Chuck Yeager pulls no punches on space travel
Chuck Yeager broke the 768-mph sound barrier in 1947 while piloting this experimental Bell X-1 rocket plane.
June 5th, 2012
10:32 AM ET

Chuck Yeager pulls no punches on space travel

Editor's note: It's been nearly 65 years since Chuck Yeager became the first human to fly faster than sound. Now 89, the legendary test pilot portrayed in the 1983 movie of Tom Wolfe's book "The Right Stuff" remains active with a charitable foundation and public appearances. He spoke with CNN last week about the future of space travel and his days as a test pilot at California's Edwards Air Force Base. The following is an edited transcript:

CNN: Are you still excited about what's going on in aircraft design and the ability to push the envelope?

Chuck Yeager: There's a limit to what they can do. The main thing is you have new airplanes coming, but it's still the same old weapons systems that destroy the enemy. That's the way you look at it. And there's not an awful lot of new stuff that's mind-boggling.

(Commercial spacecraft designer) Burt Rutan that to me is a bunch of crap trying to shoot guys up into damned space. What they're going to do is they're going to wipe out half a dozen (people) one of these days, and that will be the end of it.

CNN: Are you talking about space tourism companies like Virgin Galactic, which are planning to offer private civilians short rides to the edge of space?

Yeager: That's what I mean. One of these days there's going to be a catastrophe. And then that will put an end to it. (See Virgin Galactic's response below.)

CNN: What aviation figures are your heroes?

Yeager: Well, Gen. (Jimmy) Doolittle was my hero when I was a young pilot because he was something else.

I ran the astronaut school for six years, and I was the commandant and when I finished in '65, 26 of my guys went into space as NASA astronauts that I trained.

The Air Force was very much involved in space and the astronaut program.

But then (President Lyndon Johnson) and some other politicians said we've got to keep the military out of space because if we don't keep them out of space the damned Russians will start building space weapons systems which is a kind of stupid analogy. So they closed our school down, transferred everything to NASA, and it was a bureaucratic mess ever since.

CNN: I want to ask you about the recent successful unmanned SpaceX mission to the International Space Station. What do you think about the future of commercial space exploration?

Yeager: I don't believe there are too many big breakthroughs left in the space program. What do we gain out of it?

CNN: Is it better for the government to run it or private industry?

Yeager: It's a good place for the government to spend money. That's the way I'd put it.

CNN: How strong is your interest these days in aviation achievements?

Yeager: Well, basically there's not a hell of a lot going on because we got the F-15 and the F-16 and now we've got a Joint Strike Fighter coming that looks to me like it's going to break the budget. (laughs)

CNN: What was California's Edwards Air Force Base (formerly known as Muroc Air Base) like when you first started flying there?

Yeager: Let me tell you some of the bad things. Muroc Air Base was staffed by the dregs of the Air Force back in '45, '46. We were sent out from (Ohio's) Wright Field to do test work, and those guys wouldn't give you the time of day. And even when I was flying the X-1 over there, I could not get any support whatsoever. They were just a bunch of jealous people. Now that you understand my attitude, Muroc Air Base was a sorry place until Gen. (Albert) Boyd moved out there after the X-1 and straightened it up.

CNN: Speaking of the X-1, tell me about that night after you broke the sound barrier. Did you celebrate at the pilot hangout they used to call the Happy Bottom Riding Club?

Yeager: The mission was classified when we got it above Mach 1. Gen. Boyd said, 'OK, this is classified; you can't talk about it. You can't celebrate.' And that put an end to everything. (laughs)

When we did get it above Mach 1, well obviously it made us very happy because we'd done something the rest of the world had been trying to do for years. What it did, it put America ahead of the rest of the world the British, the French, the Soviet Union on technology.

I felt good about it, naturally because I'd done what the old man had sent us out to do. That's just about the end of it.

After six months when the Air Force finally leaked it out, we started to celebrate somewhat. But by then the newness had worn off and then we were talking about Mach 2 and 2 and a half and things like that.

CNN: Have you been to Edwards recently to visit the spot where the club burned down?

Yeager: We've been out there they have a party once a year, and they go out there, and they fix it all up and get some platforms and have a barbecue and most of the base comes out. You go out there and you look at the swimming pool, and you think back over the years and you think about (Happy Bottom owner) Pancho (Barnes) and her husband, Mac McKendry, and some of the people who used to come out there.

When I was flying the X-1, I was only getting $260 a month. The way we looked at it duty was our guideline that's the way we all flew in the military.

But I'm not one of those who spends a hell of a lot of time thinking about old stuff.

CNN: Back in the day, did you enjoy the outdoors during your time at Edwards?

Yeager: We fished a lot in the High Sierras for golden trout. And we also hunted for quail over in Antelope Valley in back of Lancaster. We hunted a lot of dove. I used to take my two boys outside the house there in the evening, and a dove would fly by and I'd shoot them and they'd pick them up and then (his late wife) Glennis would cook them. It was good eating.

CNN: Horseback riding?

Yeager: Glennis and I did a lot of horseback riding at Pancho's because Pancho had some good horses.

CNN: Last month, you served as grand marshal of the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington. How do you feel about the way admirers respond to you?

Yeager: They all know your name and they yell at you and cheer and things like that. And I feel really good about it because they honor what you did. And that's the way they look at it. And they're proud of you, and they show that reaction when you go by.

I haven't changed. And I think that's one thing that the people appreciate. I was in a convertible, and people were just really going ape, you know, cheering and saying my name, and I was really proud that they would do that. But they never forget you, that's the main thing.

Editor's note: Aerospace development company Scaled Composites, founded by Rutan, did not respond to CNN's request for a response to Yeager's comments. But Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides did. "Virgin Galactic’s goal is to operate the safest space vehicles in history.  Because no endeavor of this scale and significance is without risk, we will use our flight test program to show we have reached that high standard of safety.  During flight test, we will expand the vehicle’s flight envelope further than will be required for normal commercial operations, giving our customers including our first commercial passenger, Richard Branson confidence that we have met our goal," Whitesides' statement said.

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  3. AJ

    the bit that i where he goes wrong is the "When we did get it above Mach 1, well obviously it made us very happy because we'd done something the rest of the world had been trying to do for years. What it did, it put America ahead of the rest of the world – the British, the French, the Soviet Union – on technology." hello Chuck The British had a plane built Sir Frank Whittle the Inventory of the jet engine was woking on it...

    The Miles M.52 was a turbojet powered supersonic research aircraft project designed in the United Kingdom in the mid 1940s. Design work was undertaken in secrecy between 1942 and 1945. In 1946 the Air Ministry controversially changed the project to a series of unmanned rocket-powered scale aircraft, launched from a modified de Havilland Mosquito. In a successful test flight Mach 1.38 was achieved by a scale model in normally controllable transonic and supersonic level flight, a unique achievement at that time which validated the aerodynamics of the M.52. At that point the ministry pulled the project it was bought by the Americans take look at it the wind tunnel model it is in Berkshire museum.... the x craft & the M.52 are one in the same

    July 3, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Dave West

      I had never heard of the M.52 so I did a little research. Seems you're correct about the rocket powered scale models, but it exploded seconds after being launched from the modified Mosquito and it was only a few days later that Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell. Check it out yourself, he was first person to fly anything supersonic.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  4. g.r.r.

    Note that before the Mercury first flew (and Laika few), that many 'experts' said that biological life would die at the edge of space. Likewise, when Boeing was building the 747, many experts claimed that it would not fly, and if it did, that so many would fall out of the sky, that it would stop flying.
    Skip experts like this.

    June 23, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  5. jimstu47

    Folks, he\'s a national treasure in a very real sense. He\'s had a life that any of us would give our eye teeth to have had. His whole llife has been an adventure. And re: this interview? Give him a break, he\'s 89. Anybody reading this have an elderly parent? Ever see them get a little grumpy? Not to worry – that\'s not the whole picture, even of the present day Yeager – I had a recent email exchange with a member of his staff, who said he still has a sharp intellect, a commanding presence, and still flies – frequently. If you don\'t know much about him, in addition to reading his autobiography, check out his website and read what some very notable folks – who worked and flew with him – have to say about him: Bottom line on this one: Chuck Yeager is great man, one of the greatest natural pilots in history... who probably got up on the wrong side of the bed that day.

    June 14, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
  6. Ed

    People that think all Chuck Yeager is all about is riding the rocket that broke the sound barrier are all wrong. Before you make your disgusting and ignorant comments read his book YEAGER an autobiography by General Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos, all 423 pages. Then tell us how ignorant you were to make those disgusting remarks about an ace of world war 2. One that shot down a Messerschmitt jet while flying in a P51 prop driven Mustang among many other kills.

    June 11, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  7. Chester

    It's sad. General Yeager's responses were somewhat incoherent and rambling. It did sound as though he had been drinking. But give credit where credit is due, he was a skilled and daring pilot back in the day.

    June 7, 2012 at 4:41 am |
    • davidabarak

      Well, he IS about 88 or so (born in 1924, from what I remember), so I can see how his answers would ramble a bit. I was going to mention that he sounded like a cranky old man, but that's what happens to most of us if we're lucky enough to make it to his age. ; )

      June 8, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
      • John

        Gen. Yeager was born in 1923 – he hasn't had a drink in over 40 years. And if he sounds "gruff" or "grumpy" – it's because he's direct and to-the-point. In print especially, it comes across as grouchy. In person, he's direct, but incredibly humorous. And sharp – how many 89 year olds do you know who fly regularly (anything, let alone the variety from an Aviat Husky for fun, a biz jet for friend Barron Hilton.. the occasional F-15 or F-16 down at Edwards for fun.. Airbus invited him to fly the A-380 last year over the French Alps.. and he did – not just flying it but stalling it and doing flight maneuvers to test-fly it thoroughly. The man, simply, is a legend.

        August 10, 2012 at 2:58 am |
  8. Amused

    I will not even try to explain nor justify Chuck's extremely astute point of view regarding space travel! I do believe that he is quite correct about our current level of technology and proficiency in conquering space! For the most part, our best advanced rockets and crafts that we have developed so far are still based on the same approach and type of propulsion that Chuck was testing nearly 70 years ago! I believe that we have INDEED just about reached the limits of that old rocket style propulsion! What we REALLY need is an entirely new and much more efficient approach to propulsion physics! This tired old method of carrying large amounts of fuel and burning most of it up just to escape earth's gravity is EXTREMELY limiting for any ambitious plans to travel a significant distance and still have the ability to return! I certainly don't have the answer to this problem, but we MUST solve it somehow if we are to accomplish any great manned missions beyond the Moon or Mars! Somehow, we must envision and develop an entirely new paradigm for interplanetary travel! Otherwise, we will remain stuck right here where we are now, making only small incremental improvements in fuel thrust efficiency and craft weight ratios without really increasing our capabilities enough to get us out of the solar system... Just my opinion!

    June 6, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • davidabarak

      Maybe we should scale back on things like the International Space Station? I'm not sure what kind of science projects they're working on, and I'm not sure what the balance is between applied science and pure science. I'm not suggesting they stop, I'm just not sure.

      I'm a big proponent of scientific discovery and exploration, as most of it eventually ends up improving our lives in some way (the naysayers don't seem to be able to connect the dots). I'd love to see us develop the technology that would let us move past the use of rockets, but I don't know how we would undertake such a huge project without cutting funding for other space projects. Maybe the pioneering civilian space companies will find the expense of rocket-based flight affects their bottom line too much and they'll take up the cause. One can hope...

      June 8, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • alpg49

      Agreed! There aren't a lot of new things to do because we're limited by materials and fuels. The only advances are computer-based: drones, interplanetary navigation. The technology of putting objects "of a certain size" into and out of orbit is pretty well settled.

      ... but what will guys like Yeager, Glenn, and Dolittle do?

      June 14, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  9. Jenna

    This article does not reflect Gen Yeager's views accurately. He looks forward to new technogy & breakthroughs.
    He thinks (correctly) that we're spending a lot of $ re-discovering old technology (some that dont work at all) w/ unnecessary & expensive bells & whistles.
    Bring on the breakthroughs!

    June 6, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  10. wrm

    I love Yaeger. Straight through the horsepucky, as always.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  11. jdoe

    I disagree that private space companies are a bad idea. They may have an accident one of these days, but I doubt it will put an end to the whole enterprise. I do think that using private space companies will not save the government much money in the long run. Just like the defense industry, they'll start overcharging for everything and/or going over budget.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  12. observer

    I love how some people think he is being a grumpy old man. This man has lived a life none of you will ever experience. I would listen to him way before I listened to any of you. He's been there and done that, so I believe he has more experience and no how than any of you. He also has the right to an opinion, as do any of us, but on this topic he knows best. He's seen the suits take over and mess things up. We shall wait and see what happens. He IS a hero, you are not.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Munier Parker

      All of the comments Ive read thus far have been based on the merits of what Chuck has said in the interview – and in fairness, they're all warranted. No one is disputing that he has lived an amazing life, or that he has not made a huge contribution to the understanding of supersonic flight. But you cannot defend a poor stance, by the mere fact that Chuck is so highly revered. Based on pure merit, what he has said is ill-considered and in fact, completely counter to anything that he has achieved. By all accounts, without the risks that people like he have taken, we would never advance as a species. Albert Einstein was wrong about Quantum Mechanics, Isaac Newton was wrong about gravity ... that doesn't take away from what they *did* contribute. Same with Chuck – almost everyone here disagrees with a his stance and very well that they do. I do.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  13. ronmacdee

    Actually, the X1 incorporated key British technology to get to mach 1, crated and shipped gratis to the US when the Brits ran out of cash. This tranche of government cutbacks also saw cancellation of the Bluestreak ICBM which has since been reborn as the first stage of Arian, Europe's space launcher.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Chester

      So true. A deal had been cut which allowed the Americans to break Mach 1 first. Otherwise the Brits had as good a crack at it as any. Not to mention the Soviets.

      June 7, 2012 at 4:42 am |
    • Jenna

      The X-1 was not based on ANYTHING British. That is a myth.
      Also, why do any of you believe these are actually General Yeager's actual words and the interviewer's actual questions?

      February 10, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
      • ronmacdee

        On cancellation of the British Miles M.52, the jigs and drawing were shipped to US. The X1 incorporates the fundamentals of the M.52's variable incidence tailplane, without which the project struggled — this is not to detract from the first class achievements of Chuck and the X-1 team.

        February 11, 2013 at 6:44 am |
  14. jimmydemello

    People risk their lives everyday in extreme type sports – should we just leave those to the "professionals" Chuck? If someone gets killed in their pursuit of extreme thrills then will they have to stop? I don't think so. For someone who has lived on the edge to say that private citizens shouldn't be allowed to live on the edge is the height of conceit, arrogance and selfishness.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  15. paul

    crusty old thing, isn't he?

    June 5, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  16. Tom Watson

    Not intending to slighten Mr. Yeager's exploits in any way, but: ANY other test pilot would have accomplished the same with that machine, the X-1, the technology for which, by the way, was developed in Germany in the early 1940ies.
    Mr. Yeager would be well advised to enjoy his olden days, rather than telling us what not to do, especially when it comes to pushing the bounderies further. Time will not stop and the human race will continue to seek advances in all fields, much as he believed in some 65 years ago (and before he was rejected for space travel for whatever reason).

    June 5, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  17. beingn8er

    Ok, so did anyone else read Virgin Atlantic's response? On one hand, obviously Chuck here doesn't think anything can succeed without his personal Yeagerness being involved, but he does have a valid point about what will happen once there is a catastrophe. Virgin Atlantic didn't even answer the question. They totally dodged it and said "well, we will try to make sure there is no catastrophe." Yeah well no kidding. we all know that. but do you do when it HAPPENS??? Burying your head in the sand isn't a good answer.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • M I Snow

      An MD-83 crashed yesterday in Lagos, Nigeria... killing all 163 on board + scores on the ground... will you and the rest of the world stop flying because of it...NO!!!! it's an assumed, albeit minuscule, risk you take... only the killjoys in the media will kill it by over-sensationalizing any catastrophic event... there is an inherent risk in defying new frontiers... or shall we all get back into shells???

      June 5, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  18. notsofastsunshyne

    Good heavens, how does Glenn's galactic-sized ego NOT effect the gravitational pull of the earth? Forget being famous for breaking the sound barrier, he should be famous for being the world's greatest definition of conceited.
    Kim Jong Il would have been impressed with his ego.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  19. WarpedDimensions

    Chuck Yeager DID NOT break the sound barrier. The X1 broke the sound barrier. And the SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS who were involved in the design and development this aircraft should be credited for breaking the sound barrier. The plane wouldn't have broken the sound barrier if it wasn't designed to do so. Also, there is a lot of cutting edge research and development currently going on in the aerospace industry in all flight regimes; subsonic, supersonic, hypersonic and space. Chuck Yeager seriously needs to do some research before he opens his mouth.

    June 5, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • wrm

      Actually, I think you do. Sounds like your research consists of watching "The Right Stuff" a few times too many.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  20. chemicalbank

    For a guy who was on the cutting edge, Yeager sure is uninspiring. Same for Rutan. People still die in airliners from time to time, and no one is clamoring for an end to air travel. What a letdown this interview was.

    June 5, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • M I Snow

      Totally agree w/ you... for someone that says...
      "But I'm not one of those who spends a hell of a lot of time thinking about old stuff."
      ...it seems like that is all he does... old coot can't see beyond end of his nose.

      June 5, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  21. Carole Clarke

    This man is a living legend who got in on the ground floor of space exploration, broke the sound barrier and tested some very good planes. I didn't realize he was so limited in scope re the furtherance of exploration. He was not chosen for the astronaut program mainly because he did not have the college education the others did and relied on his military partner to fill in the technical blanks. He is more like John Travolta when it comes to aircraft – both are natural flyers and in a pending disaster there is no one I'd rather have at the controls than one of them. Even so, had the press found out about the womanizing among the married astronauts at Cape Canaveral, alot of them would've been flushed out. But not Chuck Yeager. We'll never know how things would've turned out had he been chosen. I'd like to know what he thought of the disaster when the 3 astronauts were killed testing their capsule on the ground – learning by mistake or preventable error? It's natural to advance in segements with alternating quick and slow advances or does he not agree? And how do we pay for quicker advances in the current economic situation?

    June 5, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  22. chiavarm

    Chuck is an American hero and he did not just happen to fly fast. It was more involved than that. However, if I remember correctly from his book, he was not selected to be an astronaut and he did then as now have animosity toward NASA. So it appears as though his opinion of any space program is less than objective.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  23. korgri

    Did they edit out his 'by cracky's"

    June 5, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  24. Munier Parker

    What Chuck and the team of people behind him achieved was amazing and a great contribution to the development of human knowledge on supersonic and space flight. But what strikes me from the transcript, is that Chuck seems to think that there's not a lot more to achieve or reach for (in terms of space flight). I'm absolutely astounded by this. Surely, he cannot think this? If he does, maybe he's a lot more "human" than I thought ... an Ace pilot who hade a once in a lifetime opportunity and just happened to fly really fast.

    June 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • FifthApe

      Thats exactly what I thought Munier. You summed it up perfectly. Maybe we will all be like that at that age? Sad though as he is a hero of mine, read hist book – what a life. But there is much more ahead of us that he (we) can imagine. The sky is the limit.

      June 5, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
      • Munier Parker

        I hope not :) Yup, he is a living legend. But I think its also important to draw line of differentiation between words of a legend and the merit in the words themselves. I'm sure there is much more ahead and contributions and surprising discoveries of scientists and technicians to come. But kudos to Chuck, his name is in the history books.

        June 5, 2012 at 12:34 pm |

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