X-15 (1961)


X-15 is a 1961 American aviation drama film that presents a fictionalised account of the X-15 research rocket aircraft programme, the test pilots who flew the aircraft, and the associated NASA community that supported the programme. X-15 starred David McLean, Charles Bronson, James Gregory and Mary Tyler Moore (in her first feature film role). The film marked the feature film directorial debut of Richard Donner, and was narrated by James Stewart.


The experimental North American X-15 program at Edwards Air Force Base involves test pilots: civilian Matt Powell (David McLean), Lieutenant Colonel Lee Brandon (Charles Bronson) and Major Ernest Wilde (Ralph Taeger). The cutting edge high-speed programme is ramrodded by project chief Tom Deparma (James Gregory) and US Air Force Colonel Craig Brewster (Kenneth Tobey). As the test pilots prepare for the planned launch of the rocket-powered aircraft from a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress mother ship, they experience emotional and physical problems, which they share with their wives and sweethearts.

Test after test results in setbacks, including a near disaster when an engine explodes during a ground test and engulfs the X-15 and its pilot in flames, but finally the X-15 begins to set records in speed and altitude for a piloted aircraft. When the X-15 “flames out” on a high altitude run, after guiding the X-15 to a safe landing, saving Powell’s life, Lieutenant Colonel Brandon, flying a chase aircraft, is killed in a crash. Powell himself takes the X-15 into outer space for the final test.


  • David McLean as NASA Test Pilot Matt Powell
  • Charles Bronson as Lieutenant Colonel Lee Brandon
  • James Gregory as Tom Deparma
  • Mary Tyler Moore as Pamela Stewart
  • Ralph Taeger as Major Ernest Wilde
  • Brad Dexter as Major Anthony Rinaldi
  • Kenneth Tobey as Colonel Craig Brewster
  • Patricia Owens as Margaret Brandon
  • Lisabeth Hush as Diane Wilde
  • Stanley Livingston as Mike Brandon
  • Lauren Gilbert as Colonel Jessup
  • Phil Dean as Major McCully
  • Chuck Stanford as Lieutenant Commander Joe Lacrosse
  • Patty McDonald as Susan Brandon
  • James Stewart as Himself / narrator (voice)


Originally planned around the earlier NASA Bell X-2 programme, writer/producer and later screenwriter, Tony Lazzarino shopped the project around Hollywood in 1958, appearing under several titles: Exit, Time of Departure and Beyond the Unknown. Lazzarino was successful in teaming with Bob Hope, who wanted to produce the film. After approaching the USAF for stock footage of the X-2 flights, the Pentagon made a recommendation that the newly introduced X-15 aircraft held out much more promise as a film subject. With $350,000 assigned for primary shooting, with an additional $72,500 for post-production work, by August 1960, pre-production had moved from Hope Enterprises (Hope’s film company) to Frank Sinatra’s Essex Productions. After reviewing the initial draft screenplay, Pentagon suggestions clarified that the X-15 test program would be the focus for the upcoming production.

Pentagon assistance was largely responsible for the attention to detail and accurate portrayal of the NASA programme. Much of the principal photography for the film was undertaken at Edwards Air Force Base and the NASA High-Speed Flight Station (now the Dryden Flight Research Centre) in California, with the direct assistance of NASA, the United States Air Force and North American Aviation. US Air Force Captain Jay Hanks and NASA research pilot Milton Orville Thompson served as technical advisors on the film. Thompson himself later became an X-15 pilot.

The film featured carefully edited NASA footage of X-15 flights intercut with original photography, with a minimum of special effects work using animation. In a pivotal scene of the chase aircraft crashing, X-15 used US Air Force archival footage of the 10 January 1956, “Sabre dance” crash of a North American F-100 Super Sabre flown by Lieutenant Barty R. Brooks. Another critical scene involved the X-15-3 being destroyed on the test stand when the rocket engine exploded, using stock footage of the accident.

A archived letter from NASA Armstrong (then Dryden) to the movie producers, reviewing the script prior to production, had recommended a different scenario for a fatal X-15 accident. It cited maximum risk as beginning re-entry from space with the X-15 at an inappropriate orientation. That situation actually occurred several years later on X-15 Flight 3-65-97, 15 November 1967, in the rebuilt X-15-3, when pilot Mike Adams experienced a hypersonic spin on re-entry. The result was final destruction of the #3 X-15 and the only X-15 pilot fatality. The probable cause was pilot vertigo while in space.

Aircraft Used in the Production

  • Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress (carrier/mother ship)
  • Lockheed F-104A Starfighter (“Chase 1” , chase aircraft)
  • North American X-15 (research aircraft)
  • North American F-100F Super Sabre (“Chase 2” , chase aircraft)
  • Piasecki H-21 Work Horse (“Rescue NASA 1” , rescue helicopter)


Home Media

After its initial successful introduction, X-15 quickly faded from movie screens, and was unable to gain much traction from foreign releases. Rarely shown on television, with its first airing only in 1979, the film was released briefly in VHS in 1983 and was released on DVD in 2004.


Released just as the actual rocket aircraft was making headlines in breaking speed and altitude records and reaching the upper edges of the stratosphere, X-15 was critically reviewed, receiving praise for its authenticity.

Most reviews centred on the accurate portrayal of the US space effort, but disparaged the tepid romantic storyline, even suggesting that the film should have been made as a documentary.


  • Richard Donner’s feature film directorial debut.
  • The high altitude high speed experimental rocket-powered research aircraft X-15 was built by North American Aviation and Reaction Motors in 1955-56 and it was operated by the US Air Force and NASA as part of the X-plane series of experimental aircraft.
    • The X-15 achieved altitude and speed records and still holds the official world record for the highest speed reached by a manned aircraft.
    • Its first flight was on 08 June 1959.
    • Its maximum speed was 4,520 miles per hour (7,274 km/h), its maximum altitude was 67.0 miles (107.8 km), and it had a range of 280 miles (450 km).
    • Three X-15s were built and flew a total of 199 test flights.
    • Twelve test pilots flew the X-15.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s):
    • Richard Donner … (as Richard D. Donner)
  • Producer(s):
    • Howard W. Koch … executive producer
    • Tony Lazzarino … producer
    • Henry W. Sanicola … producer (as Henry Sanicola)
    • Frank Sinatra … producer (uncredited)
  • Writer(s):
    • James Warner Bellah … (screenplay)
    • Tony Lazzarino … (screenplay)
    • Tony Lazzarino … (story)
  • Music:
    • Nathan Scott
  • Cinematography:
    • Carl E. Guthrie … director of photography (as Carl Guthrie)
  • Editor(s):
    • Stanley Rabjohn … (as Stanley E. Rabjohn)
  • Production:
    • Essex Productions
  • Distributor(s):
    • United Artists (United States, 1961) (theatrical)
    • United Artists (United Kingdom, 1961) (theatrical)
    • United Artists (West Germany, 1962) (theatrical)
    • Kommunenes Filmcentral (KF) (Norway, 1962) (theatrical)
    • United Artists (Sweden, 1962) (theatrical)
    • American Broadcasting Company (ABC) (United States, 1964) (pan/scan, TV)
    • Chapel Distribution (Australia, 1997) (35mm print – CinemaScope, Technicolor, theatrical)
    • MGM Home Entertainment (United States, 2004)(DVD)
    • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (World-wide)
  • Release Date: 22 December 1961 (US).
  • Rating: U.
  • Running Time: 107 minutes.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

Video Link(s)

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