Pushing the Envelope


There is a phrase associated with the line I am in, "Pushing the Envelope". It means that you always have to be flying higher, and faster, always breaking records, and it is of course always dangerous.

In the eyes of the public my job was less glamorous than being one of the new "Astronauts" who were being trained (on both sides of the Iron Curtain) to ride rockets into space itself. We were sometimes referred to in the press as the “poor cousins” to the rocket program. Which just goes to prove how wrong the press can be. In effect more money was being spent on the type of aircraft development that I was involved in than on the “space program”. To anyone in the military it was obvious that rockets that could reach space would be of far less use in a real war than fast, high flying aircraft.

Unmanned rockets had reached space with the first Russian sputnik, but these were generally regarded by most test pilots to be a different kettle of fish to a genuine airplane with a genuine pilot on board. Even the planned manned space shots were just that in the opinion of many of us, more like being shot out of a cannon than actually flying anything. Most of the top brass saw more potential in spy satellites and communications satellites than in putting a man in space, but there was much more public acceptance in trying to beat the soviets into space with a living person, especially since they had beaten us at putting the first satellite in orbit with sputnik one in 1959.

The press made a lot of the “space race” between us and the Soviets, but anyone in the know knew that if we had been really trying we could have had a man in space at least five years ago, and so could the Soviets. The goals of the Soviets in terms of space flight seemed to be much the same as ours from a military viewpoint, essentially concentrating on the development of ever improving surveillance and communications systems.

The rocket engine we were using in the latest version of the X15 was similar to the one that they were experimenting with at the long range missile proving ground at El Centro, as the second stage in the new two-stage launch vehicle. The vital difference though, as far a we were concerned, was that we were flying an aircraft rather than just sitting in a tin can waiting for it to decide whether or not to blow up.

Of course it was still dangerous, during the ground firing tests at the beginning of the program one of my colleagues had been injured when a valve had stuck and an engine blew up. But things like that wouldn’t stop us, being a test pilot you always know there are risks, everyone tries their best to minimize them, but they are always still there.

My last flight wasn’t an exception. We knew we were running the new plane, the X15B, beyond what we had done in the first 3 X15’s, but its design had been specifically modified to enable it to reach speeds beyond mach 8, and the first two test flights with it had more than convinced me that it was capable of exceeding the mach 6.72 record of the previous versions.

The flight had started well with a perfect separation from the B52. After climbing clear of the mothership I throttled up as planned and quickly notched up speed going up to mach 6 before getting the go ahead from flight control to go to mach 7 and beyond. Everything was going fine as I passed mach 7 and then mach 7.5. Fuel consumption was as predicted and she was still accelerating. I was determined to try for mach 8.

I had just called out the mach 7.9 mark over the radio when Scott at flight control called back, “Gus, abort your flight, alter course, we’ve got something on radar, some sort of missile, coming in fast from above you.” I hesitated, the mach meter was just a fraction below mach 8, and then it reached mach 8 and that was the last thing I remembered before I lost consciousness.

I came to probably only minutes later with the radio out and all the instruments dead. The mach meter was jammed at 8 and I was in a spin. Somehow I managed to get out of the spin and ended up doing what I think must have been less than mach 2 and decelerating, with the engine completely dead. I wasn’t even sure where I was as I kept loosing speed and altitude, struggling to keep the plane under control. I didn’t even know which dry lake bed it was that appeared almost miraculously in front of me as I ran out of altitude and time. And then I was down. Somehow the landing gear worked and the plane touched down almost normally, coming to a halt, amazingly, not far from a road.

I stayed with the aircraft almost an hour but there was no sign of any rescue teams. Not even the chase plane, which should have found me quickly. With a vague but unexplainable sense of unease I decided to set off along the road in what I thought would be the general direction of Edwards. It wasn’t a main road, but it did lead to the highway though it took me another hour to get there with still no sign of rescuers.

At the junction to the highway there was a gas station and diner with a couple of trucks parked out in front of it. There was only the two truck drivers and the owner in the diner and it was my intention to ask for a phone so I could call the base, but my attention was distracted by the TV set in the corner, specifically the mention of my name.

I must have watched the Twilight Zone dozens of times but I never expected that anything like that could really happen. But there I was, watching my own funeral on TV. I hadn’t even died in the X15, but in space capsule in Florida as part of a test program I had never heard of with two guys I didn’t know.

I remembered later that I had once met Ed White, but I had never heard of Roger Chaffee. I do remember thinking at the time though, why on earth name a space center after a failed candidate from the 1961 Presidential race. I guess there is no accounting for the kind of tricks fate can play on people, or not play on people as the case may be.

I think I know what might have happened to me. You see I had also never heard of the atomic bomb before either. The Soviets had had the ability to make rockets that could reach right round the other side of the planet, for 8 years, since 1959, and so had we. But our military planners never saw any use for them, since dozens of rockets would be needed to equal the bombing potential of even one large bomber. With ordinary bombs that is.

It’s a safe bet that my government didn’t even know that atomic bombs could exist, and just as safe a bet that the Soviets did. And that is what I think happened to me. The missile that Edwards was tracking on radar was an atom bomb carrying, intercontinental ballistic missile, probably targeted at the base itself.

The question one then needs to ask is, what happens when you are near ground zero of a nuclear blast and moving at mach 8 at the time.

I think I know the answer. You get knocked into a parallel universe. At least, I did.