The Sounds of the Fastest Plane in the World, an ICBM Missile, and 28 Other Jets, Rockets, and Weapons

An aural history of the Cold War technologies that underpinned the space race and the arms race.
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If you spend any time looking for records at flea markets and garage sales, you come to recognize a variety of common vintage records: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Barbra Streisand, box collections of "best of" classical music, the band America.

And then there are the rare finds, the albums that you would never expect to exist. My latest find at the Alameda Point Antiques Fair falls into that category. It's a 1961 record by Reprise Records that I found yesterday digging through crates: X-15 and Other Sounds of Rockets, Missiles, and Jets.

I knew the X-15 was a spaceplane, the fastest manned aircraft ever built. But how could you make an album out of its flights?

"We are indebted to the abilities and perseverance of the many sound technicians who operated those [recording] machines, past and present. To the nameless front-line technicians who recorded the sounds of World War Ii aircraft under every condition (using wire, disc, film, and primitive tape machines), gratitude is expressed for the sounds they recorded under super-human stress," the back of the album intoned. "To their successors, we give our thanks for preserving these historic sounds while fulfilling their primary mission of recording higher and faster flight." Narrated with patriotic brio by disc jockey Johnny Magnus, the album, is "a sound-picture of the North American X-15, her contemporary companions, and her gallant predecessors."

And it became my possession for $2. And now yours, via SoundCloud, for nothing.

The X-15 was built by a company called North American Aviation, which is now a part of Boeing via a sale to Rockwell International. The recordings saw the light of day because one of the company's employees, Martin Halperin, "who recorded, supervised, or revivified the sounds from their original sources." According to the album cover, "The sound department of North American Aviation, Incorporated (Los Angeles Division) has one of the largest libraries of documented aerial sounds on earth."

Before you listen to the title track, let me tell you a couple more things about the X-15. The rocket-powered plane was carried into the sky by a B-52 bomber. Once untethered and under its own power, it could reach speeds of 4,500 miles per hour and altitudes over 100,000 feet before gliding back to Earth. "The X-15 paved the way for America's piloted space program, setting unofficial world records for flight speed and altitude along the way," NASA says. Also, Neil Armstrong flew one. Here's one being dropped from a B-52.

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And here's the test flight audio from the X-15, introduced with a wonderful guarantee: "The voices are actual. All things are as they occurred."

Another truly fascinating track was recorded in the nosecone of an Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile! "As a passenger in the nosecone of Atlas intercontinental missile, you will be on top of the result of more than a million man-hours of work," Magnus narrates. "In the uninterrupted sequence which follows, actually recorded in the nosecone, you will hear the following: the countdown and launch, the separation of the first stage at burnout, the intermittent sounds of the guidance rockets, the separation of the second stage, the separation of the nose cone, and the sound of the guidance rockets as they guide you to your final destination. Now get ready for countdown and launch!" 

Why the nose cone? One, that's where a warhead would have been placed. Two, the initial test of the Atlas missile had problems with the nosecone, leading one military officer to ask, "What's the value of shooting a missile 9,000 miles if the warhead is worthless when it gets there?" So they might have wanted as much data from that part of the missile as possible. 

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Still, I have no idea how they made this recording -- or rather, I can imagine how they made the recording, but not how they recovered it. 

Though the Atlas eventually got converted to civilian duty, lofting astronauts into orbit not bombs across the ocean, it's worth reflecting on what "your final destination" would have been at the time this recording was made: some Soviet city. 

Another fascinating section of the record runs through the American defense capabilities. We get to hear missiles like the Nike, Minuteman, and Titan ("which fills the land and sky with thunder").

But I particularly liked the description of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile as possessing an "electronic brain the size of a football." 

The Sidewinder was the subject of a lot of media attention. Lt. Commander Glenn A. Tierney liked to give colorful quotes about it as in one 1957 United Press clipping: "The sidewinder will chase [the enemy] all the way home and under the bed." 

Of course, the brain wasn't too smart. "Tierney said the Sidewinder, which has been an operational arm of the Navy since last October, would make the problem of plane identification extremely important because the 'brain' of the missile makes no distinction between wing markings." 

The idea that the reporter thought the missile might be capable of distinguishing between wing markings is worth pondering. I wonder if we could reliably do that kind of advanced machine vision now, let alone in 1957. "If you cut [a Sidewinder] loose at your wing man by mistake, the only thing you can do is holler: 'Sam, you've got four seconds to eject,'" Tierney noted.

The oldest recording on the album features a French scout airplane from World War I known as the Nieuport 28. You could outrace that plane in a good sports car. Yet the sound of its 200-horsepower engine fills me with false nostalgia. 

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There are a variety of other recordings on the album: a sonic boom, an old-school AT-6 fighter, a 707 taking off, some air-to-ground weapons, and a rocket firing on a test sled.  

I've snipped them all into little SoundCloud pieces for you below. And embedded below that, I've put both sides of the record just as they came off my turntable and the back cover of the album for all your contextual needs.

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Side A and Side B:

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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