Pilot Neil Armstrong and X-15 #1

Dryden pilot Neil Armstrong is seen here next to the X-15 ship #1 (56-6670) after a research flight. The X-15 was a rocket-powered aircraft 50 feet long with a wingspan of 22 feet. It was a missile-shaped vehicle with an unusual wedge-shaped vertical tail, thin stubby wings, and unique side fairings that extended along the side of the fuselage. The X-15 was flown over a period of nearly 10 years, from June 1959 to October 1968. It set the world's unofficial speed and altitude records. Information gained from the highly successful X-15 program contributed to the development of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned spaceflight programs, and also the Space Shuttle program. The X-15s made a total of 199 flights, and were manufactured by North American Aviation. X-15-1, serial number 56-6670, is now located at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. North American X-15A- 2, serial number 56-6671, is at the United States Air Force Museum, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. X-15-3, serial number 56-6672, crashed on Nov. 15, 1967, resulting in the death of Major Michael J. Adams.

On July 17, 1969, one day, eight hours, 50 minutes and 29 seconds into Apollo 11’s mission, Buzz Aldrin reported to Houston from 125,200 miles, at the speed of 4486 feet per second: “It looks like there’s some clouds just to the west of the Sierras, northeast of Bakersfield a little bit, and crossing over into the Mojave from Bakersfield looks clear. And then as you get on further to the southeast of there, there’s a few clouds.”

This past July marked the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission that made Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. the first two humans to step on the moon. Kern County’s involvement in that successful mission encompasses more than just a mention of the local weather. Some of the most important preparations for the exploration of the moon started on a dry lakebed in the Mojave Desert.

Located at the southeastern edge of Kern County, Edwards Air Force Base has served as an important test facility for the nations aerospace industry. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics High-Speed Flight Station was established in late 1946 and led the space race in the testing of atmospheric Earth and space science flight operations.

In 1963, the Dryden Flight Research Center (renamed after Armstrong in 2014) became the site for the testing of manned landings on the moon. According to the Aug. 10, 1962, Bakersfield Californian, the tests, part of Project Apollo, were set to begin “following delivery of two research vehicles to simulate lunar landing conditions” and would be used to train the astronauts assigned to the Apollo project. The idea was that the craft would “allow studies of landing two astronauts by moon ferry or lunar “bug,” from the Apollo spacecraft while a third astronaut orbits the moon in the command capsule.”

This is exactly how the Apollo 11’s mission ultimately played out.

A few years later in 1966, another notable test flight occurred when pilot John B. McKay flew an X-15 rocket plane out of Edwards at 260,000 feet to test a photometer to be used in the return maneuver by Apollo moon astronauts

Edwards also served as the sight of early preparation of one of the mission’s famous astronauts. The headline of a July 6, 1969, Californian article read “Edwards training to aid astronaut” and that astronaut was Armstrong. Armstrong had established himself as one of the nation’s greatest test pilots. Donald (Deke) Slayton, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, was the first to recommend Armstrong to lead the Apollo 11 crew. He believed Armstrong had the right stuff because of his lunar lander flight training and his experience as a civilian pilot at Edwards Air Force Base during the X-15 rocket plane flights.

Over the years, the men and women who worked out of Edwards Air Force contributed to the continuing mission of NASA’s exploration of space. These unsung heroes helped make Armstrong’s famous “one step for man, one giant leap for mankind” possible.

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