Badass of the Week.

John Paul Stapp

If you were making a list of borderline-psychotic dudes who made insane careers for themselves simply by routinely putting their lives on the line by volunteering for suicide missions in the name of science on pretty much a daily basis, United States Air Force Colonel Doctor John Paul Stapp would easily be placed at or near the very top of this list. A human crash test dummy who spent his ridiculously-hardcore life designing rocket-propelled death traps and then voluntarily strapping himself to these unstable jet fuel-stuffed devices simplty to see if he could use them without spontaneously evaporating into a 2,000-foot-long vapor trail of blood, Stapp became famous not only for being the scientific genius and innovator behind incredible inventions that saved the lives of millions of people across the globe, but also for being the only guy crazy enough to test out those inventions in life-or-death, lets-build-a-rocket-sled-and-ride-it-600mph real-world situations.

The Fastest Man in the World was born in Brazil in 1910, the son of Baptist missionaries from Texas. He grew up in the Lone Star State, studying at elite Texas universities, receiving several advanced degrees in Biophysics and other disciplines that sound really fucking impossible, and then picking up his MD in his spare time when he wasn't writing theses on theoretical physics so over-the-top complicated that by the time this dude was out of school he could wield a slide rule like Bruce Lee swinging nunchucks and beating the shit out of those assholes in Enter the Dragon.

Stapptook his med degree and PhD in Biophysics and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1944, serving through World War II in some capacity I was never able to find clarification on, and then by '46 he was getting his Gordon Freeman on working as a medical officer in biophysical research. His first research breakthrough came later that year, as he was studying the effects of altitude sickness and decompression sickness ("the bends") in pilots. He studied this by stripping a B-17 bomber down to its wire-frame skeleton and then personally flying it with an open cockpit in an unpressurized cabin for 65 hours of total flight time at an altitude of 45,000 feet. After somehow not dying from air bubbles in his bloodstream or his head collapsing or freezing to death, J.P. Stapp eventually discovered that if you huffed pure oxygen for 30 minutes prior to take off a pilot could withstand impossibly high altitudes without their brain blowing out through their skulls and their recently-empty heads then collapsing down like a crumpled-up piece of paper. This breakthrough led to the development of high-altitude aircraft (primarily spy planes and strategic bombers), HALO parachute insertion tactics, and, oh yeah, the space program.

After cracking that nut, Colonel Doctor Stapp then went on to study the effects of rapid deceleration on the human body. His primary goal was to find and develop new technologies for keeping pilots alive in plane crashes, but as a side note he also took a keen interest in understanding how many Gs a person could pull before their skeleton ripped out through their body and flew out into the stratosphere. The common understanding at the time was that the human body could handle 18 Gs (Note: A G is the equivalent to the force of gravity, so 18 Gs of pressure would mean you have 18 times the force of the Earth's gravity pressing against your body trying to crush you to death). Stapp wasn't sure this was the case, since it had never really been tested, so he went out and just voluntarily exposed himself to way more than that just to see if it would kill him. He went out, found a 2,000-foot-long railway track at Edwards Air Force Base in Los Angeles that had previously been used to conduct research on V-1 rockets, and then built a 1,500-pound ROCKET SLED on it, strapped himself in, and hauled fucking ass as fast as it would carry him.

Stapp's rocket sled. His last words before riding this thing for the first time were,
"I assure you, I am not looking forward to this".

The rocket sled's first run took place on April 30, 1947. The thing flew off the tracks and exploded. A year and a half later the sled stayed on the tracks, accelerated to 150 miles an hour, and slammed to a stop, sending the crash-test dummy flying face-first through two feet of solid wood and catapulting the mangled corpse 710 feet down range. The next time they were about to take it out, John Paul Stapp personally walked over to the sled as it sat on the tracks, threw out the crash test dummy, and told his team, "We're not using this. I'm going to be the test subject." Despite the objections of his team, he gave the order to launch and immediately took a Rocket Sled 200 miles an hour, then slamming short to a stop that racked his body with 35 Gs.

By June 1951 the Rocket Sled had gone through 74 successful human-operated runs. Stapp had already broken several ribs, a couple limbs, fractured his wrist twice, and had detached retinas that left him temporarily blinded. This, however, did not stop him from breaking the Land Speed Record for Railed Vehicles in 1952, when he took some ridiculously-overpowered, open-cockpit rocket truck 632 miles an hour down the track in an obscene display of brass balls no human has ever displayed before or since.

But, while accelerating from a dead stop to a speed faster than a .45 caliber handgun bullet in the span of five seconds is impressive, it's important to remember that Stapp's research was in deceleration not acceleration.

He went from 632 miles an hour (1,017 kmh for my metric friends) to a dead stop in 1.4 seconds.

1.4 seconds.

He pulled 43 Gs during the decel, which is roughly the equivalent of driving a Maserati into a brick wall at 120 miles an hour. He went blind for 45 minutes afterwards, broke a couple ribs, had burn marks on his skin from the friction caused by fucking dust whipping against his skin, and started spontaneously bleeding liquid awesome out of his eyes, but somehow walked out of the damned sled under his own power. This shit went down in 1954 but to this day it is STILL the fastest any human has ever traveled on a railed vehicle, and the fastest any human has ever gone in an open-cockpit vehicle.

Stapp's record-breaking ride is featured here.

It's important to note that while J.P. Stapp's research is unequivocally badass as fuck, it also ended up saving millions of lives and made possible the invention of some truly amazing technological advances not only in aeronautics but in automobiles. Part of his research involved Wind Blast tests basically, he'd go up in a fighter jet, jet it to 570 miles an hour, then blow off the canopy and see if he could survive the wind pressure (he could, as long as he had the proper harness and supplemental oxygen). This research meant that it would be safe to go on and build faster and faster fighter aircraft without worrying about unnecessarily killing good pilots. Stapp also invented a new harness for paratroopers so they could survive crash impacts if their transports went down, and a better harness for combat pilots to keep them alive even after sustaining some truly horrific crash impacts.

While all of this is admirable, Stapp's biggest contribution to life-saving came in his study on car crashes something he yet again tested himself, mostly by strapping himself into steel frame devices and smashing them into things. He invented crash test dummies as we know them, helped work on the car safety belt, and was a key component in convincing President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign a law in 1966 that required auto manufacturers to include seat belts in every car they built a law that has, without a doubt, saved millions of people from untimely painful deaths.

Stapp testing some deceleration/crashing shiz.

When he wasn't smashing into things at high velocity, Stapp was also pretty awesome because he was witty, funny, and super personable. Like, for instance, Stapp invented Murphy's Law the rule that "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." (Murphy, it turns out, was a USAF Captain who was working with Stapp on the rocket sled project and kept having shitty things happen to him.) This saying quickly took off to the point where it's a common household saying, though I must say I prefer the under-quoted Stapp's Law an awesome feat of misanthropy that states, "The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle."

Despite a career of trying to kill himself in new and unusual ways, mostly by subjecting himself to car accidents and then withstanding more Gs than any human being who has ever lived, John Paul Stapp survived his life as a mad scientist, lived to be 89, and died in his sleep at home in 1999. When hearing about the death of his good friend, fellow badass Joseph Kittinger simply remarked, "I hope St. Peter has his seat belt on when Dr. Stapp shows up."

Links: Bio

Space Hall of Fame Bio

Air Force Bio



Norton, Trevor. Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth. Open Road, 2011.

Spark, Nick T. A History of Murphy's Law. Periscope, 2006.


The Complete List

About the Author

Miscellaneous Articles