The late NASA research pilot Joe Walker flew 25 flights in the X-15 rocket plane, including two that qualified him for astronaut status in 1963. (NASA Photo)
› View Larger Photo The late NASA research pilot and X-15 astronaut Joseph Albert Walker has been inducted into the recently established Nevada Aerospace Hall of Fame in Henderson, Nev. One of eight aerospace pioneers honored at induction ceremonies Nov. 6, Walker was cited for his leading role in the collection of data pertaining to the characteristics of flight at hypersonic speeds, use of reaction controls for flight above the atmosphere, piloting techniques for re-entry, human factors in space, and flight instrumentation.
Born Feb. 20, 1921, in Washington, Pa., Walker earned a degree in physics from Washington and Jefferson College. Following graduation in 1942, he joined the Army Air Forces and served in Europe during World War II, flying 58 combat missions in the P-38 Lightning.
After the war he was hired as a physicist at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics' Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland (now NASA's Glenn Research Center). Shortly thereafter he became a research pilot, working on problems of aircraft icing. In 1951, Walker transferred to the NACA High Speed Flight Research Station (now NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center) at Edwards, Calif., where he eventually became chief pilot.
Walker's broad smile was more than evident after he landed the X-15 rocket plane following an early flight in 1960. (NASA Photo)
› View Larger Photo During Walker's career with the NACA and NASA, he flew more than 40 types of aircraft, including general aviation craft, propeller-driven and jet-powered fighters and bombers, as well as various helicopters and transports. He also flew a variety of unique research aircraft that included the rocket-powered X-1, X-1A, X-1E, D-558-2, and X-15, the jet-powered X-4, X-5, X-14 vertical takeoff and landing test bed and the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle.
Walker is best known for his exploits in the X-15, a hypersonic vehicle capable of flight at the edge of space and speeds exceeding Mach 6. Walker flew the X-15 a total of 25 times between March 1960 and August 1963, reaching speeds in excess of 4,000 miles per hour.
On July 19, 1963, he flew the X-15 #3 to an altitude of 347,800 feet – nearly 66 miles high – thus qualifying as an astronaut. He was the first civilian and the seventh American in space after the Mercury astronauts. When he established an unofficial world altitude record of 354,200 feet – more than 67 miles – in the X-15 on Aug. 22, 1963, he became the first person to have gone into space twice. His altitude record stood for 41 years until eclipsed by Scaled Composites' Space Ship One in 2004.
In 1964, Walker flew early test flights of the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, a prototype of the training vehicles that allowed Apollo astronauts to prepare for their moon landings. (NASA Photo)
› View Larger Photo In 1964, Walker was the first pilot to fly the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, a prototype of the trainer that all astronauts used prior to landing on the lunar surface. He was then assigned to the XB-70 triple-sonic bomber research program.
Walker died on June 8, 1966, as the result of a mid-air collision between the XB-70 and the NASA F-104N he was piloting. He was memorialized with the naming of a middle school in Quartz Hill, Calif., for him in 1972.
At the time of his high-altitude flights in the X-15, NASA did not award astronaut wing insignia, as the military services did to pilots who flew above 50 miles. On Aug. 23, 2005, however, Walker was posthumously awarded astronaut wings in a ceremony at the Dryden Flight Research Center.
Walker is among the first group of inductees to the Nevada Aerospace Hall of Fame, a non-profit, educational institution dedicated to preserving the legacy of the men and women who pioneered aerospace within the state of Nevada. Due to distances traveled for speed and altitude requirements, most X-15 flights, including Walker's two flights that qualified him as an astronaut, were launched from the NB-52 mother ship over Nevada.
Walker wasn't averse to an occasional bit of clowning around, as evidenced in this 1955 photo of him, complete with cowboy hat, mounting his aerial steed. (NASA Photo)
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