Colonel Joseph Kittinger is emblematic of two things: The fine line between brave and crazy, and the enduring significance of Murphy’s Law. Kittinger is perhaps best known as the United States Air Force officer who was bold enough to be the lead test subject for Project Excelsior, otherwise known as “that crazy stunt where the astronaut dude skydived out of a balloon at the edge of space.”

That dude was Kittinger. On Aug. 16, 1960, he leapt from a balloon at an altitude of 102,800 feet and achieved a descent velocity of over 600 miles per hour — thus, the crazy vs. brave debate.

The Murphy’s Law part comes in when you note that the glove of Kittinger’s pressure suit leaked during the descent, and he injured his hand. While that may seem insignificant given all the potential risks, bear in mind this was Kittinger’s third high-altitude balloon jump.

On the first one, he slipped in a 22-G flat spin and blacked out, with only a self-deploying parachute saving him from certain death. Still, Kittinger was gutsy enough to try two more — higher — jumps, and he still couldn’t get his gear working correctly.

Of course, that didn’t stop Kittinger, who did three combat tours in Vietnam after his Excelsior days, finally getting shot down on May 11, 1972 and spending 11 months in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war camp. Like Murphy’s Law says: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

But it seems as if Murphy’s Law took an extra-special interest in Colonel Kittinger. If so, it’s probably because the contemporary incarnation of Murphy’s Law — including the name Murphy’s Law — has some direct ties to Kittinger himself.

Codified pessimism has been around since time immemorial, but the verbal shorthand for probable disaster, Murphy’s Law, was coined by Kittinger’s fellow Air Force officer and insanely brave test subject, Colonel John Paul Stapp — the one-time Fastest Man on Earth.

It was Stapp who rode rocket sleds at Edwards Air Force Base in the late 1940s as part of research into the effect of g-forces on humans — with Kittinger flying an observational chase plane. It was during these borderline suicidal rocket sled tests that Stapp coined the phrase Murphy’s Law — after an equipment failure as frustrating as any Kittinger might later endure — and named it after an actual person named Murphy.


Get the answer.

Who is the Murphy cited in the proverbial Murphy’s Law, which states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong?

The Murphy in question is one Major Edward Aloysius Murphy, Jr., an aerospace engineer who served under Colonel John Paul Stapp during the latter’s famous days as a test subject for rocket sled g-force experiments in the late 1940s.

These experiments basically involved laying down a long stretch of railroad tracks, building a railroad car with a seat on the front and a rocket engine on the back, strapping Stapp into the seat, and then firing the engines to see if the passenger could survive the supposedly fatal 18-g-force threshold. (He could, which is why we have a space program today.) Murphy’s job was to design the onboard measurement devices that would record Stapp’s daredevil rocket rides.

During one of the early tests of these so-called strain gauges — one using a chimpanzee, rather than Stapp himself — the instruments returned no data. Now, when the military goes to the trouble to fire a chimp down a railroad spur using a rocket engine, they aren’t exactly thrilled with a null result. It turns out that the technical assistant who installed Murphy’s prototype instruments wired the gauges in backward.

Now, here’s where the recriminations start, as Murphy and his compatriots didn’t get along that well. Murphy reputedly blamed his assistant, stating, “If that guy has any way of making a mistake, he will.”

Meanwhile, the other project staff blamed Murphy for failing to check and calibrate the sensors before the test, conjuring up their own sarcastic Murphy’s Law, which held that “If it can happen, it will happen.” This rule of dumb…er, thumb–better known as Murphy’s Law–became part of the project’s lore.

Stapp popularized the term Murphy’s Law by mentioning it at a press conference in 1948. By this point, Stapp had earned the nickname Fastest Man on Earth for his rocket-sled exploits. When asked how he survived such dangerous experiments, Stapp simply noted that they always remembered Murphy’s Law, which he then explained meant taking into account every conceivable point of failure and compensating for it.

It was long after the fact that the press bothered to discover precisely how Murphy’s name was attached to the philosophy of preparing for the worst, so the specifics are lost to history — but the general vagaries are a source of great Geek Trivia.

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. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble comes from the August 1 edition of Geek Trivia, “Glimpsing the sub(marine)text.” My old buddy Bill Ward busted me on my ignorance of U.S. Navy jargon regarding the most recent Nautilus class of submarines.

“Jay, the U.S.S. Nautilus was the ONLY ship of its class ever launched; no other Nautilus class ship was ever built, as the Navy was actively experimenting during that time with the concept of nuclear propulsion.

“Further, while sub classes are named for their lead ship, in recent years (after 1963, to be exact, but that’s its own trivia point), they are frequently quoted as the lead ship’s hull number. So for example, a Sturgeon class ship would be a 637 class boat. (Boat is the term for subs; ships are targets.)”

You learn something every day. Thanks Bill, 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.

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