Around 200 people packed the Spahr Engineering Classroom on the Kansas University campus Friday afternoon to hear a speech from former NASA astronaut and KU alumnus Joe Engle.
The lecture was held in conjunction with the 70th anniversary celebration of KU’s aerospace engineering department.
Engle, a Kansas native, flew two missions in space — one in 1981 and one in 1985— and is the only person who has manually flown the space shuttle from re-entering the atmosphere to landing.
During his presentation Friday, the 1955 KU graduate spoke fondly of his time as test-pilot on the X-15, a rocket-powered aircraft that set flight speed and height records in the early 1960s.
The X-15 was part of a series of experimental aircraft used to test and evaluate new technologies and aerodynamic concepts. Engle, 81, said the X-15 research laid much of the groundwork for the space shuttle, though “we weren’t aware of or focused on it at the time,” he said.
"The objective of all these aircraft was to gather data and build a better plane. At that time, it meant faster airplanes than the bad guys," Engle said, referring to the Soviet Union. "Speed was the key then. They weren't really concerned or looking for altitude expansion."
Despite these initial goals, Engle ended up reaching an altitude of 80,600 feet during a flight in 1965, earning him his official astronaut wings from the United States Air Force. At age 32, he had become America's youngest astronaut.
The plane itself "had some unique features," Engle said. Its landing gear, made up of a nose-wheel carriage and two rear skis, proved a challenge for Engle and his fellow pilots. The X-15's skis did not expand past the ventral fin, requiring the pilot to jettison the lower fin just before landing.
He likened the plane's unwieldy steering to the "little cars at Disney World" and recalled the narrow, cramped space of the cockpit.
"When I got in that thing, boy, I was really crammed. My knees were up against my chest," said the 6-foot-1-inch Engle, eliciting chuckles from the audience. "But I wasn't going to say a damn thing."
Engle, who resides in Houston, is now a test-pilot emeritus of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and continues to work as a technical advisor to NASA.
Fifty years after his first flight on the X-15, Engle said he's still amazed by the record-setting aircraft and the engineers who created it.
"You got to hand it to the people at that time, because they really put their careers and reputations on the line. And you have to recall, all this happened with the engineering tools that were available in the 1950s," he said. "They didn't have iPhones or computers. They were walking around carrying slide rules."