- Press Release
- Sep 27, 2022
NASA Honors High Flying X-15 Space Pioneers With Astronaut Wings
NASA awarded astronaut wings today to three 1960’s-era test pilots. The pilots were never recognized for going beyond the atmosphere and into space flying the X-15 experimental aircraft.
Retired NASA pilot Bill Dana, and family members representing agency deceased pilots John McKay and Joseph Walker, received the civilian astronaut wings. The wings acknowledged the fact the pilots flew the X-15 at altitudes of 50 miles or higher.
The men were honored in a ceremony at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., site of their achievements. Dana was philosophical about it; “NASA pilots didn’t wear wings anyway, and the concept of winning special wings was probably more crucial to a military pilot’s career ladder,” he explained.
During the turbulent era of 1960’s Cold War confrontations, the moon race and war in Southeast Asia, eight test pilots quietly flew the radical X-15 rocket plane out of the atmosphere and into the record books, earning astronaut status. However, only the military aviators received astronaut wings, because NASA, a civilian agency, had no badge to award to agency pilots.
Dana’s first space flight took him 58.13 miles above the Mojave Desert on Nov. 1, 1966. He tried to collect micrometeorite samples, while learning about issues of sky brightness.
Walker’s third X-15 foray into space claimed the unofficial world altitude record of 354,200 feet (67.08 miles) on Aug. 22, 1963. Walker’s unofficial record was the highest altitude flown by the X-15. McKay reached 295,600 feet (55.98 miles) on Sept. 28, 1965.
The X-15 program used three piloted hypersonic rocket planes to fly nearly seven times the speed of sound. Volumes of test data from 199 X-15 missions helped shape the successful Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle human spaceflight programs.
Retired X-15s are displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington and the Air Force Museum, Dayton, Ohio.
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