John P. Stapp

John P. Stapp

‘The Fastest Man on Earth,’ investigated the effects of deceleration and acceleration.

Dr. John Paul Stapp earned the title “The Fastest Man Alive” when he rode the Sonic Wind I rocket-propelled sled on December 10, 1954, to a land record speed of 632 mph in five seconds. He sustained the greatest G-forces endured by man in recorded deceleration tests up to that time, 46.2 Gs when the sled stopped in 1.4 seconds.

John Paul Stapp was born in Bahia, Brazil on July 11, 1910, the son of missionaries (his father was president of the American Baptist College in Bahia). Both of his parents were teachers and taught John at home until he was twelve. He was then enrolled in Brownwood High School, (now the San Marcos Academy) in Brownwood, Texas. Initially, Stapp wished to be a writer, but in 1928, the tragic death of an infant cousin convinced him to pursue a career in medicine.

Stapp received a B.A. degree in English in 1931 from Baylor University in Waco, Texas and an M.A. degree in Zoology in 1932 (he could not afford to attend medical school). After two years of teaching at Decatur Baptist College in Decatur, Texas, Stapp returned to college and received a Ph.D. degree in Biophysics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1939. That year he finally was able to enroll in a medical program, and received an M.D. degree from the University of Minnesota, in 1944. He completed his medical internship at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota.

Dr. Stapp entered military service on October 5, 1944. He completed the Medical Field Service School at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania and his medical residency at the Regional Hospital at Lincoln Army Air Base, Nebraska. He was then assigned to Pratt Army Air Base, Kansas as a General duty medical officer. Stapp next attended the School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field in San Antonio, Texas and received his Aviation Medical Examiner designation.

On August 10, 1946, John Paul Stapp was transferred to the Aero Medical Laboratory of the Wright Air Development Center in Dayton, Ohio as project officer and medical consultant in the Bio-Physics Branch. His first assignment included testing proposed oxygen systems in un-pressurized aircraft at 40,000 feet. Captain Stapp often volunteered to be a test subject himself.

After the successful conclusion of this project, Stapp was given responsibility for another important research program, the study of the human body’s ability to withstand G forces during de-acceleration. Stapp began this research at Muroc Dry Lake (now Edwards Air Force Base), California in March 1947. From December 1947 to August 1948, he made sixteen rocket sled runs there, enduring up to 35 Gs and suffering a host of painful injuries that he felt were a small price to pay for the invaluable data he was gathering. After making more sled runs, Dr. Stapp, now an Air Force Major, was sent to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico in 1953, to direct further deceleration projects.

At Holloman John Paul Stapp made history aboard the Sonic Wind I rocket sled on December 10, 1954, when he set a land speed record of 632 mph in five seconds, subjecting him to 20 Gs of force during acceleration. Although he had a surplus of volunteers for the dangerous ride, he chose himself for the mission, not wanting to place another in such a potentially hazardous position. When the sled stopped in just 1.4 seconds, Stapp was hit with a force equivalent to 46.2 Gs, more than anyone had yet endured voluntarily. Though he managed half a smile as he was pulled from the sled he was in great pain, and his eyes flooded with blood from the bursting of almost all their capillaries. As Stapp was rushed to the hospital, he worried that one or both of his retinas had detached, leaving him blind. Fortunately, by the next day, he had regained enough of his normal vision to be released by his doctors, though his eyesight would never fully recover.

Acclaimed “The Fastest Man on Earth,” Stapp was an international sensation, appearing on magazine covers, television, and as the subject of an episode of “This is Your Life!” He used his public acclaim to pursue his dream of improving automobile safety, as he had long felt that the safety measures he was developing for military aircraft should also be used for civilian automobiles. He employed his instant celebrity to push for the installation of seat belts in American cars, as well as for other now standard safety features. The success of his tireless efforts is measured in thousands of lives saved and injuries lessened every year by the safety precautions he championed.

Although Dr. Stapp had hoped to make other runs on the Sonic Wind, perhaps even surpassing 1000 mph, in June 1956, the sled flew off its track during an unmanned run and was badly damaged. Stapp would later ride an air-powered sled known as the “Daisy Track” at Holloman, but never again would he be subjected to the rigors of rocket-powered travel. Colonel Stapp next planned and directed the Manhigh Project, three manned high-altitude balloon flights to test human endurance at the edge of space. Conducted in June and August 1957, the project’s highlight was the second mission, during which Lieutenant David G. Simons reached an altitude of almost 102,000 feet. Project Manhigh was a tremendous scientific success and helped prepare for America’s initial manned space launch in 1961.

Colonel Stapp’s next assignment was as Chief of the Aero Medical Laboratory of Wright Air Development Center in Dayton, Ohio. There he directed research and development in aviation and space life sciences. His campaign to improve aviation and auto safety had already borne fruit in 1955 with the beginnings of what was to become the Stapp Automobile Safety Conference, an information-sharing symposium that became a yearly event. On September 9, 1966, Dr. Stapp was present as President Lyndon Johnson signed the Highway Safety Act of 1966, requiring seat belts in all new cars sold in the United States beginning in 1968.

In 1967, John Paul Stapp began working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as a medical scientist. Retiring from the Air Force as a colonel in 1970, he became a professor at the University of California’s Safety and Systems Management Center, then a consultant to the Surgeon General and NASA. He was next president of the New Mexico Research Institute in Alamogordo, New Mexico, as well as chairman of the annual “Dr. Stapp International Car Crash Conference.” In 1991, Stapp received the National Medal of Technology, “for his research on the effects of mechanical force on living tissues leading to safety developments in crash protection technology.” He was also honorary chairman of the Stapp Foundation, underwritten by General Motors to provide scholarships for automotive engineering students.

Colonel Dr. John Stapp died in Alamogordo on November 13, 1999, at the age of eighty-nine. His many honors and awards included enrollment in the National Aviation Hall of Fame; the Air Force Cheney Award for Valor and the Lovelace Award from NASA for aerospace medical research.