(p. C7) In the early 19th century, a science professor in London named Dionysus Lardner rejected the future of high-speed train travel because, he said, “passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.” A contemporary, the famed engineer Thomas Tredgold, agreed, noting “that any general system of conveying passengers . . . [traveling] at a velocity exceeding 10 miles an hour, or thereabouts, is extremely improbable.”
The current land speed for a human being is 763 miles an hour, or thereabouts, thanks in large part to the brilliance, bravery and dedication of a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel named John Paul Stapp, a wonderfully iconoclastic medical doctor, innovator and renegade consumer activist who repeatedly put his own life in peril in search of the line beyond which human survival at speed really was “extremely improbable.”
. . .
Initial tests were carried out on a crash-test dummy named Oscar Eightball, then chimpanzees and pigs. There was plenty of trial and error–the term “Murphy’s Law” was coined during the Gee Whiz experiments–until Stapp couldn’t resist strapping himself into the Gee Whiz to experience firsthand what the cold data could never reveal: what it felt like. On May 5, 1948, for example, he “took a peak deceleration of an astounding twenty-four times the force of gravity,” the author writes. “This was the equivalent of a full stop from 75 miles per hour in just seven feet or, in other words, freeway speed to zero in the length of a very tall man.”
Stapp endured a total of 26 rides on the Gee Whiz over the course of 50 months, measuring an array of physiological factors as well as testing prototype helmets and safety belts. Along the way he suffered a broken wrist, torn rib cartilage, a bruised collarbone, a fractured coccyx, busted capillaries in both eyes and six cracked dental fillings. Colleagues became increasingly concerned for his health every time he staggered, gamely, off the sled, but, according to Mr. Ryan, he never lost his sense of humor, nor did these ordeals stop Dr. Stapp from voluntarily making house calls at night for families stationed on the desolate air base.
. . .
After 29 harrowing trips down the track, Stapp prepared for one grand finale, what he called the “Big Run,” hoping to achieve 600 miles per hour, the speed beyond which many scientists suspected that human survivability was–really, this time–highly improbable. On Dec. 10, 1954, Sonic Wind marked a speed of 639 miles per hour, faster than a .45 caliber bullet shot from a pistol. Film footage of the test shows the sled rocketing past an overhead jet plane that was filming the event. The Big Run temporarily blinded Stapp, and he turned blue for a few days, but the experiment landed him on the cover of Time magazine as the fastest man on earth. The record stood for the next 30 years.
For the full review, see:
PATRICK COOKE. “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet–Really.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Aug. 22, 2015): C7.
(Note: first ellipsis, and bracketed word, in original; other ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 21, 2015.)
The book under review, is:
Ryan, Craig. Sonic Wind: The Story of John Paul Stapp and How a Renegade Doctor Became the Fastest Man on Earth. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2015.