On July 17, 1962, Major Robert White flew the X-15 to an altitude of 314,750 feet, or 59 miles, becoming the first "winged astronaut." He was the first to fly at Mach 4, Mach 5 and Mach 6; he was the first to fly a winged vehicle into space. After a career of 'firsts' White died on March 17, 2010.
White was one of the initial pilots selected for the X-15 program, representing the Air Force in the joint program with NASA, the Navy, and North American Aviation. Between April 13, 1960, and Dec. 14, 1962, he made 16 flights in the rocket-powered aircraft.
His July 17, 1962, flight to an altitude of 314,750 feet set a world record. This was 59.6 miles, significantly higher than the 50 miles the Air Force accepted as the beginning of space, qualifying White for astronaut wings. The X-15 rocket-powered aircraft were built by North American Aviation and developed to provide in-flight information and data on aerodynamics, structures, flight controls and the physiological aspects of high-speed, high-altitude flight.
A follow-on program used the aircraft as testbeds to carry various scientific experiments beyond the Earth's atmosphere on a repeated basis. Information gained from the highly successful X-15 program contributed to the development of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo manned spaceflight programs, and also the space shuttle program. The X-15s made a total of 199 flights and the first aircraft X-15-1, serial number 56-6670, is now located at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
According to an article by Al Hallonquist, White's achievements as an X-15 pilot "allowed him to become the fifth American to attain astronaut wings and only the second Air Force pilot to do this."
White retired from the Air Force as a Major General.