Our New Mexico Heritage – Aerospace researcher was fastest man on earth

Rocket sled sheds its speed in a water trough, dropping from high velocity to zero speed in less than two seconds. Photo courtesy Holloman Air Force Base.
Rocket sled sheds its speed in a water trough, dropping from high velocity to zero speed in less than two seconds. Photo courtesy Holloman Air Force Base.
Who is the fastest man on earth? Some would say Jamaican Usaine Bolt, who sprints at 27 miles per hour. Others think it’s George Poteet, who drove his Speed Demon across the Bonneville salt flats at 439 miles per hour.

But there’s another man to whom the title belonged. He wasn’t an athlete. Nor was he a thrill-seeker. And he no longer holds the title, but he was the first. The man was Dr. John Paul Stapp, a colonel in the Air Force. He was a medical researcher who rode a rocket-powered sled faster than a .45-calibre bullet.

Why on earth would a man subject himself to such extremes? It wasn’t fame or fortune that propelled him. It was knowledge. Stapp said, “I have a missionary spirit. When asked to do something, I do it. I took my risks for information that will always be of benefit. Risks like that are worthwhile.”

Born to Baptist missionary parents in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, Stapp entered the Army Air Corps in October 1944 as a medical doctor. Assigned to the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, he climbed aboard a strippeddown B-17 bomber that was not much more than fuselage and engines. While it cruised at altitudes above 40,000 feet, Stapp tested oxygen systems in the unpressurized, freezing aircraft, using himself as a guinea pig. He was attempting to answer questions critical to the future of aviation. Could men survive at extremely high altitudes? Could they keep from freezing, becoming severely dehydrated, or incapacitated by decompression sickness — known as “the bends”? Stapp tackled the problems one-byone and resolved them.

Though he had figured on practicing pediatrics once World War II had ended, Stapp found aerospace medical research so fulfilling, he made it his career.

(Top left) John Stapp wired and positioned to sustain high G-forces during a rocket sled journey. Photo courtesy NASA.(Right) Official Air Force photo of Col John Stapp (Below) The face tells it all: John Stapp experiences acceleration followed by rapid deceleration on a rocket sled. Common use photo.
(Top left) John Stapp wired and positioned to sustain high G-forces during a rocket sled journey. Photo courtesy NASA.(Right) Official Air Force photo of Col John Stapp (Below) The face tells it all: John Stapp experiences acceleration followed by rapid deceleration on a rocket sled. Common use photo.
In 1947, Stapp accepted an assignment to the deceleration project. The idea behind the project was how to design airplanes in which pilots could survive crashes. At the time, experts believed the maximum force the human body could survive was 18 Gs — or 18 times the force of gravity during which a 175- pound man experiences momentary forces of more than 3,000 pounds.

At Muroc Air Force Base — later renamed Edwards AFB — in the Mojave Desert, the Air Force constructed a track down which a rocket-sled was propelled. At one end, engineers installed hydraulic brakes to slow the sled from 150 mph to 75 mph in a fifth of a second. When it did, G forces would be produced equivalent to those experienced in an airplane crash.

The 15-foot-long sled, called Gee Whiz, was comprised of welded tubes and sat on a series of magnesium slippers. On top was a metal cab that accommodated the test subject seated forward, backward, or lying prone.

The initial occupant of the sled was a 185-pound dummy named Oscar Eightball. All tests were expected to be run with dummies, but Stapp had other ideas. Northrup Project Manager George Nichols explained, when Stapp saw Oscar Eightball, he walked over and patted it. “We’re not going to use these. You can throw this away.” Nichols quoted Stapp. “I’m going to be the test subject.”

It took some time to get the bugs worked out of the sled. Thirty-five test runs later, Stapp felt engineers had obtained sufficient experience to attempt a manned run. Ever the cautious scientist, on the first ride Stapp used only one rocket. He faced backwards to minimize the acceleration effects and G-load. The sled barely reached 90 mph, and the deceleration was only about 10 Gs. The next day, Stapp added two more rockets. The sled accelerated to 200 mph, but the doctor was hardly affected by the ride. The secrets of human deceleration seemed well within his reach.

By August 1948, Stapp had completed sixteen runs, surviving not just 18 Gs but 35, yet he felt he was still far from the limit. Initially, he refused to let anyone else ride the sled, fearing “hot-dogging” test pilots would skew the data. He endured bruises where harness straps dug into his shoulders and other minor injuries. Most disturbingly, though, he suffered blurry vision. Blood left his eyeballs and pooled towards the back of his head, resulting in a “white out.” During later tests, when he faced forwards and the blood was pushed up against his retinas, Stapp would experience “red outs” caused by broken capillaries and hemorrhaging. When it came to G forces, he learned eyes were the most vulnerable part of human anatomy.

Stapp was eventually transferred to Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, where he got an even faster sled, named Sonic Wind. It was on this sled in June 1956, he became the fastest man on earth. Sitting in the forward position, he shot down the track, reaching a speed of 632 mph, breaking the land speed record. (It was never officially recognized by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, which sanctions records.) The sled then decelerated to a dead stop in 1.4 seconds, experiencing forces 46.2 times the pull of gravity. In that eye-blink of time, Col. Stapp’s normal 175 pound weight would have felt like 8,085 pounds.

When asked how it felt, Stapp said, “It’s like being assaulted in the rear by a fast freight train.” When questioned about what he was thinking during the countdown, he said, “Paul, it’s been a good life.”

Following his record-breaking ride, Stapp experienced loss of sight but, it turned out, he was blind only a few hours. He did achieve a raccoon look with two black eyes brought on because his eyeballs had shot forward in their sockets.

On his 29 rocket-sled rides, Stapp suffered broken ribs, eye hemorrhages, concussion, loss of dental fillings, abdominal hernia, fractured coccyx, and, even once, a broken wrist. He was prepared to continue his experiments riding the Sonic Wind to speeds of 1,000 mph. But, because of concerns for his health, the Air Force grounded him after his fastest ride.

Stapp was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in 1979 and into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1985. He also was recipient of the Air Force Cheney Award for Valor and the Lovelace Award from NASA for aerospace medical research.

When asked if there were any lasting side effects from his dangerous experiments, Stapp said, “All the lunches and dinners I have to go to now.”

Col. Dr. John Paul Stapp died at his home in Alamogordo on November 13, 1999. He was 89 years old.