Mojave Journal: Memorial to a Forgotten Astronaut

Credit: Douglas Messier
Credit: Douglas Messier

If there was a prize for the most isolated memorial to an America astronaut, the one for Maj. Michael J. Adams would win by a wide margin.

From Mojave, it’s a drive of nearly 50 miles through the sagebrush and Joshua trees, around dry Koehn Lake, and through the old mining towns of Randsburg and Johannesburg before you reach the unmarked dirt road leading to the site. A half mile of bad road later, you arrive at the modest but heartfelt memorial to one of America’s forgotten space heroes.

It was on this spot where Adams and a large section of his X-15 rocket plane came to rest on Nov. 15, 1967. The vehicle had broken up in flight after Adams lost control of it while re-entering from a suborbital spaceflight.

Maj. Michael J. Adams with a X-15 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (Credit: NASA)
Maj. Michael J. Adams with a X-15 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (Credit: NASA)

Adams was the first and only casualty in the X-15 program, which flew 199 total missions. Because he piloted the ship above 50 miles, Adams was also the first American to die during a spaceflight.

The U.S. Air Force posthumously awarded Adams Astronaut Wings for his final flight. In 1991, his name was added to the Astronaut Memorial at the John F. Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center in Florida.

Michael J. Adams Memorial (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Michael J. Adams Memorial (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The Adams memorial in California was dedicated in June 2004. John Bodylski, an Eagle Scout in Boy Scout Troop No. 323 in Tustin, spearheaded the memorial as part of his leadership project. He worked with Air Force Maj. Greg Frazier, who is an aerospace historian, and dozens of volunteers to build the memorial.

The memorial includes a monument that weights nearly two tons featuring an engraved plaque with Adams’ picture on it and the story of his final flight. The plaque is made of Incoconel X, the same material used to construct the X-15.

Memorial plague to Maj. Michael J. Adams (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Memorial plaque to Maj. Michael J. Adams (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Near the monument is a small bush where visitors have left an interesting array of offerings. There were small American flags, a space shuttle coffee mug, a “Proud to be American” button, a golf ball and a small rubber alligator. It was kind of strange; I didn’t quite know what to make of all that.

Visitor offerings at the Michael J. Adams memorial. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Visitor offerings at the Michael J. Adams memorial. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Far more illuminating was the three-panel display with information about Adams, the X-15 and the missions he flew in it. Adams was born in 1930 in California’s capital, Sacramento, and enlisted in the United States Air Force 20 years later.

Credit: Douglas Messier)
Credit: Douglas Messier)

After meritorious service in the Korean War, Adams earned his aeronautical engineering degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1958. He then spent 18 months studying astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before being admitted to the Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in 1962. He was awarded the Honts Trophy as the best pilot and scholar in his class.

The following year, he graduated with honors from the Aerospace Research Pilot School (ARPS) at Edwards. He then joined three other test pilots for a five-month series of practice tests for NASA’s Apollo moon landing program.

In 1965, Adams was selected for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, which was the Air Force’s effort to build a space station. The following year,  he joined the X-15 program, making his first flight on Oct. 6, 1966. His final flight was his seventh in the X-15.

It’s good that John Bodylski thought to honor Adams in this way. At a time when NASA’s moon-bound astronauts were getting all the glory, the X-15 pilots were taking great risks that would contribute much to future air and space vehicles, including the space shuttle.

Burt Rutan (Credit: Douglas Messier)

At the time of Adams’ final flight, there was an engineer named Burt Rutan who was working at Edwards. His main focus was on correcting flight stability problems of the type that brought down the X-15.

Adams’ death always bothered Rutan. He continued to grapple with the problem of safe re-entry decades later as he designed SpaceShipOne, his entry into the Ansari X Prize.

Rutan finally hit upon a wing feathering system similar to a badminton shuttlecock that would orientate itself with the direction of SpaceShipOne’s flight. The design worked, and Rutan and his team won the $10 million prize for the first private vehicle to reach space in October 2004.

A decade later, the work done by Adams and his fellow X-15 pilots has renewed relevance. SpaceShipOne’s successor, SpaceShipTwo, will soon restart a series of flight tests designed to take it into suborbital space. XCOR is set to begin flights of its Lynx space plane early next year.

As we enter this period, we need to recall the risks and sacrifices made by those who came before. Those working in the field today stand on the shoulders of brave test pilots and brilliant engineers.

Adams’ death also reminds us that flight test is a dangerous business. We can pray for all of the brave pilots to return home safely, but there are no guarantees those prayers will be answered. We need to remember that going forward, and be prepared for any eventuality.


  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Nice article thanks Doug. I knew there was one casualty during the X-15 program but hadn’t followed it up. Also the link into the SS1 and subsequent programs. Seems like a new ship should bear his name perhaps?

  • Richard

    Great article Doug, its amazing for some of us on the other side of the world to think of all of the space history that exists in a very sparsely populated bit of desert in basically the middle of nowhere. I would love to have the opportunity one day to take a long holiday out to where you call home.

  • Jim Oberg

    Wonderful piece, ties the accident into contemporary spaceflight in a solid way. Best thing I’ve EVER seen written about Adams.

  • windbourne

    Nice article and a great eagle project.

  • Douglas Messier

    Thanks for all the compliments. This was an interesting post to write.

  • NikFromNYC

    NASA has these days sadly transformed its political side into a Muslim pep rally and a climate alarm factory that willfully ignores space age satellite data in favor of rogue black box manipulation of spotty earthbound data, and here Burt Rutan also contributes to fixing the mess, his clear lectures being readily available online in video and document formats:

  • John Stephens

    “The plaque is made of Incoconel X, the same material used to construct the X-15.”

    Hope scrappers don’t steal it.

  • Inconel, IIRC.

  • Voice in the Wilderness

    The one guarantee you have with prayer is that it won’t be answered.

    He was a brave aviator. Honor his memory and contributions. Why drag superstition in at the end of an otherwise fine article?

  • marcdanziger

    GPS coords or Google Map link would be awesome here…

  • Michael Richmann

    You recall correctly.

  • TomInGA

    Why be a jackass in an otherwise fine comment sections?

  • koblog

    Adams was one of many, many test pilots to die flying bleeding edge technology aircraft. I personally knew two who died doing what they loved. And it’s not like we don’t have the men like Adams anymore to take the risks. We don’t have the will to accept death as a possible consequence.

    The national crying, mass psychological counseling, breast-beating and finger pointing after a school teacher died doing what she wanted to do — which happened to be sitting in a Space Shuttle on top of 2,685,000 pounds of rocket fuel — sealed our fearful fate.

    No one can ever suffer the slightest harm in anything. And if they do, the program is cancelled. And the lawyers descend.

    Even thoughts deemed hurtful or offensive can get you fired. Football players are suing for damages years later after doing everything to get into the game. And the lawyers line up like vultures.

    Risking life is out of the question.

    My dad worked on the X-15 program at North American Aviation in El Segundo, California. Used to tell me he had to crawl up inside the fuselage to apply his inspection stamp.

    As a young kid, it was a thrilling time to live. Too bad it’s all virtual now.

  • koblog

    You assume all test pilots are faithless?

  • Voice in the Wilderness

    Of course not. Only that prayer has no effect beyond the mood of the person doing the praying.

  • Voice in the Wilderness

    Good question. Why did you choose that option?

  • Burt Rutan is also a great pioneer.

  • Rand Simberg

    Gee, someone should write a book about that.

  • Which is sufficient.

  • Voice in the Wilderness

    Which means that praying for someone else doesn’t help that other person. At all. Prayer is, at best, a self-soothing activity. Meditation works as well, only without the irrational beliefs. Neither can take the place of actually helping someone.

  • Charlie Roy

    The memorial site is just off Hwy 395 4.1 mi N on Trona Rd. then west on dirt abt 1/4 mi. Coordinates are:

    35°25’11.15″ N 117°36’06.21″ W
    Thanks Doug for an extremely fine write up of this memorial.

  • Bill E.

    Oh great. Just what the comments section of PA needs: Insanity with self-upvoting…

    Now we just need a gun debate and an atheist/creationist debate and the trifecta of internet stupidity will be complete.

    Edit: I just saw the atheist/creation debate is going on below. lol

  • When I first heard about NASA’s mission being changed from space exploration to “muslim outreach” I was sure it was a story from The Onion.


    Any government agency that is no longer fulfilling its logical purpose should be de-funded and ultimately disbanded.

  • Bill E.

    Ooooooh. I hope TomInGA has some ointment to rub on that SICK BURN!

  • Bill E.

    >NASA’s mission being changed from space exploration to “muslim outreach”

    Take five seconds and ask yourself this: “Does it make sense that Barack Obama/liberal media/socialists/progressive boogeymen would bother to change NASA’s mission from space exploration to Muslim outreach, or does this sound more like a paranoid conspiracy theory?”

  • Ziv Bnd

    Voice, if that is all you took from this article, I pity you. I am not much of one for prayer, but I will hope that you will gain wisdom in the future. No one deserves to spend their life being as petty as you seem to be.

  • procambarus
  • AD_Rtr_OS

    A lot of good men crashed in that damn desert.

  • Bill E.

    Ok, for laughs, what is the reason Barack Obama would do something like this?

    This seems like a very risky move. What does Obama get out of changing NASA’s mission from space exploration to Muslim outreach? Why did he do it?

    Let’s assume that he had the opportunity and the means. What was the motive? *Why* would he take a risk like this?

  • jdelayknee

    The Right Stuff by Tom Wolf. Good book about all these incredibly brave guys

  • windbourne

    You are wasting your breath on them.

  • And it bothers you because you’re an atheist. Okay – you don’t believe in a god. Me, I’m dubious myself – but why would it bother an atheist what someone else does or doesn’t do in regards to religion like this – when it doesn’t affect the atheist at all?

  • Good question. Yet it was so stated.

    “When I became the NASA administrator, (President Obama) charged me with three things,” Bolden said in the interview which aired last week. “One, he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math; he wanted me to expand our international relationships; and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math and engineering.”

    Why should it be NASA’s responsibility to make Muslin nations feel good when they haven’t produced any advances in science, math, or engineering in a long time?

  • LoneStar78730
  • Bill E.

    Sure thing – I’ve helped waste everyone’s time enough already. (Sorry, folks.) I was really hoping to get an honest answer, not just a repost (repeatedly) of the same press conference with no explanation as to *why*.

    I was really hoping the reason involved the UN, flouridated water, secret Muslims, the Illuminati, Lizard People or some combination of these. Unfortunately, I get the feeling that the real reason lies with AM Talk Radio and Glen Beck.

  • Voice in the Wilderness

    A number of reasons. First, in this instance, it does a disservice to the people who actually made the X-15 fly: Scientists, engineers, pilots. They get the credit, not some imaginary being. Also, when people think that praying can help someone it can lead them to avoid doing things that actually do help, like seeing doctors. It’s a prescientific, superstitious, ignorant view and needs to be challenged.

    Suppose the article had ended this way:

    “Adams’ death also reminds us that flight test is a dangerous business. We can sacrifice virgins to the volcano gods for all of the brave pilots to return home safely, but there are no guarantees those sacrifices will be rewarded. We need to remember that going forward, and be prepared for any eventuality.”

    See the problem?

  • patb2009

    unless that is UV glass they will need a sun shade for that.

  • Douglas Messier

    Pretty sad. People totally missed the point of this post.

    The spirit of Adams and Crossfield and Yeager and all the rest of them is alive and well in Mojave. But, we shouldn’t delude ourselves about the risks that lie ahead.

    Simple message. I don’t know how the discussion here devolved in the way it did.

  • I see YOUR problem. I don’t believe anyone’s going ‘If it weren’t for the grace of god our aircraft wouldn’t fly.’ We honor the scientists, engineers, designers and maintainers as we should. And you denigrate things that the people who sweated blood over the engineering, who’ve trained the pilots as best they know how, use to relieve stress in the final moments after they’ve done everything they know how to do.

    Well, yay for you. You’re sure better than them, aren’t you? Pat yourself on the back!

    Since this had nothing to do with medical discoveries, your dragging the ‘praying over medical issues’ canard is unfortunate. There’s already plenty of people who ignore health issues until it’s too late – religion rarely has anything to do with that.

    Your alternate idiotic ‘ending’ really shows your disdain for those who disagree with your ‘enlightened’ viewpoint. If you’re having to make up imaginary endings to justify your feelings, that’s just kind of sad.

  • Voice in the Wilderness

    So you saw my “alternate ending” as idiotic, yet can’t see that it’s identical to the original ending in meaning? Insert any nonsense religious practice you want and it’s the same. It’s nonsense.

    It’s not just prayers for healing that don’t work. No prayers for anything work.

  • Steve Jurvetson

    a memento from his plane at my side…

  • windbourne

    Yes, but for a good cause.

  • windbourne

    and it was spot on.

  • John B.

    I hope so too, but rest assured, it is held in much more securely than just some epoxy on a flat plate.