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The first vehicle ever to achieve hypersonic speeds was the WAC Corporal, a US Army second-stage rocket mounted atop a captured German V-2 rocket. On 24 February 1949, the WAC Corporal separated from the V-2 at 3500 mph before its own engine powered it to an altitude of 244 miles and a top speed of 5150 mph upon atmospheric reentry.

V-2 and WAC Corporal at lift-off
V-2 and WAC Corporal at lift-off

On 12 April 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel hypersonically when his Vostok I return capsule reached Mach 25 on atmospheric reentry after the first manned orbital flight.

Vostok I space vehicle
Vostok I space vehicle

Later that year, American Robert White flew the X-15 rocket-powered research aircraft at Mach 5.3 thereby becoming the first pilot to reach hypersonic velocities. White's mark was later topped by fellow X-15 pilot Pete Knight who flew the craft to a maximum speed of Mach 6.72 in 1967. The record still stands today as the highest velocity ever reached by an aircraft.

X-15 high-speed research vehicle
X-15 high-speed research vehicle

Although the Apollo return vehicles reached speeds as high as Mach 36 on their return from the Moon, the fastest winged vehicle ever is the Space Shuttle as it hits Mach 25 during reentry. However, no vehicle using air-breathing engines (i.e. some form of jet) has ever surpassed the Mach 5 limit. This fact is due to change once NASA's X-43 Hyper-X experimental vehicle makes its first successful test flight in 2003.

X-43 Hyper-X scramjet test vehicle
X-43 Hyper-X scramjet test vehicle

The X-43 is a test bed for a scramjet engine, a type of engine likely to be used in some future waverider design. Although engine design and integration is always important in aircraft design, propulsion issues are even more critical in the development of hypersonic vehicles and will be addressed in greater detail. Despite this progress, no manned, hypersonic, air-breathing vehicle has ever flown (at least that we know of). To date, only design studies and wind tunnel tests of some potential configurations have been performed.





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