Texans are some strong folks, and always have been. We have countless stories of men and women that have thumbed their noses at authority (or made their own “authority”) and broke out on some amazing adventures. EXPLORE has chosen to celebrate a few of these folks with a new little section we’ll just call “The Badass of the Month.” May you learn something new and renew your pride in the people and stories that makes Texas as awesome as it is.
Our first honoree is none other than John Paul Stapp. If you wanted to create a list of crazy people that willingly strapped themselves onto crazy machines, designed to go faster than a .45 bullet, just to see if they could survive it, then you’d put Stapp as the first name on your list. Literally a human crash test dummy, he also was responsible for the invention and integration of the safety belt (if you were riding a rocket at 600mph, you’d want a safety belt, too) and holds countless records.
Stapp was born in 1910 to missionairies from Texas while in Brazil, and then was raised in Texas, attending school and graduating from universities here. He received a slew of advanced degrees including Biophysics, and then picked up an MD when he wasn’t writing theoretical physics articles so complicated they’d make your eyes roll back.
From there, Stapp enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1944, where the fun really began.
Altitude and Decompression Sickness
While studying the effects of altitude and decompression on pilots, Stapp ingeniously decided to test this by stripping a B-17 bomber down to its skeleton and then flew it for 65 straight hours with no cockpit…just to see what happened. After somehow not dying by freezing to death nor having his skull explode from the pressure, he discovered that huffing pure oxygen 30 minutes prior to takeoff could help pilots fly even higher. This discovery led to the development of high-altitude spy planes and strategic bombers. Oh yeah, it also helped with the start of the Space Program.
Colonel Doctor Stapp decided then to study ways to help pilots survive plane crashes. He also wanted to know how many G’s the human body could survive. Common knowledge at that time was that 18 G’s was the maximum. So he built a rocket sled (yes, a rocket sled) that upon its first test, flew off the tracks and exploded. He then sent it with a crash test dummy at 150mph and then slammed it to a stop. The dummy went through 2 feet of solid wood and was sent 710 feet down range into a mangled mess. On its third test, Stapp threw the dummy out, climbed in himself against the objections of staff, and launched himself at 200 mph before slamming to a stop and racking his body with 35 G’s. He survived almost twice the G’s as was thought possible.
World Record for Speed
By 1951, his research on deceleration continued, and so he built a newer railed rocket sled that proceeded to take him 632 mph and stop him in 1.4 seconds. This resulted in 43 G’s and to this day, is the world record for the fastest any man has ever gone on a railed sled. He also went blind temporarily from this experiment as his retinas detached, broke a ton of bones, and actually had friction burns on his face from the freakin’ dust that was hitting his face so fast.
The invention of the seatbelt
While nobody can argue that Stapp’s research was, well, pretty badass, it also ended up saving countless lives via the advances that his research led to in aeronautics and automobiles. He did some of this by going up in a fighter jet at 570 mph, blowing the canopy to see if he could survive the wind pressure, and of course DID. He further went on to develop better harnesses for combat pilots, allowing them to go even faster in flight. Because of his propensity to strap himself onto rockets and then crash them into walls, he invented the crash test dummy, and convinced LBJ in ’66 to sign a law that required all auto manufacturers to include seat belts in the cars.
Yeah, he invented Murphy’s Law (which says that “If something can go wrong, it will.”) Murphy, it turns out, was the USAF Captain that was working with Stapp on much of his work and kept telling Stapp that shitty things kept happening to him. The saying took off, and is now a common household saying.
Despite spending his entire career doing badass things that involved trying to kill himself in new and unique ways, this Texan survived to the ripe old age of 89, and died in his sleep in 1999. When he died, fellow badass Joseph Kittinger (who parachuted from the lower orbit of SPACE), was quoted as saying “I hope St. Peter has his seat belt on when Dr. Stapp shows up.”