John Paul Stapp, MD, PhD, a US Air Force
researcher who subjected himself to huge gravitational forces in the study
of human endurance when exposed to supersonic maneuvering and mishaps, died
November 13, 1999, at his home in Alamagordo, NM,
at age 89.
Beginning in the immediate post–World War II years, he volunteered
to be strapped into rocket-powered steel research sleds on concrete-embedded
tracks to determine human tolerance to acceleration and deceleration forces.
His findings are credited with playing a key role in proving that humans can
operate vehicles traveling through space at ever-increasing speeds and can
escape from them in an emergency. On the ground, for the general public, his
data were critical for today's standard supplying of seat belts and air bags
in most US motor vehicles.
The son of American missionaries, Stapp was born in Bahia, Brazil. After
high school in Texas, he became an English major at Baylor University there.
Then, when called upon to help nurse a 2-year-old cousin, who had been burned
when the boy came too close to an open fireplace, Stapp resolved—after
witnessing the child's death—to become a physician. However, family
finances were limited and he had to undertake a variety of jobs to stay in
college, finally earning a PhD degree from the University of Texas. In 1939,
at age 29, he was admitted to the University of Minnesota Medical School.
Like most physicians graduating in the early 1940s, Stapp entered wartime
military medical service. He was preparing to return to civilian life from
a variety of US Army Air Corps medical assignments when 2 developments changed
his decision. First, the military was designing aircraft that could fly faster
and higher than ever before, but it was unknown whether humans could tolerate
such stresses, much less escape in an emergency. (About the only data compiled
to that point were in a handbook that the wartime German air force prepared
for its first jet pilots.) Second, while attending a National Academy of Sciences
meeting in Washington, DC, Stapp concluded that civilian scientists were "looking
down" on military researchers. This view raised his contrarian hackles and
he decided to remain in what was about to become (1947) the US Air Force.
In December 1947, Stapp rode the rocket-powered research sled in the
Mojave Desert locale of Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), Calif. Near the end
of the concrete-embedded track, a trough between the rails held dammed-up
water. As the sled streaked down the track, metal scoops beneath it broke
the dams, scooping up the water and funneling it through vents on the sled
to provide braking.
By May 1948, Stapp had ridden the sled 16 times and was subjected to
35 times the usual gravitational force (35g), making
his body briefly—during the test—weigh slightly more than 3 tons.
In 1951, Stapp raced down the 2000-foot track at Edwards, enduring 48g. Then, on December 10, 1954, at Holloman AFB, NM, he
became known as "the fastest man on earth" when he reached a speed of 632
mph on a research sled that stopped in 1.4 seconds, momentarily changing his
body weight of 168 lb to 6720 lb.
In the course of his research rides, Stapp fractured both wrists and
most of his ribs, injured his coccyx and sacrum, endured repeated retinal
hemorrhages, and jarred loose 6 dental fillings.
Stapp retired from the Air Force in 1970 as a full colonel. He received
the military's Legion of Merit, Cheny Award for Valor, and Distinguished Service
Medal. He was also the recipient of numerous honors from the National Aviation
Hall of Fame, International Space Hall of Fame, Safety and Health Hall of
Fame, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Jet Pioneers of America,
and the military medical community.
Gunby P. John Paul Stapp, MD, PhD. JAMA. 2000;283(14):1894. doi:10.1001/jama.283.14.1894