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During the long summer of the final year of the Second World War, the greatest collection of physicists ever assembled was camped on the Jornada del Muerto in the gypsum and saltbush wasteland of southern New Mexico. They hunted antelope and deer, relaxed with volleyball games and afternoon dips in the cattle-watering tanks, and worked feverishly on a government project so sensitive that not even their wives and families knew where they were or precisely what they were doing. The experiment they would conduct was a page from a pulp science-fiction novel: they would attempt to induce nuclear fission in a rare manmade substance called plutonium. One of the men, a codiscoverer of this exotic new material, admitted that no one really knew what would happen if the experiment was successful and a critical mass of plutonium was achieved. "In spite of calculations," he confided in his wife before leaving for the secret site in the desert, "we are going into the unknown." Edward Teller, the great Hungarian physicist, calculated and recalculated the odds of the explosion igniting the atmosphere and transforming the planet into a star.
Then, on the morning of July 16, 1945, at 5:29, atechnician flipped a series of switches and detonated the first atomic bomb. A searing light flashed across the earth, the bomb's heat cauterizing the desert and melting the sand into green glass. In a millionth of a second, the jackrabbits and rattlesnakes in the vicinity of Ground Zero were vaporized along with the 200-foot steel scaffold from which the bomb had been suspended. Witnesses reported the distinct smell of death about the Jornada for weeks afterward. When the thundering winds of the blast had subsided, the project's young chief scientist, Robert Oppenheimer, stepped from his bunker burdened with the sickening certainty that the world was, in that moment, changed forever. The collective genius of the Manhattan Project had unleashed a Promethean scourge. It had also, as would be clear a few weeks later, succeeded in ending the war, thereby setting the stage for the next inconceivable demonstration of mind over matter: leaving the planet.
This barren high-desert theater had been hand-picked for the atomic age's violent debut: a remote, mostly uninhabited, flat sweep of mesquite and yucca bordered on two sides by rugged mountain ranges and characterized by predictably dry weather, technically an extension of Mexico's Great Chihuahua Desert. And not long after the great blast at Trinity-Oppenheimer's mysterious name for the plutonium bomb site-over 100 German rocket scientists from Peenemunde, "Operation Paperclip" Germans who had surrendered to the Americans in the final weeks of the war, were shipped to El Paso, Texas, just to the south to create a U.S. guided missile program at Fort Bliss.
These celebrity prisoners of war had stupefied their Army interrogators with descriptions of detailed plans for sending instrumentation-and even human beings-to the edge of the earth's atmosphere and beyond. They discussed, in a remarkably matter-of-fact manner and in precise technical terms, multistage rockets and orbiting space stations.
Wernher von Braun and his colleagues launched the first V-2 rocket from American soil at the White Sands Proving Ground, a 40- by 100-mile corridor in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico-which included Trinity Site-in the spring of 1946. A V-2 weighed about 14 tons; it was 46 feet long and capable of carrying its ton of explosives at supersonic speeds (which meant, to Londoners who had been on the receiving end of the V-2 attacks, that you never heard the thing until it was too late). During the last two years of the war, the Germans manufactured about 5,000 of them, many of which were captured by the Allies.
The atomic age was less than a year old, but as the screaming barrage of ballistic missiles pierced the wild blue yonder over the American desert Southwest, yet another brave new world-the space age-was born. Some 500 miles to the west, in the skies above the Mojave Desert of California, the Army was testing the first of its new X-series of rocket-powered airplanes: first glide trials, then propulsion tests, and then, in the fall of 1947, Capt. Chuck Yeager flew the liquid-oxygen and alcohol-fueled XS-1 faster than the speed of sound. Yeager reached an airspeed of 662 MPH. The X-1, with an airframe built by the Bell Aircraft Company and a liquid-propellant rocket engine built by Reaction Motors, was capable of 6,000 pounds of thrust. But that was just the beginning. The Bell X-2's Curtiss-Wright engine would be capable of delivering 15,000 pounds of thrust. And as early as 1952, the NACA Committee on Aerodynamics would recommend the funding of research efforts to solve the problems of manned flight "at altitudes between 12 and 50 miles and at speeds of Mach 4 through 10." Aviation technology was exploding both literally and figuratively. The X-planes would rocket higher and higher, arcing farther and farther into the stratosphere, tracing their great rainbow trajectories across the skyscape of the last great frontier.
Human beings could now, with a new level of confidence and with resources and renewed energies freed from the shackles of global war, begin to contemplate space travel. Most of the fundamental problems of escaping gravity's prison had been solved. But in the rush to perfect the secrets of rocket travel, one element had been curiously neglected: mortal man. Somebody was going to have to prove that a human being was in fact fit for space before those who held the nation's purse strings would even consider underwriting such a brazen activity.
In 1919, while at Clark College in Massachusetts, Robert Goddard had seen the future and published a paper entitled "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes" in which he had argued that a multistage rocket fired from earth would be capable of reaching the moon. This assertion was, almost predictably, ridiculed in the nation's press. The New York Times, in an editorial under the headline "A Severe Strain of Credulity," passed a typical judgment:
That Professor Goddard with his 'chair' in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react-to say that would be absurd. Of course, he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.
Indeed, in the late forties through the mid-fifties, "space" remained a dirty word in the Pentagon and in the halls of Congress. To mention the subject was to invite jeers. Those who wanted to be taken seriously did not request money for space research, and especially not manned space research.
If progress was going to be made in the business of qualifying human beings for space travel, it would have to be driven by someone who, for starters, had little regard for his own professional reputation. It would require someone of considerable scientific sophistication, but also of practicality, someone who could come to hands-on terms with the real world of military politics. A man of vision who would be capable of deriving satisfaction from progress itself rather than personal glory. He would be an enigma, a lone ranger appearing unannounced and vanishing almost before you learned his name.
Not surprisingly, then, the Army Air Corps did not really understand who they had when they brought the man to Wright Field in Ohio in August 1946 to observe tests of the first American pilot-ejection seat. John Paul Stapp was an unassuming 36-year-old doctor who had been reared by strict Southern Baptist missionary parents in the jungles of Brazil. He had been schooled diligently by his fiercely idealistic and eccentric mother, forbidden to speak any language but Portuguese and the native Indian dialects until the age of 12. He was sent back to the States when he was 15 to live with relatives and to finish his education. He enrolled at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and graduated with master's degrees in zoology and chemistry, living in near-total poverty and dining regularly on the school's lab animals-guinea pigs and pigeons, mostly. Stapp wasn't particular. "If it breathed it had protein," he said, "and if it had protein I ate it." A jungle childhood that included a five-year bout with malaria had left him with a distinctly unromantic view of creatures great and small. ("I was taught the value of human survival against our plant and animal antagonists.")
During his sophomore year, John Paul visited an uncle's family during Christmas break, and the trip changed his life. During his stay, an infant cousin crawled too near the fireplace, his bedclothes caught fire, and he was horribly burned. The suffering stunned Stapp, who personally nursed the boy for 63 hours before he died. Shortly thereafter, Stapp decided to become a doctor. He had found the trigger for the shotgun zeal he had inherited from his mother and father, the indomitable desire to save the world in spite of itself and in the face of all odds: the missionary spirit. "You might shake off the religion," he was fond of saying, "but you never shake off the missionary spirit."
Stapp earned his Ph.D. in biophysics at the University of Texas before enrolling in medical school at the University of Minnesota. After two six-month deferments, he joined the Army. He continued his studies as an intern, graduated, and was transferred to the Army Air Corps ("dumped" there, in Stapp's words, because of a frequently sprained ankle), and got his first taste of aviation medicine.
The war was over and von Braun's V-2s were already soaring from the New Mexico sands by the time Stapp witnessed the ejection-seat tests at Wright Field in 1946 and saw the opportunity to help close the widening gap between aviation technology and the pathetic vulnerability of the human pilot. The notion of explosively ejecting pilots from aircraft was novel: the Germans had done it first and handbooks obtained from captured Nazi pilots had taught the Americans what they knew. But there was still a lot to learn about the forces of acceleration and deceleration and their debilitating effects on the body-and a thousand other mysteries that pertained to pilot survival in the newborn space age. The Aeromedical Laboratory of the Air Materiel Command at Wright was a revelation to Stapp: the men there weren't academics ("pure scientists ... the prima donnas in universities working in their nit-picking ways at academic doodlings to impress each other"), nor were they assembly-line armed-forces medicos (at an Army base in Arizona, Stapp had once examined the eyes, ears, noses, and throats of 600 men in a single day: "a nightmare relieved only by the thought that I might have been a proctologist"). The work going on at Wright was research on the sharpest cutting edge of medical science, research that held the gratifying promise of immediate practical application. It was a new, exciting field in which the rules were still largely unwritten, and in which innovation was desperately needed. But to Stapp it would become something more: a crusade to save lives.
With only a few months to go before his military obligation would be satisfied, Stapp reenlisted and volunteered to serve as a subject for tests of a liquid-oxygen breathing system with a converter that had been developed by the Bendix Corporation. In a modified B-17 with special ignition wiring that allowed it to reach stratospheric altitudes, Stapp made flight after flight to 47,000 feet in an unheated, unpressurized cabin in order to study the painful effects of the bends firsthand. In the process, he made the valuable discovery that it was possible to avoid the bends by breathing 100 percent oxygen for 30 minutes before takeoff.
Earlier that same year, the Aeromedical Lab at Wright had begun a program to study the effects of sudden deceleration based, again, on information obtained from the defeated Germans. German engineers had built a special track and a rocket-powered test vehicle. The entire apparatus had ended up in Soviet hands after the war, and Stapp was sent to Moscow to examine it. He pronounced the design "ingenious," and returned to Dayton to work on plans for developing a similar system for the Army.
Northrop Aircraft was awarded the contract to supply the track and test vehicle largely because it already owned a 2,000-foot B-1 launching track. Stapp traveled to Los Angeles to consult with Northrop engineers, and in April of 1947 he was transferred to Muroc Air Base (later to become Edwards Air Force Base) in the Mojave Desert to run the program. President Truman signed the Armed Forces Unification Act that summer, making Stapp an employee of the United States Air Force-but that didn't make it any easier for him to operate on anything that could even vaguely be construed as "space research," especially since he was an independent operator without suitable sponsorship and the proper connections among the service brass.
Few at Muroc even knew who Stapp was. He worked on his own with assistance only from a handful of civilian employees of Northrop who, in spite of their dedication, were neither sufficiently skilled in research nor trained in medical measurement or observation. He had a tiny budget and meager facilities. He acquired equipment and supplies mostly by barter, offering his medical services to Muroc personnel in return. When the Air Force wouldn't even construct a crash helmet for the project, Stapp convinced Dr. Charles Lombard at the University of Southern California to design and donate one. It was his first experience with a process of which he would become the undisputed master: bootleg research-unofficial projects that were authorized and funded at the lower levels of the bureaucracy. If you did it right, the "men at the mahogany desks"-in Stapp's words-weren't even aware of what you were doing. If your project was successful, and the brass found out about it, they'd congratulate you and take the credit themselves; if you failed and they discovered it, you might be discharged or court-martialed. The game required a cagey resourcefulness and swift efficiency. And John Paul Stapp was the hell-bent genius ghost of Muroc.
All that summer he ran tests on the B-1 track with a rocket sled built by Northrop called the "Gee-Whizz," an angular vehicle cobbled together from aluminum and rivets that resembled an industrial-strength soapbox racer. He would strap a 185-pound anthropomorphic dummy to the sled and send it hurtling down the 2,000-foot length of rail. Because of the tremendous power of the rocket engines and the experimental nature of the restraint systems, Stapp insisted that thirty-five test runs with the dummy be completed before a human subject would be allowed to attempt a rocket-sled run.
Excerpted from THE PRE-ASTRONAUTS by Craig Ryan Copyright © 1995 by Craig Ryan
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted February 4, 2000
All I can say is: Wow! I'm a bit biased of course, being a history buff and fan of space exploration, particularly the early days. But in being such a fan, I've read quite a bit on the subject and I must say, this book takes the cake! If you are interested in similar subjects, curious about 'how it all began', or just looking for a seat-of-your pants, true adventure story then you've got to read this book. Ryan is a talented author who knows how to keep the reader interested, by focusing on the action and the human element, without bogging the reader down in over-the-top technical descriptions and scientific jargon the average joe/jane wouldn't understand or be particularly interested in. The Pre-Astronauts is a page-turner; give it a try. My only regret was not being alive at the time to witness it all happening!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.