Here's What the Beginnings of Spaceflight Looked Like in the 1950s

For a small, remote site in the desert with a modest staff, the High Speed Flight Station saw some incredible advances in aviation's that ultimately led to spaceflight.

North of Los Angeles and north of the San Bernardino mountains is the Mojave Desert, home to scorchingly hot days, bone chillingly cold nights, jack rabbits and coyotes. In the early 1900s, humans arrived. The Corum family set up alfalfa and turkey farms, and when more settlers arrived they leased land to other homesteaders, set up a general store, and a post office. But the U.S. Postal Service denied the Corums’ request to give the desert town their name; there was already a town called Coram in California and there would certainly be confusion between the two. So the Corums reversed the spelling of their name and the town of Muroc was born.

In 1933, the military arrived in Muroc. Army Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Hap” Arnold saw the dry lakebeds dotting the area as the perfect natural bombing range. Particularly Rogers dry lakebed. Rogers is a 44-square-mile pluvial lake whose parched clay and silt surface renews every year in a cycle of rainwater and desert winds leaving it smooth and as hard as glass. It was, in essence, a natural runway in a region with reliably clear skies. In 1933, Arnold established the Muroc Bombing and Gunnery Range as a continental training site for the Army Air Corps' bombers and fighters. It became a permanent site during the Second World War, giving the Army Air Force a second place to develop and test its aircraft.

In 1949, Muroc was renamed Edwards Air Force Base and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics arrived. The Muroc Flight Test Unit was a satellite site of the NACA run by the Langley Laboratory in Virginia lent its expertise in flight testing and aerodynamics to the Air Force, running test programs and flying experimental aircraft. But the NACA contingent was a parasite of the Air Force, borrowing everything from power and personnel. Two years later, it was clear from the increasing number of research programs flying out of Edwards that the NACA’s presence in the desert wasn’t temporary. In 1951, Congress allocated funding to transform the desert site into a new, standalone research centre in its own right. Three years later on July 1, 1954, the Muroc Flight Test Unit was renamed the High Speed Flight Station and separated from the Langley Memorial Laboratory.

It was here that the Bell X-1 broke the sound barrier, that the X-15 set the speed record for manned flight at Mach 6.7, and that all kinds of experimental aircraft and flying systems that ultimately fed into early spaceflight programs were put through their paces. The site was named for the NACA’s first and only Director Hugh Dryden in 1976, and again for Neil Armstrong in 2014.

The Whole Crew

The entire High Speed Flight Station workforce in 1950, the men and women who worked with some of the earliest experimental rocket-powered aircraft.NASA

Lax Uniform Rules

Ground crews taking advantage of the desert site's remote location to ditch their uniforms. With the X-1 in 1949 are Eddie Edwards, Bud Rogers, Dick Payne, and Henry Gaskins.NASA

Hot Desert Days

Another moment of crews taking advantage of the lax uniform rules in the desert in 1949, on the ramp with a D-558-I and Bob Champine in the cockpit.NASA

Getting Ready to Fly

Ground crews in undershirts with the D-558-I in 1949.NASA

Ladies On Base

The "computer room" at the NACA's High Speed Flight Station, which is now the Armstrong Flight Research Centre, in 1949.NASA

Servicing the X-1

Ground crews servicing the X-1 in 1951. This time with shirts on. Fittingly button front and plaid shirts.NASA

A Test Pilot's Playthings

A hanger full of some experimental planes and motherships in 1953. D-558-II (the first plane to fly at Mach 2), D-558-I, B-47, YF-84A, X-4, and F-51.NASA

The Whole Crew, Once Again

The whole staff of the High Speed Flight Station in 1954, in front of the new building erected after the site became a full laboratory in its own right.NASA

Hanging Out of a Rocket

John Griffith hands off his flight gear to ground crew members, hanging out the hatch of an X-1.NASA

Pilot Turned Cowboy

Joe Walker leaping over the open cockpit of an X-1A, a second-generation X-1, in 1955.NASA

Simulated Spaceflight

Stan Butchart trains in the Iron Cross Attitude Simulator in 1956. Those jets of gas are compressed nitrogen, simulating reaction controls.NASA

Back from the Edge of Space

Ground crews greet Neil Armstrong after one of his first X-15 flights in 1960.NASA

Truck as a Research Tool

How do you see if your paraglider trainer develops lift? Strap it to a flatbed truck and drive it across a dry lakebed. The Paresev was the training vehicle for the Gemini paraglider, a failed concept to land the Gemini spacecraft on a runway (and my favourite failed program). 1963.NASA

Letting Off Steam

X-15 pilots in a playful mood in 1966. I guess when you're flying to the edge of space in a missile with a cockpit you gotta let off steam.NASA

Engineers and Their Toys

Before computer simulations, engineers built and flew models to test out a new concept's aerodynamics. In this case, Jim Newman and Bob McDonald are attaching a model M2-F2 lifting body to a model mothership in 1968.NASA

Crash Test Dummy Pilots

Maybe one of the creepier-looking tests, an ejection seat test for the M2-F1 lifting body program in 1963.NASA