An author specializing in aviation tells the remarkable, almost-forgotten story of an aerospace pioneer.
In September 1955, the cover of Time featured a portrait of the Air Force medical officer “Space Surgeon Stapp.” That same year, John Paul Stapp (1910-1999) was the subject of TV’s popular This Is Your Life and a Hollywood movie. His suddenly high profile stemmed from a land speed record set aboard a rocket sled that made him the “Fastest Man on Earth.” This glamorous moniker, though, came really as a byproduct of Stapp’s principal work, a lifetime study of massive acceleration and deceleration forces and the limits of human tolerance on land and in the air, experiments in which he frequently used himself as the guinea pig. Responsible for radical new designs of cockpits, ejection seats, crash helmets, parachutes, seat belts, shoulder harnesses, and flight suits, Stapp rewrote textbooks and obliterated the previously accepted limits of human endurance. He also developed pre-breathing procedures for stratospheric flights, vetted the Mercury astronauts for NASA, and conducted important car-crash research years before anyone ever heard of Ralph Nader. Ryan (Magnificent Failure: Free Fall from the Edge of Space, 2003, etc.) delights in Stapp’s various obsessions, effortlessly explains the aeromedical research, and vividly sets scenes, whether of Stapp’s boyhood in Brazil or of his research project in the New Mexico desert, where an unusual gang of scientists and engineers (including a troop of chimpanzees used, not without controversy, in tests) gathered to set the speed record. Indefatigable, Stapp inspired deep loyalty and admiration from those who worked with and for him, despite his unconventional persona. Ryan’s full-length biography uncovers the private man, Stapp’s offbeat sense of humor, his awkward love life, his passion for classical music, and his friendships with daring test pilots Chuck Yeager and Joe Kittinger, fellow trailblazers whose fame has persisted.
A consistently fine appreciation of the medical maverick who, as much as any other, helped make the Space Age possible.