One of the biggest stories last week was Virgin Galactic's successful flight of SpaceShipTwo. The suborbital spaceplane was released from its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, at 46,000 feet at which point pilots Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury ignited its rocket motor, gained an additional 10,000 feet of altitude, and accelerated for a 16 second supersonic flight before gliding to a smooth runway landing.
Reactions online are celebratory, heralding this flight path as an amazingly futuristic model of spaceflight. But it's actually a very old flight path flown by the X-15. And while it never went into orbit, the X-15 did take some of the nation's first steps into space. Unfortunately its orbital successor, the X-15B, never got to take the next step.
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The X-15 was heralded by many as the world's first space plane. The tiny aircraft was launched from underneath the wing of a B-52 bomber at around 45,000 feet at which point the pilot would light its main engine, climb in a high arc as he burned through all his fuel, then made an unpowered landing on the dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Following these arcing flight paths, X-15 reached a peak altitude of 67 miles and a top speed of Mach 6.7 on two separate flights; it's a flight profile identical to the SpaceshipTwo's.