After Hours

Geek Trivia: Credits where credit is due

What real-life test pilot survived the crash shown in the opening credits of TV's "The Six Million Dollar Man"?

Start running in slow motion and imitating the world's most famous electronic echo, boys and girls. Thirty-two years ago this week, "The Six Million Dollar Man" debuted on ABC television... sort of. On Oct. 20, 1973, the made-for-television movie The Six Million Dollar Man: Wine, Women and War first aired, marking what some TV historians (yes, they exist) consider the unofficial launch of the campy sci-fi television series that introduced Colonel Steve Austin, the world's—or, at least, ABC's—first bionic man.

However, Wine, Women, and War was actually the second Six Million Dollar Man television movie. Simply called The Six Million Dollar Man (and later subtitled The Moon and the Desert), the first movie debuted the previous March.

Another TV movie featuring Steve Austin—The Solid Gold Kidnapping—followed Wine, Women and War in November 1973. Two months later, the weekly TV program began in January 1974, which led many fans to consider Wine, Women and War the unofficial start of the series.

What many of these same fans don't know is that the basis of "The Six Million Dollar Man" television show came from the novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin. But the prose version of Steve Austin was considerably darker than his television counterpart, played by Lee Majors.

In the books, Austin's bionics were markedly different—and included a lethal poison dart gun, which he used to deadly effect on several occasions. In an effort to make the character more palatable for television audiences, the small-screen version of Austin took great pains not to kill his enemies.

While the literary origins of "The Six Million Dollar Man" may be somewhat obscure, the TV incarnation left an indelible mark on American pop culture. In particular, the opening credits of the show have become especially famous, thanks to that familiar, well-worn narration:

"Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster."

The visuals accompanying this easily recognized voiceover included footage of a hi-tech (by early 1970s standards) aircraft spinning out of control. Supposedly, this depicted Col. Austin's near-fatal accident that led to his bionic makeover. In truth, this was real footage of an actual aircraft accident, which nearly took the life of a real-world test pilot.


What real-world test pilot survived the plane crash shown in the opening credits of TV's "The Six Million Dollar Man"?

Astronaut Bruce Peterson flew an experimental Northrop M2-F2 on May 10, 1967—a flight that would end in disaster. (Though officially a member of the U.S. astronaut corps, Peterson never flew in space, serving his NASA career as a test pilot.)

Designed to test the flight capability of heavy lift-body designs, Peterson carried out the last of 16 passive glide tests of the M2-F2. During the flight, a so-called pilot-induced oscillation overwhelmed the plane, which led to Peterson crash-landing the M2-F2 in a dry lakebed.

During the crash, Peterson's M2-F2 rolled six times and settled upside down, all of it caught on film by military observation cameras. Horrifying as the crash appears, Peterson survived and largely recovered. He did, however, lose vision in his right eye due to infection, with no real-world bionics available to replace his sight.

In the land of television, however, no such restraints exist. While Steve Austin also lost his eye to his "spacecraft" crash—as well as his right arm and both legs—he didn't lose his vision. Instead, he was fitted with an eyelike 20.1:1 zoom lens and night-vision functionality.

For their parts, his bionic legs and arm came with super speed and strength, allowing Austin to run, leap and—most important—punch with extraordinary power and velocity. (Despite its five-season run, the television show failed to ever adequately explain how and why the bionics seemed to emit the signature electronic echo.)

Like all good superheroes, however, Austin had his own kryptonite, which—much like most of the series—flew in the face of conventional science. Under extreme cold, Austin's bionics would lock up or malfunction, suggesting that this "overclocked" human actually faltered in the precise conditions that enhance the performance of most modern electronics.

While such kitschy entertainment may test the suspension of disbelief (Austin once fought Bigfoot, for crying out loud!), it does make for some super-powered Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week, rather than real quibbles, we have bonus information to share. Apparently, several of you have strong feelings about networking computers, as evidenced by the responses to the September 28 edition of Geek Trivia, "Net losses and Ethernet gains."

Fellow TechRepublic geek-o-phile Bill Ward couldn't help but point out that "Ethernet had one other major plus going for it that was a major factor in its success: Ethernet allowed an amorphous logical topology. That allowed Ethernet to scale better under growth conditions than Token Ring. And it's no coincidence that the Internet took off at the moment that Ethernet took over from Token Ring."

Meanwhile, TechRepublic member Darrell.jones reminded us that "the other thing that criticism of Ethernet did was spur development of 10BaseT. Thicknet was really not a lot of fun. Beyond that, Ethernet switching kind of clinched the deal. As I heard [Ethernet inventor Robert] Metcalfe observe, the Ethernet that won the race was more a kinship of philosophy than technology to where it started."

Thanks for the history lessons, Netheads, and keep those quibbles coming!

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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