MADISON – On June 27, 1963, Robert Rushworth flew the X-15, an experimental plane, to an altitude of 286,000 feet at a speed of 3,545 mph, higher and faster than any winged aircraft had ever gone.

The flight earned him astronaut wings, which at that time were awarded to pilots who flew 50 miles or higher, and recognition as Maine’s first astronaut.

Rushworth, who died in 1993 at the age of 68, paved the way for other astronauts from Maine, the most recent of whom, Caribou’s Jessica Meir, 35, a Harvard scientist, reported to Houston for astronaut training this week.

Fifty years later, Madison’s historical society is commemorating Rushworth’s journey into space and the anniversary of his flight to an altitude of 55 miles with an exhibit that coincides with the annual Madison Anson Days, this weekend.

The exhibit, which will be open Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Old Point Avenue School, shows Rushworth’s family life in Madison and highlights of his space career and newspaper articles from around the country about his achievements.

Although most of Rushworth’s family is no longer in the area, historical society President Judy Mantor said he is considered a hometown hero in Madison.

“It’s important to the town. He was Maine’s first astronaut and we want to honor and remember him,” she said of Rushworth, who retired from the Air Force as a major general, the Air Force’s fourth-highest rank.

Rushworth graduated from Madison Memorial High School and enlisted in the Army in 1943.

He entered the aviation cadet program, where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and received his pilot’s wings in September 1944.

His career began with an assignment in eastern Asia, where he flew C-47 Skytrain transport combat missions from India across the Himalayas to Shanghai and Peking during World War II.

After the war, Rushworth returned to the United States, joined the Army Air Force Reserve and spent the next seven years at Dow Air Force Base in Bangor.

In 1957 he went to the Air Force’s Experimental Flight Test Pilot School, where he test-flew jet fighters and the X-15, an experimental plane developed for use by NASA to reach the edge of outer space.

Rushworth’s obituary in The New York Times from March 1993 said the X-15 “paved the way for the nation’s space program by testing unknowns like the effect of heat on an aircraft during re-entry.” 

Rachel Ohm can be contacted at 612-2368 or at:

rohm@mainetoday.com