Joe Walker is a name that resonates with the pioneering spirit of aerospace exploration. He was a celebrated NASA test pilot whose contributions to spaceflight and aviation were truly remarkable. Above is a photo of him posing beside the Bell X-1E Little Joe while wearing a skin-tight pressure suit on January 27, 1958.
Born on February 20, 1921, Walker attended Washington and Jefferson College, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Physics. He joined the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) during the Second World War, with whom he flew many weather reconnaissance missions aboard Lockheed P-38 and F-5A Lightnings.
Following the conflict, Walker joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) – the precursor to NASA – as an experimental physicist at their Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory. During this time, he became a test pilot, and he eventually moved to NASA when the NACA was dissolved.
Walker’s prowess in the cockpit led to him working on groundbreaking aircraft, such as the X-1E, the Douglas X-3 Stiletto and the North American X-15. He set several altitude and speed records during his tenure, reaching an astonishing altitude of 354,200 feet in the X-15, making him the first civilian to fly into space.
He was also the first test pilot for the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) used to prepare for the Apollo moon landings.
Tragically, Walker’s extraordinary journey was cut short on June 8, 1966, when his Lockheed F-104N Starfighter collided with a North American XB-70 Valkyrie at 25,000 feet while trying to capture an unauthorized publicity photo of the many aircraft flying in-formation.