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America's First Spaceman

His feat is tucked in the timeline of aviation history -- somewhere between Chuck Yeager ripping through the sound barrier in 1947 and John Glenn making his orbital flight in 1962. But in his day, Capt. Iven Kincheloe, who flew a rocket-powered plane to the edge of space one morning in 1956, was as much a star as those other two famous aviators. NPR's Bob Edwards reports.

On Sept. 7, 1956, the day of his historic flight, Kincheloe was crammed into the cockpit of a Bell X-2. The experimental aircraft was dropped from a Boeing B-50 carrier plane at 29,500 feet. Then Kincheloe, who had flown more than 100 missions in the Korean War, took the X-2 nearly 100,000 feet higher -- to a record 126,200 feet. It was 26,000 feet higher than anyone had ever flown before.

Dr. Raymond Puffer, an Air Force Flight Center historian, describes what Kincheloe would have seen at that altitude: "The sky turns dark, indigo blue. You can easily see the curvature of the earth. He could see from San Francisco down to Mexico... he was weightless for something like 56 seconds, but he didn't particularly notice it because he was so tightly strapped in..."

The feat earned Kincheloe celebrity status. He appeared on the popular television game show I've Got a Secret, where the panel was supposed to guess what he did. Because he was so famous, it didn't take long.

Kincheloe was chosen, along with two other pilots, to fly the next-generation test plane, the X-15. While waiting for it to be ready, he flew test missions with other planes. On July 26, 1958, Kincheloe was killed when the engine of his F-104 airplane failed soon after take-off. He managed to eject but was too close to the ground and parachuted into the flames.

Neil Armstrong, a friend and fellow test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in the 1950s, says Kincheloe probably would have been at the center of America's space program.

"I know had he survived that he would be very much in the middle of whatever was going on subsequent to that point. He may very well have been selected for the astronaut program. He was certainly capable of doing that -- or he might have chosen to do something else. But in any case, he would be at the forefront out at the edge of the frontier and having a ball doing it."

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