The X-15 was based on a concept study from Walter Dornberger for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) for a hypersonic research aircraft. The requests for proposal were published on 30 December 1954 for the airframe and on 4 February 1955 for the rocket engine. The X-15 was built by two manufacturers: North American Aviation was contracted for the airframe in November 1955, and Reaction Motors was contracted for building the engines in 1956.
Like many X-series aircraft, the X-15 was designed to be carried aloft and drop launched from under the wing of a NASA B-52 mother ship, the Balls 8. Release took place at an altitude of about 8.5 miles (13.7 km) and a speed of about 500 miles per hour (805 km/h). The X-15 fuselage was long and cylindrical, with rear fairings that flattened its appearance, and thick, dorsal and ventral wedge-fin stabilizers. Parts of the fuselage were heat-resistant nickel alloy (Inconel-X 750). The retractable landing gear comprised a nose-wheel carriage and two rear skids. The skids did not extend beyond the ventral fin, which required the pilot to jettison the lower fin (fitted with a parachute) just before landing.
Cockpit and pilot systems
The X-15 was a research program and changes were made to various systems over the course of the program and between the different models. The X-15 was operated under several different scenarios including attachment to a launch aircraft, drop, main engine start and acceleration, a ballistic flight into thin air/space, re-entry into thicker air, and an unpowered glide to landing. Alternatively, if the main engine was not started the pilot went directly to a landing. The main rocket engine operated only for a relatively short part of the flight, but was capable of boosting the X-15 to its high speeds and altitudes. Without main engine thrust, the X-15's instruments and control surfaces remained functional, but the aircraft could not maintain altitude.
Because the X-15 also had to be controlled in an environment where there was too little air for aerodynamic flight control surfaces, it had a reaction control system (RCS) that used rocket thrusters. There were two different X-15 pilot control setups: one used three joysticks; the other, one joystick.
The X-15 type with multiple control sticks for the pilot included a traditional rudder and stick, and another joystick on the left which sent commands to the reaction control system. A third joystick on the right side was used during high-G maneuvers to augment the center stick. In addition to pilot input, the X-15 "Stability Augmentation System" (SAS) sent inputs to the aerodynamic controls to help the pilot maintain attitude control. The reaction control system could be operated in two modes, manual and automatic. The automatic mode used a feature called "Reaction Augmentation System" (RAS) that helped stabilize the vehicle at high altitude. The RAS was typically used for approximately three minutes of an X-15 flight before automatic power off.
The second setup used the MH-96 flight control system which allowed one joystick in place of three and simplified pilot input. The MH-96 could automatically blend aerodynamic and rocket controls depending on how effective each system was at controlling the aircraft.
Among the many controls, were the rocket engine throttle and a control for jettisoning the ventral tail fin. Other features of the cockpit were heated windows to prevent icing, and a forward headrest for periods of high deceleration.
The X-15 had an ejection seat that allowed ejection at speeds up to Mach 4 and/or 120,000 feet (37 km) altitude, although it was not used during the program. In the event of ejection, the seat had deployable fins which were used until it reached a safer speed/altitude, where it could deploy its main parachute. Pilots wore a pressure suit, which could be pressurized with nitrogen gas. Above 35,000 feet (11 km) altitude, the cockpit was pressurized to 3.5 psi (0.24 atm) with nitrogen gas, and oxygen for breathing was fed separately to the pilot.
Early flights used two Reaction Motors XLR11 liquid-propellant rocket engines. Later flights were undertaken with a single XLR99 rocket engine generating 57,000 pounds-force (250 kN) of thrust. The XLR11 used ethyl alcohol and liquid oxygen. The XLR99 engine used anhydrous ammonia and liquid oxygen as propellant, and hydrogen peroxide to drive the high-speed turbopump that delivered propellants to the engine. It could burn 15,000 pounds (6,804 kg) of propellant in 80 seconds. The XLR99s could be throttled, and were the first such controllable engines that were man-rated.
The X-15 reaction control system (RCS), for maneuvering in low-pressure/density environment, used high-test peroxide (HTP), which decomposes into water and oxygen in the presence of a catalyst and could provide a specific impulse of 140 seconds. The HTP also fueled a turbopump for the main engines and auxiliary power units (APUs). Additional tanks for helium and liquid nitrogen performed other functions, for example the fuselage interior was purged with helium gas, and the liquid nitrogen was used as coolant for various systems.
Wedge tail and hypersonic stability
The X-15 had a thick wedge tail for stability at hypersonic speeds. This produced a significant amount of drag at lower speeds; the blunt end at the rear of the X-15 could produce as much drag as an entire F-104 Starfighter.
Stability at hypersonic speeds was aided by side panels that could extend out from the tail to increase area, and the panels doubled as air-brakes.