A Look at NASA's Fabled X-Planes

  • Originally known as the XS-1 (the “S” stood for supersonic), the famed Bell X-1 made its first flight in 1946, then broke the sound barrier in ‘47. Nicknamed Glamorous Glennis by pilot Chuck Yeager, it hit 700 mph at 45,000 feet. The event was historic because scientists and engineers at the time believed that sound waves would become severe and unpredictable at Mach 1. No aircraft, they said, could survive them. As described in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, test pilots of the era demanded bonuses of up to $150,000 just for attempting the feat. Yeager, however, lit up the record books and broke the so-called barrier on October 14, 1947, for his captain’s pay of $283 a month.
    (Source: NASA)

  • Arguably the most successful vehicle in the 70-year history of X-planes, the X-15 first flew in 1959. The idea was to build a Mach-5+ flight vehicle, with the possibility of flying outside the accepted atmosphere. It made 177 flights, hitting an altitude of 354,200 feet. It successfully demonstrated a large rocket engine, special heat sink technology, and advanced adaptive control system.
    (Source: Wikipedia/NASA)

  • Conceived during the 1980s, the X-30 was considered by some to be the ultimate boondoggle and by others, the most ambitious experimental engineering proposal in the history of man. Known also as the National Aerospace Plane, the X-30 was an aircraft that was supposed to fly into space without the conventional thunderous belches of flame and smoke, and without dropping booster rockets one-by-one into the ocean. It was supposed to fly 25 times the speed of sound. By 1990, the project employed more than a thousand engineers at five major companies and two government agencies and was chewing up nearly half of the country’s supercomputer time. Because the plane’s engine inlet temperatures were expected to hit 20,000 degrees, the X-30 served as a test bed for new composite materials and “slush hydrogen” coolant. “When it flies, it will be like a fireball travelling through the sky,” predicted one X-30 engineer. “It will look almost like the sun flying overhead.” Unfortunately, the X-30 never flew, falling victim instead to government budget cuts in 1993.
    (Source: NASA)

  • Built by Martin Marietta Corp., the X-24 made its first flight in 1969. Historically, it was important because it demonstrated the lifting body concepts later employed by the Space Shuttle. Essentially, it gave pilots the ability to safely land wingless vehicles during missions from space back to Earth.
    (Source: NASA)

  • The unmanned X-43, which first flew in 2001, sought to overcome one of the greatest aeronautical research challenges -- achieving air-breathing hypersonic flight. It set several airspeed records for jet-propelled aircraft, including the fastest aircraft on record at approximately Mach 9.6 (7,310 mph).
    (Source: NASA)

  • The X-35, which made 27 flights after October 2000, demonstrated a number of groundbreaking concepts. Those included vertical takeoff, short takeoff, vertical hover, and landing. It was also the first modern aircraft to replace head-up displays with helmet-mounted displays. Designed to replace the US Air Force’s aging F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-1 Thunderbolt II, the X-35 eventually went on to production.
    (Source: Wikipedia/NASA)

  • Conceived in the 1940s as a research aircraft for transonic and supersonic flight, the D558 included three phases: a jet-powered airplane; a mixed jet/rocket configuration; and a combat version. Also known as the Douglas Skystreak, it reached Mach 0.99 in level flight and only went supersonic in a dive. It was later eclipsed in the public’s mind by Chuck Yeager and the X-1, which was the first to break the sound barrier.
    (Source: Wikipedia/NASA)

  • NACA, D558

    In June, NASA announced it would put the X-57 experimental aircraft in the air by 2018. Powered by lithium-ion batteries, the X-57 will use14 electric motors to propel itself at speeds up to 175 mph.
    (Source: NASA)

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's fabled X-plane series gained a new family member in June, when the agency announced it would put an electric airplane in the air by 2018.

For NASA buffs, it was big news. The historic experimental X-plane series has been shaking the foundation of aerospace technology since the announcement of the legendary X-1, which broke the sound barrier in 1947.

Here, we offer a peek at some of NASA's greatest, from Chuck Yeager's X-1 to the hypersonic X-15 to the abandoned X-30 and beyond.

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 32 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

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