John V. Becker, arguably the father of the X-15, once stated that the project came along at “ … the most propitious of all possible times for its promotion and approval.” At the time it was not considered necessary to have a defined operational program in order to conduct basic research. There were no “glamorous and expensive” manned space projects to compete for funding, and the general feeling within the nation was one of trying to go faster, higher, or further. In today’s environment, as in 1968 when Becker was commenting, it is highly unlikely that a program such as the X-15 could gain approval.6
This situation should give pause to those who fund aerospace projects solely on the basis of their presumably predictable outcomes and their expected cost effectiveness. Without the X-15’s pioneering work, it is quite possible that the manned space program would have been slowed, conceivably with disastrous consequences for national prestige.7
According to Becker, proceeding with a general research configuration rather than with a prototype of a vehicle designed to achieve a specific mission as envisioned in 1954 was critical to the ultimate success the X-15 enjoyed. Had the prototype route been taken, Becker believed that “… we would have picked the wrong mission, the wrong structure, the wrong aerodynamic shapes, and the wrong propulsion.” He also believed that a second vital aspect to the success of the X-15 was its ability to conduct research, albeit for very short periods of time, outside the sensible atmosphere.®
The latter proved to be the most important aspect of X-15 research, given the contributions it made to the space program. But in 1954 this could not have been foreseen. Few people then believed that flight into space was imminent, and most thought that flying humans into space was improbable before the next century. Fortunately, the hypersonic aspects of the proposed X-15 enjoyed “virtually unanimous approval,” although ironically the space-oriented results of the X-15 have been of greater value than its contributions to aeronautics.9
A final lesson from the X-15 program is that success comes at a cost. It is highly likely that researchers can never accurately predict the costs of exploring the unknown. If you under-
stand the problems well enough to accurately predict the cost, the research is not necessary. The original cost estimate for the X-15 program was $10.7 million. Actual costs were still a bargain in comparison with those for Apollo, Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station, but at $300 million, they were over almost 30 times the original estimate.10 Because the X-15’s costs were not subjected to the same scrutiny from the Administration and Congress that today’s aerospace projects undergo, the program continued. One of the risks when exploring the unknown is that you do not understand all the risks. Perhaps politicians and administrators should learn this particular lesson from this early and highly successful program.