MADISON — On June 27, 1963, Robert Rushworth flew the X-15, an experimental plane, to a record altitude of 286,000 feet at a speed of 3,545 miles per hour, 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.

“There is no possible way for me to express my gratitude and thanks to the people of Madison,” Rushworth, wrote in a September 1963 letter to the town manager following a homecoming celebration that summer. “I have always felt that Madison people were most sincere and after twenty years I can say that my home town, and especially the people there, haven’t changed.”

Rushworth, there at the dawn of the space age, paved the way for a number of 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, the town 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, 75 Old Avenue, shows Rushworth’s childhood and family life in Madison as well as highlights of his space career and newspaper articles from around the country about his achievements.

Although Rushworth died in 1993 at age 68, and most of his family is no longer in the area, historical society president Judy Mantor said that he is thought of as 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 eventually retired from the Air Force as a major general, the Air Force’s fourth-highest rank.

Rushworth, who was born to Walter and Mabel Rushworth in 1924, graduated from Madison Memorial High School, where today the gymnasium bears his name. Known as Rushie, he played basketball, baseball and football and was class president all four years. His high school yearbook, which is included in the historical society exhibit, lists his ambition as the U.S. Air Corps.

Rushworth enlisted in the Army in 1943 and 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 Himalaya Mountain Range to Shanghai and Peking during World War II.

After the war, Rushworth returned to the United States, where he joined the Army Air Force Reserve and spent the next seven years at Dow Air Force Base in Bangor, where he was assigned as an F-80C Shooting Star pilot with the forty-ninth Fighter-Interception Squadron.

At the same time he earned two bachelors degrees — one in mechanical engineering from the University of Maine and one in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology.

In 1957 he went to the Air Force’s Experimental Flight Test Pilot School, where he test-flew jet fighters as well as the X-15, an experimental plane developed for use by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to reach the edge of outer space. Rushworth’s obituary in the New York Times from March 1993 said that 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.”

His 1963 flight in the X-15 earned him his astronaut’s wings, a badge awarded to pilots who have successfully completed a spaceflight. He was also recognized for his career in the air force and was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, in 1990.

Dennis Lisherness, a retired Air Force colonel, was awarded a leadership award named after Rushworth when he was an ROTC cadet in 1985. The award was presented to Lisherness, who is also from Madison, by Alexander Richard, another former Air Force officer from Madison and the former principal of Madison Memorial High School.

On his way from Colorado to an assignment in Australia as a young captain in August 1990, Lisherness said the three visited at Rushworth’s home, where he talked to Rushworth about satellite networks, his niche at the time.

As Lisherness was leaving and getting ready to go to Australia, he said  Rushworth had some memorable last words.

“Put another log on the barbie,” Rushworth told him from his porch in Madison. Lisherness said the encouragement meant a lot to him as a young officer.

“He was basically saying serve your country well, make us proud and while you’re over there as well, put another log on the barbie and enjoy yourself,” said Lisherness.

Rachel Ohm —  612-2368
[email protected]