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2017-11-15

50 years ago: The first American astronaut dies during a spaceflight

On this day, 50 years ago, American pilot Michael Adams became the official 27th U.S. astronaut and shortly afterwards one of the Forgotten Astronauts no longer mentioned in the books.

Michael Adams (third from the right) and other MOL astronauts
with a model of the launch carrier for the intended station

Adams had not been a NASA member but was one of the first group of MOL astronauts assigned to training for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory of the U. S. Air Force. Expecting little chance of getting a space flight in this project, he soon asked for a transfer to the X15 program that also Neil Armstrong participated in. For Adams, this may arguably have been the worst decision of his life.

The account of his ascent to an altitude of more than 80 km, which officially qualified him as another astronaut, and of the subsequent failure of his plane is told in our book "The Forgotten Astronauts". Here follows the little-known report by German TV journalist Heinrich Schiemann that we did not include in our publication, first published in his book "Erlebte Raumfahrt" (Spaceflight Witnessed). The translation of this passage is my own:

"There was not a single accident with fatal consequences in the entire X15 program until the hundred and ninety-nineth flight. Edwards and North American Aviation were all the more appalled when this flight ended with a crash that killed Mike Adams, an Air Force pilot. The accident happened on November 15, 1967. Coincidentally, on that black day I was once again with a television crew in Edwards. We had arrived there two days before the scheduled flight and filmed its preparation on the first day of our stay. Preparing a flight like this meant to meticulously inspect all the vital components and systems of the X15. On the second day, we filmed as the aircraft was mounted beneath an eight-jet B52, between its fuselage and the right-hand inner jet-drive nacelle. Eventually we were present with our camera when, the next day, pilot Mike Adams entered the X15. As with all previous flights, the usual ambulances and fire engines had been placed on the edge of the runway that is pointing towards the bed of Rogers Dry Lake. The takeoff was normal. Then the B52 roared over our heads with the X15 attached to it that was quite small in relation to the bomber's enormous size. Two tracking planes were already in the air. Then the B52 went on its regular course towards the neighbouring state of Nevada. At the ground floor we waited for the return of the X15, expected about half an hour later. Suddenly we heard loudspeaker announcements and watched in surprise as the rescue vehicles, instead of waiting for the X15 to land, returned to the base. At first they only said that the X15 would not return to Edwards but land somewhere else. Then the terrible news arrived: Mike Adams had crashed from a high altitude, meaning he was surely dead. His last words picked up were: "I am in a spin". We could almost painfully feel the shock that had stricken the whole center within an instant. Everyone was stunned. All work in the offices and workshops and on the airfield in front of the halls came to a halt. Thus, after nine years of running this experimental programme, the very event had occurred that had always had to be expected. We noticed immediately that no one was approachable or interested in us any more. After we expressed our condolences, we left immediately.

The crash site was quite far away from Edwards, near Johannesburg in California. In the evening, in our motel, we finally saw footage taken by a television crew that been immediately sent to the crash site by helicopter. All you saw was a pile of dented metal sheet lying in the sand. Nearby: the huge engine. Analysis of the flight data received on the ground showed that there had been a malfunction in the power system of the X15 during ascent. It had adversely affected the quality of the telemetry data transmitted to the ground. There had been a deviation in the direction of the plane's longitudinal axis from the direction of the trajectory, and it had been amplified for reasons unknown, perhaps due to an incorrect reading of instruments by Adams, by overstepping the automatic control system.

Commemorative plaque for Michael Adams at the crash site
Thirty seconds after reaching the maximum flight altitude of eighty kilometres and after re-entering the denser layers of the atmosphere, the angle between the longitudinal axis of the aircraft and the direction of its still predominantly ballistic trajectory - at this altitude, atmospheric forces did not yet have a major effect - had assumed a value of ninety degrees. At Mach 5 and at an altitude of seventy kilometres, the X15 entered a spinning state lasting 43 seconds, which led to an up and down movement of the aircraft's fromnt section. As a result of excessive inertial forces to which the machine was subjected, it finally broke apart in the air."