ORLANDO, Fla. — When Robert White shot through the sky in a rocket-powered X-15 airplane nearly 50 years ago, he earned a place in the development of America’s space program that those in the field still talk about.

First to break Mach 4 – four times the speed of sound. First to break Mach 5. First to break Mach 6 – more than 4,000 miles per hour. All in a few short months in 1961.

Then in 1962 the young test pilot with Hollywood good looks nosed his airplane 59 miles above the earth to be the first to take a winged craft into space.

“He is an icon,” said Jim Young, chief historian at Edwards Air Force Base in California. “He accomplished some things that were major milestones in the history of flight.”

White, of Orlando, who retired from the Air Force in 1981 as a major general, died in his sleep Wednesday after several months of declining health. He was 85.

Greg White, his son, remarked that it was ironic that a man who lived his life on the edge of danger for decades died so peacefully.

Father and son appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1962 under the title “What a Ride!” after White’s landmark journey into space. It was the apex of his career as a test pilot, the nation was enthralled, and kids across America were busy gluing together gray plastic models of his plane.

While first American astronauts Alan Shepard, Virgil Grissom and John Glenn all had been nose-coned into space at the time, White’s feat was a forerunner of the space shuttle program to follow years later. It began to demonstrate that a winged craft could travel in space.

White was a member of a select group of test pilots at Edwards in the 1950s and early ’60s who pushed the limits of developmental aircraft. After the rocket-powered X-15 came on line, he was designated as its chief test pilot.

He was part of the pioneering group detailed in Tom Wolfe’s novel and subsequent movie “The Right Stuff” about the early development of the space program.