The "X Planes" (X for experimental) are the series of research aircraft flown mostly by NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and its predecessor NACA, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, sometimes in cooperation with the U.S. Air Force. They've served various purposes over the decades, but the flights that most captured the public's imagination are the ones that set speed and altitude records. The first and most famous of the X planes was the Bell X-1 in which the great Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, reaching the pinnacle of the test pilot hierarchy and becoming an american hero and legend. The literal summit of the X Plane flights came courtesy of the North American X-15, the first spaceplane, in which, between 1961 and 1968, pilots like Neil Armstrong reached the edges of outer space and helped blaze the trail to the moon.
However, like so many of my blog posts about "things," this one isn't so much about the thing itself, but what the thing represents. The X planes represent many things; the can-do attitude exemplified by President Kennedy's speech challenging America to reach the moon by the close of the 1960s, explosive innovation and exploration, and a time when almost all of the countries of the world looked at America with admiration for our audacity and technical leadership. They also are part of an all but bygone era predating modern computer-aided design, when advancements in flight required men with the "right stuff" to strap on rockets, stare death in the face and laugh, and go blasting off into the stratosphere.