplane Projects Paneldiscussed the need for a new research airplane to studyhypersonic and space flight. The NACA establishedthe characteristics of what became the X-15 andpresented them to the Air Force and Navy in July1954. The two services and NACA signed a memo-randum of understanding for the joint project in Dec.1954, and the Air Force selected North American todevelop three X-15 research aircraft in Sept.1955.A North American team headed by Chief ProjectEngineer Charles Feltz designed the aircraft, withtechnical guidance from the NACA’s Langley Aero-nautical Laboratory (later NASA’s Langley ResearchCenter) and High-Speed Flight Station (as Dryden wasthen called).Although the number two aircraft was later modified,the basic X-15 was a single-seat, mid-wing monoplanedesigned to explore the areas of high aerodynamicheating rates, stability and control, physiological phe-nomena, and other problems relating to hypersonic flight(above Mach 5). Because the Reaction Motors Divisionof Thiokol Chemical Corp. did not have the throttleableXLR-99 engine ready for the early flights of the aircraft,the X-15 initially flew with two XLR-11 engines, pro-ducing a thrust of 16,380 lb. Once the XLR-99 wasinstalled, the thrust became 57,000 lb.The X-15 used conventional aerodynamic controls forflight in the dense air of the usable atmosphere. Thecontrols consisted of rudder surfaces on the verticalstabilizers to control yaw (movement of the nose left orright) and canted horizontal surfaces on the tail to controlpitch (nose up and down) when moving in synchroniza-tion or roll when moved differentially.For flight in the thin air outside the Earth’s atmo-sphere, the X-15 used a reaction control system. Hydro-gen peroxide thrust rockets on the nose of the aircraftprovided pitch and yaw control. Those on the wingsfurnished roll control.
X-15A-2 (with ablative coating and external tanks) in which Pete Knight set the unofficial world speed record.NASA photo EC68 1899