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.