The Tragically Short Career of NASA Test Pilot Joe Walker

Photo Credit: NASA / Dryden Flight Research Center Photo Collection / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: NASA / Dryden Flight Research Center Photo Collection / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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.

More from us: Germany Used Circus Elephants to Clean Up Following the Allied Bombings of Hamburg

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.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.