# Why did the X-15 not achieve orbit?

The X-15 has a maximum velocity of 7.274 km/s. As the velocity to achieve orbit is 8 km/s, why did they not fly horizontal/diagonal until they achieved around 7km/s and then go vertical to get to space and reach orbit?

• X-15 was capable of suborbital spaceflight but not even close to having orbital capability. Jun 2 '16 at 13:28
• Yeah I know it could get out atmosphere but not stay there. But the problem as aircraft resistance? Because with 1 km/s more it could get the orbital speed and it could get already the orbital height so why the abandoned the idea so near the answer? Why it cant get 8km/s and get the orbital height maintaining the speed with the inertia? Jun 2 '16 at 13:34
• What is the reference you cite for a delta v of 7.274 km/s for the X-15? Jun 2 '16 at 13:35
• "... and then go vertical to get to space and reach orbit ..." - the X-15 reached space that way, but not orbit. XKCD explains why. Jun 2 '16 at 15:29
• @EsdrasCaleb: The fundamental problem is 8km/s is awfully much. Not as in "impressively" or "stunningly". But "desperately, all common technical solutions fail, math doesn't work out and nothing short of obscene amounts of explosives is capable of getting us there". Seriously, you can bring a craft to orbit by detonating 20-30 times its weight in explosives that are 7 times stronger than gunpowder, in a sustained, continuous explosion. This is what a rocket launch amounts to.
– SF.
Jun 2 '16 at 19:25

You're confusing units. The maximum speed of the X-15 was 7274 km/h, or about 2 km/s. Orbital speed is around 8 km/s. The X-15 didn't carry enough fuel to reach orbital speed.

• didn't vs couldn't?
– uhoh
Aug 22 '17 at 12:54
• I'd say 'couldn't'. Empty weight was 6 tons, loaded weight 15 tons. Fuel fraction is far too low to get anywhere near orbital speed. 7274 km/h was attained once in a record attempt, I suspect you wouldn't be able to go much faster in the X-15 without a redesign (to get more fuel in, or to use a higher-Isp engine, etc.). Aug 22 '17 at 13:50
• @Hobbes: there were different versions of the X-15, one with a loaded weight of 15 tons and another one with a loaded weight of 25 tons (that includes external fuel tanks - these were drop tanks). The latter model would burn 15 tons of fuel in 3 minutes. Look at the X-15 and think about the feasibility of adding a dozen additional external drop tanks. And how to lift such a heavy and bulky X-15 to the starting altitude with a B-52! Oct 18 '18 at 11:07

The X-15 didn't have the capability to get to orbit, and it was never intended to. the X-15's purpose was not space flight but to test aerodynamic heating at high altitude and high speed. It's skin was designed to tolerate a great deal of heat, but nowhere near what would be required for re-entry from orbital velocity. If it went to orbit it would burn up on return.

• I am talking about a craft capable of take off only not necessary take in... So it could stay in orbit? Or just propel itself as a satellite? Jun 2 '16 at 14:30
• @EsdrasCaleb Jet fuel won't burn in space, no oxygen... so it couldn't be a satellite without bringing it's own oxidizer (and likely a completely separate engine system for space flight), which would make the craft far heavier than it already was. This would reduce the chances of it even getting to space. This is why all space-destined vehicles go up on rockets, as thrust to weight ratio is tremendously more than a regular jet engine can achieve. Jun 2 '16 at 15:28
• X-15 was a pure rocket (ignoring the B-52 mothership). Jun 2 '16 at 16:31
• What reignition options did it have? If it got to orbit... how would it get back? :)
– SF.
Jun 2 '16 at 19:41
• @OrganicMarble My mistake. However, it doesn't change the equation. It would have to carry a lot more fuel, which means a lot more weight. Once in space, it wouldn't need the huge engine anymore, so it would need to carry additional thrusters to maneuver, adding to the weight again. Jun 2 '16 at 21:54

The X-15 was undoubtedly fast enough to reach altitudes at which the pilot could have looked into the blackness of the heavens, but high altitudes are not enough for achieving an orbital trajectory. I know this doesn't exactly answer your question (and others have already explained the difference in units), but there's also a misunderstanding about achieving orbit. Let's assume the X-15 did have the juice to make it into orbit. As it climbed, it wouldn't go vertical; rather, it needs to flatten out and make its velocity more and more parallel with the earth's surface below it. Going vertical would have actually guaranteed that it wouldn't go into orbit.

This is a very common misconception about things in high orbit. Satellites, for example, have the appearance of simply floating at a certain distance from the earth, when in actuality, all of them are in free fall. Yes, you read that right. They are always falling. How, then, do they maintain their distance from the earth?

Let's use a hypothetical example (with a healthy serving of exaggeration). Let's say you can jump with extraordinary force, such that you can jump many miles away. Of course, you can also jump just a few feet, when you like. If you were to draw the path of a small jump on a large circle, which represents the earth, then you'd have small arc that goes up and then down very quickly. Let's jump farther -- say, a quarter of the way around the earth -- and draw that arc. The arc is longer, of course, and now it's becoming more obvious that the shape of the earth (its roundness) is influencing how far you can jump and how long you're staying in the air. Truly, you're jumping part way around the earth every time you jump.

Let's jump really far -- halfway around the earth. What it will take is a lot more force giving you a lot more speed. When you draw that arc, it's now very clear that you are, indeed, jumping around the earth. And what was the ground doing, below your feet? The circle of the earth was, in a sense, "moving away" from you, was it not? When you land, you're actually standing upside down relative to your position when you first jumped.

What will it take to jump so fast that you go all the way around the earth once and land back where you started? This is something you can actually calculate, although I'll leave that to you. Looking at your arcs, though, and considering what you know about jumping (that you're always falling), what matters for longer jumps is more speed (assuming you always jump at an ideal angle). When you jumped halfway around the earth, weren't you still falling the whole time? You just jumped with enough force so that you could go farther before you landed again.

Now the clincher. Is it possible to jump so fast that, as you fall, the circle of the earth moves away from your feet as fast as you fall towards it? You'd never stop falling. I hope that helps explain why going vertical is what you don't want to do for achieving orbit. For fun, consider if you were in the space shuttle and you wanted to come back down to earth, what do you have to do? You can also now explain why, in the movies, they say that going too fast will make you "bounce off the atmosphere." It's just a cheap way of saying that the speed will send the craft into an elliptical orbit, but that's not nearly as fun as bouncing.

This isn't a dead-on accurate description, of course. It would take careful planning to achieve a circular orbit, even if you had the right speed, because you could easily go into an elliptical orbit and even crash back into the earth if your angle was wrong.