Friday, August 10, 2007

I Also Would Like My Own Rocket Sled

I have never in my entire life had any desire to jump out of an airplane. Several friends have done so; they all report it as being a glorious and life-affirming experience--one that I "have to try." Well, no: I don't. I'm perfectly comfortable here on the ground. I like not having to worry about plummeting thousands of feet to my death.

Strangely, though, I've always been fascinated by people who do jump out of airplanes. I'm especially interested in high-altitude drops--people jumping out of planes so high above the earth that they have to wear pressure suits and oxygen tanks to keep from dying. Part of my interest comes from my experience on airplanes. I sit there: I'm afraid; I look out the window and I always imagine what it would be like to fall from that height. ("Unpleasant" is my best guess). The fact that people actually jump from those heights--and much much higher--amazes me. And baffles me. (There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt in my philosophy). Why do they do it? I guess it's the same mindset that causes people to climb high mountains, or live in trees. They want to prove to themselves it's possible.

Or, they're completely mad.

Such, I think, would be a fair assessment of John Paul Stapp, an Air Force physician who is among the various pioneers of super-high-alitutude skydiving profiled in "Falling", a fantastic article appearing in this week's New Yorker. (Unfortunately, the article in question is not available online: you'll have to get the print edition. For further information, go here.) To really get a sense of the true courage--and insanity--of the kinds of people who jump out of balloons suspended nineteen miles above the surface of the earth, you need to read the whole article. (It's well worth your time). Here, though, is a brief excerpt. The passage I'm quoting describes early tests conducted by John Paul Stapp to determine, basically, how much misery the human body could endure. Among his goals were to figure out if it were possible to parachute out of a jet, flying 70,000 feet above the earth at near the speed of sound, and live.

Stapp wanted to know the true limits of human tolerance. He used cats, chimpanzees, and human subjects for his research, but reserved the most dangerous tests for himself. Beginning in 1946, he made repeated flights to forty-seven thousand feet in an unpressurized plane, racking his body with the bends. (By breathing pure oxygen before a flight, he discovered, he could rid his blood of the nitrogen that would bubble up as the pressure dropped.) Later, he had a rocket sled built on a track in southern New Mexico and fired himself across the desert at up to six hundred miles per hour. By December of 1954, Craig Ryan writes in his 1995 book "The Pre-Astronauts," Stapp had broken his ribs and wrists, suffered concussions, hernias, retinal hemorrhages, and "searing headaches that lingered for days." His final sled run subjected his body to forty-six times the force of gravity and left him temporarily blind. But he survived.


JMW said...

My favorite moment -- though I can't quote it directly, because I don't have it in front of me -- was when he (or someone else, but I think it was him) said something like, "We'll never conquer space. We'll learn to live with it, but we'll never conquer it." That was hardcore.

Mr. Guapo said...

My favorite was the Alan Shepherd quote. They asked him if he would ever consider doing what Jim Kittinger had done--parachuting from a balloon hanging 19 miles above the earth. He answered, "that's easy. Hell no."

Bryan said...

...and left him temporarily blind.

Hell, I can do that with bourbon.

Sebastian said...

We have long known of Stapp, for obvious reasons. An article about him even appeared in the W.E. Stapps' World Book Encyclopedia.

I have not read this article, being too dim to comprehend anything in The New Yorker. I know little of JP Stapp other than what is summarized in various encyclopedias, though numerous links with reference to him can be found at Wikipedia. It is extremely likely that I am a distant relative.

As a humorous aside, W.E. Stapp claimed his own version of Stapp's Law, and I believe he did not know about Stapp's ironical paradox. W.E. Stapp's Law, which he explained was really a corollary to Murphy's Law, was this: "If anything can go wrong it already has; you just haven't found out about it yet."

Johannes said...

This sounds more like "A man's dream" than "man's dream."

I didn't know the air force made parachutes small enough for cats to be dropped or ejected out of airplanes with. Did he make his own? Does the article say? Was he routinely scratched in the face while trying to throw said cats out the aircraft door, or were the cats already woozy with hypoxia?

"Ready Mittens? Got your chute on?"
"Okay here you go..."
"Let go Mittens!!"
"Ow ow ow!"

Mr. Guapo said...

Your question betrays your typical ingot-thick, pig-ignorance. OF COURSE the cats had to be trained, extensively, in skydiving techniques before they were thrown out of the planes. If I remember correctly, the top cat skydiving teacher works for the Navy SEALS. He helps to orchestrate a lot of their top-secret, all-cat 'HALO' drops. Nothing is more deadly than a squad of assassin, paratrooping cats, dropping deep within enemy territory in the dead of night, and closing on an unsuspecting target.

Johannes said...

So the rumors a true of such a unit exisiting. Interesting. There have been murmurs in the terrorist underground of leading terror financiers unexpectedly found dead with scratches all over their faces and angry allegic welts and itchy rashes covering their bodies. A new biowarfare agent was suspected. Also cats. Genetically engineered hyperallergenic toxic dander cats capable inducing acute anaphylaxis in even the typically non-allergic victim. But I shouldn't discuss this openly over the internet.

What was that noise.... cough, cough,..Ack!......................