Exploring the Edge of Space

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Bill Dana, a former NASA research pilot and astronaut, is one of the three civilian NASA pilots who recently received astronaut wings for flying research aircraft in the 1960s right up to the edge of space.


In the 1960s, a small group of civilian pilots flew the famous X-15 high above the 50-mile boundary that's considered to be the edge of space. Earlier this week, NASA honored three of those pilots with astronaut wings. John B. McKay and Joseph A. Walker received their wings posthumously. Bill Dana was there at Edwards Air Force Base in California for the ceremony. He joins us now from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards.

Bill Dana, congratulations, and it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. BILL DANA (Former NASA Research Pilot): Well, thank you for your kind words.

CONAN: What does it mean to you, getting your astronaut's wings after all this time?

Mr. DANA: Well, they meant a lot to me because they meant a lot to our friends in the Air Force. The Air Force gets duty points for having astronaut wings and maybe rapid promotion. And astronaut wings are very important to the Air Force pilots. NASA didn't have any wings at the time the X-15 was flying. We wore a name badge on our flight suit that had the name and then National Aeronautics and Space Administration. There were no wings, and so it's nice to have joined our colleagues in the Air Force in having astronaut wings.

CONAN: Can you give us any idea of how it felt when the X-15 was dropped from the belly of a bomber and then ignited those rockets? I've always heard it described as boom and zoom.

Mr. DANA: That's probably a good description. We didn't light the engine of the X-15 until it was clear of the B-52 for safety reasons. And then we lit the engine, and it was about two G's pulling you back into the back of your seat, from front of your seat to the back of the seat. And as the fuel burned out, why, that G increased to almost four. And it got so it was starting to get painful at four G's. And Milt Thompson once said that the X-15 was the only airplane he ever flew where he was glad when the engine quit.

CONAN: When it did quit, when you were up--as I understand it, you got to 58 miles--did it look like space? Was it dark?

Mr. DANA: It is dark, and you can't see any stars. The horizon appears as a ring of bright blue around the shell of the Earth, and above that it's dark.

CONAN: So you had no doubt in your mind that you had been to space.

Mr. DANA: Yes, that's right. I knew I'd gotten all the altitude I needed to qualify for being a space adventurer.

CONAN: Bill Dana, again, congratulations. This is an enormous honor. We appreciate your taking the time to speak with us today.

Mr. DANA: Good to talk to you.

CONAN: Bill Dana, a former NASA research pilot and now an astronaut. He joined us from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California, and we thank him again for his time today.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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