In mid-1955 the Soviet Union and the United States separately announced intentions to orbit satellites as part of the 1957 International Geophysical Year. Nevertheless, when the Soviet Union launched the first Earth artificial satellite-Sputnik (later called Sputnik 1)-on 4 October 1957, the event created a stir among the popular press. The seeming lack of response by President Dwight D. Eisenhower further antagonized the fourth estate and soon the American people as well. However, it was the 1,100-pound Sputnik 2 that ultimately caused the administration to take action, since it graphically portrayed the capability of Soviet launch vehicles and, directly, their ICBM program.
The Soviet achievements damaged American scientific and technological prestige, and the satellite was widely regarded as a threat to national security. Robert Gilruth later wrote, "I can recall watching the sunlight reflecting off the Sputnik 1 carrier rocket as it passed over my home on the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia. It put a new sense of value and urgency on the things we had been doing."1130!
Over a year before, the Air Force had begun Project HYWARDS (Hypersonic Weapon and Research & Development Supporting System) to design a successor to the X-15. Researchers considered this round III of the research airplane program. Round I had been the X-1 and D-558 series, while round II consisted of the X-15. The goal of round III was to design a vehicle capable of achieving at least Mach 12 and perhaps as much as Mach 18. HYWARDS is outside the scope of this history, but it created an enormous debate between researchers at Ames and Langley, and between the NACA and the Air Force. The Air Force soon combined HYWARDS with the remaining work on BoMi/RoBo and other projects into the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar program. Ultimately, the experimental research conducted for HYWARDS and Dyna-Soar, combined with the flight results from X-15, formed the technical foundation for the development of a space shuttle.
Although HYWARDS was the next logical step in the progressive effort to fly a man into space, other programs, such as Project 7969, were under way concurrently. The organizations that proposed these programs intended then to put a man into space as soon as possible, mainly as a publicity ploy, and offered little in the way of a long-term solution to space flight. The X-15 figured into some of these programs, and at least two proposals for orbital X-15s were made during 1957 and 1958 (see the "X-15B" section for more details).
In the meantime, the NACA Executive Committee met in its regular annual session on 10 October 1957, less than a week after the launch of Sputnik. Interestingly, the committee did not discuss the Soviet satellite at any length. But the NACA Committee on Aerodynamics met on 18-20 November 1957 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA-59) and paid a great deal of attention to crafting a response to Sputnik. The committee noted that "[t]he big question to be answered now is how can these views [on accelerating space research] be put across to the NACA and to the Government in order that the NACA be recognized as the national research agency in this field, and be provided with the necessary funds… the NACA should act now to avoid being ruled out of the field of space flight research." The committee suggested highlighting the hypersonics program in general and the X-15 program specifically in order to make that case.-1131!
This threw a great deal more attention onto the X-15 program than it was ready for. North American was making good progress with its development effort, but the first airframe was still almost a year away from being completed. The XLR99 engine was much further away.
Nevertheless, the media-and indeed, some within the NACA and military-saw the X-15 as the most promising American response to Sputnik. The North American plant in Inglewood, which was clearly visible from the Los Angeles International Airport, soon sported a huge "Home of X-15" neon sign and articles began to appear in periodicals ranging from popular newsstand magazines to serious industry journals. It was a spotlight the X-15 program was ill prepared to handle.-1132
Nevertheless, the publicity probably made some aspects of the X-15 program somewhat easier, particularly securing funding at a time when the program was seriously over budget. In his essay on the 1961 Collier trophy, W. D. Kay wrote:232
After the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, interest in the [X-15] project on the part of the military, political leaders, and the public at large grew rapidly… media coverage of the first flights was the most intense ever seen at Edwards, and even led to some public relations mix-ups between NASA and the Air Force. Once the first Mercury flights were underway, public attention shifted to the events at Cape Canaveral. This might, however, have ultimately worked to the [X-15] program’s benefit. A major contributor to the X-15’s success over the long run was its emphasis on incremental development and its use in highly specialized scientific and technical research. As experience with many later space projects… has shown, the general public tends to lose interest in such "routine" undertakings rather quickly. In short, it appears the X-15 got a needed boost of public fanfare at precisely the right point in its history-the later development and early flight test stage-and then became regarded as a low-key effort worthy of only occasional interest just as it was entering its less "flashy" research phase. These shifts in external perception probably could not have been planned any better.
Scott Crossfield might not completely agree that the program wanted the publicity, especially as he spent too many hours in an uncomfortable MC-2 full-pressure suit in the hot desert sun providing encouragement for the technicians working to get the X-15 ready for its first glide flight. Overall, however, events probably turned out as well as anybody could have expected.
There were a variety of proposals (some legitimate, most not) to use the X-15 to put a man into orbit before the Soviets. However, there was a flaw with all of these ideas: the lack of a suitable booster. The ICBMs then under development had two significant problems. First, none had the "throw weight" to launch a complicated lifting reentry vehicle, be it an X-15 derivative or one of the round III concepts under study at Ames, Langley, or Wright Field. Second, the early ICBMs did not work very well; they tended to blow up.