Space and astronomy news and information for the American Southwest. Coverage includes Vandenberg AFB rocket and missile launches.

X-15 Astronaut Honored with Desert Memorial

By Paul Maddox

Reprinted with permission from The Daily Independent, Ridgecrest, California

2004 May 9

Major Mike Adams, U.S. Air Force, deserves special recognition in the annals of modern aerospace and astronautics for an historic event few ever knew about. Adams was, in fact, the first U.S. astronaut lost during a space mission.

He met his end in an area just south of Ridgecrest and east of Highway 395, near Randsburg - far from Cape Canaveral, Fla, and the highly visible part of the U.S. space program. On Saturday Major Adams received the recognition he deserves, with the dedication of a memorial monument to his sacrifice, in a remote part of the Mojave Desert, near Randsburg.


On the morning of Nov. 15, 1967, Major Michael J. Adams slipped the bonds of the earth for the "wild blue yonder," on what was to become an historic flight, piloting the number three X-15 on the 191st flight of the program. This would be the first sub-orbital mission for Adams, having completed six previous atmospheric flights in the X-15.

According to information provided by Jim Spellman of the National Space Society - Western Spaceport Chapter, during the ascent portion of the flight, the first of a series of technical problems began to arise. Later, during the "zero g" and early reentry phases, more problems occurred. Adams found himself in history's first hypersonic spin. Due to the natural stability of the X-15 and excellent piloting skills, Adams recovered from the spin, but the high G forces encountered during the spin overloaded the ships' computer assisted aerodynamic and reaction flight control systems. When Adams applied control pressure to the stick and rudder, the commands were improperly translated, and his X-15 entered another spin. At this point, the dynamic forces were more than the X-15 could handle.

Adams and X-15 #3 met their end during reentry over the Mojave Desert in the southeastern corner of Kern County, near Hwy 395.

Interestingly, not much mention was made of this tragedy as the recent loss of the Apollo 1 crew - Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee - in January of 1967 was still fresh, and NASA was preparing for the upcoming Apollo 7 flight. As such, Major Adams and the 10th space flight of the X-15 program faded into obscurity.

Adams did receive minor recognition in 1991, when the Astronaut Memorial was dedicated at Kennedy Space Center. In a lonely corner of the stone, Adams' name can be found. Sadly, no mention of who he was or how he met his fate appears on the monument.

The monument was erected thanks in large part to the efforts of a Boy Scout performing work for his Eagle Scout project.


Shortly before noon, in an area about three miles east of Randsburg, a monument was dedicated at the site where Adams and his X-15 crashed, honoring Major Adams and his contributions to the U.S. space program. The ceremony was attended by close to 100 people, which including members of Major Adams' family, and some of the people who actually worked on the X-15 program, including Bill Dana, the last man to fly an X-15 aircraft. It is interesting to note that the late state senator, Pete Knight, was also an X-15 pilot.

Spearheading the project was Eagle Scout candidate John Bodylski, a member of Boy Scout Troop 323 in Tustin, and Air Force Maj. Greg Frazier, an aerospace historian. Together with the help of dozens of volunteers, the stylish monument, weighing nearly two tons, was erected in the desert near the crash site. The engraved plaque is made from a metal called Inconel X - the material the X-15 was made of. The plaque bears Major Adams' picture, and the story of the event is engraved upon the plate.

More Info

The location of the monument is very remote: Those interested in visiting the site should take this into consideration, and get exact directions to the site from the BLM's Ridgcrest office. Get a map and ask for directions.

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