North American X-15 Rocket-Powered Aircraft NASA
Photo credit: NASA
North American X-15, a hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft operated by the United States Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is the fastest yet, setting numerous speed as well as altitude records in the 1960s. It reached the edge of outer space and returnied with valuable data used in aircraft and spacecraft design today. It set the official world record for the highest speed ever recorded by a crewed, powered aircraft, set in October 1967 when William J. Knight flew at Mach 6.70 (4,520 mph) at 102,100 feet. Read more for a video and additional information.

When the program was complete, the X-15 flew 199-times officially, and on Oct. 3, 1967, but the most valuable asset was the data that researchers learned about operating craft at high speeds and altitudes. Its thick wedge tail enabled the aircraft to fly in a steady manner at hypersonic speeds, since it help produce a significant amount of base drag at lower speeds.

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The fallout was far-reaching in numerous crucial areas. The X-15’s survival encouraged extensive use of comparatively exotic alloys, such as titanium and Inconel-X, which led to machining and production techniques that became standard in the aerospace industry. (T)he chance of accidental loss of pressurization…prompted development of the first practical full-pressure suit for pilot protection in space. The X-15 was the first to use reaction controls for attitude control in space; re-entry techniques and related technology also contributed to the space program, and even earth science experiments were carried out by the X-15 in some of its flights,” said Dr. Roger Bilstein.