History of Research in Space Biology and Biodynamics
- PART V -
Automotive Crash Forces
[81] The one remaining research task of Project 7850 is Task 78507, Automotive Crash Forces. This was one of the first subdivisions of Project 7850 to become active as a separate task, but it also deserves to stand slightly apart, as a concluding installment to the present study. Historically speaking, it has preserved a more sharply defined identity from first to last than most other tasks; at the same time, it is one of the better known, and less understood, of all the many activities of the Aeromedical Field Laboratory.
The stated objective of this task is:51
To measure the actual forces incurred in automotive crashes. To establish criteria for modifications and specifications for vehicles, personnel restraints and... regulations for automotive safety.
The presence of such a task at an aeromedical research institution, as part of a project whose full title was formerly Biodynamics of Human Factors in Aviation and is now Biodynamics of Space Flight, has caused much raising of eye-brows in some quarters. Yet few have questioned the importance of the research objective, since automobile accidents rank second as a cause of death and first as a cause of hospitalization among Air Force personnel (and unquestionably first as a cause of death among Army personnel).52 There was good reason to undertake such a program at Holloman's Aeromedical Field Laboratory in particular, in view of the extensive background of Colonel Stapp and his co-workers in the study of impact forces. Both aircraft and automotive crash forces, n oreover, had much in common.
The automotive crash program was initiated as an outgrowth of discussions in the latter half of 1953 between Colonel Stapp and officials of the School of Aviation Medicine, Randolph Field, Texas. The original thought was to create a joint "Project Marionette" between Holloman and the School of Aviation Medicine, doing auto crash research as part of the School's official mission in the field of preventive surgery but "subcontracting ... the experimental portion" (such as artificially-staged crashes) to the Aeromedical Field Laboratory.53 However, since the actual work was to be done at Holloman, the Human Factors Office at Headquarters, Air Research and Development Command preferred to make the program a task of Holloman's Project 7850 rather than a separate joint project. It was therefore included in the original development plan for Project 7850, prepared in the spring of 1954. The Commission on Accidental Trauma of the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board duly proclaimed Holloman's Aeromedical Field Laboratory to be the sole Defense Department agency for automotive crash research, although the task was never funded or manned on lavish scale. It was, in fact, a relatively inexpensive research effort, especially as compared with the cost of burying a single airman and training his replacement.54
The most spectacular task activity has been the staging of actual crashes. The first such crash occurred on 10 March 1955, using two dummies, secured by lap belts, in a 1945 Dodge weapons carrier. This was essentially a trial run, uninstrumented, for what was billed as the first "full scale auto crash test" on 17 May 1955. The latter was conducted as part of an automotive safety conference held at Holloman for representatives of industry, government, and academic institutions.
Since that time there have been many more staged crashes, using Air Force salvage vehicles that are no longer worth repairing, with both dummy and animal subjects. Some have been crashes against a fixed barrier or another vehicle, while [82] in other cases a roll-over accident was reproduced. Most early attempts to stage an artificial roll-over were unsuccessful, but in due course the technical difficulties were overcome. One ingenious improvement, introduced in October 1957, was to do the rolling over onto a bed of worn-out rubber tires; by this means the test vehicle could be used in an experiment at twenty to twenty-five miles an hour and emerge in good enough shape to be rolled over again in later tests. Still another category of crash experiment was one in which the vehicle was suddenly stopped by means of a metal cable attached to its frame, thus allowing the study of impact forces to which interior occupants would be subjected in a crash without seriously harming the structure of the vehicle. The other end of the cable passes through a mechanical snubber that could be adjusted to produce the desired crash configuration. This equipment was supplied to the laboratory about 1 October 1957 by General Motors Corporation, for the token price of $25. Like the bed of tires, it allowed re-use of the test vehicle; and it allowed sufficiently good control for the current task scientist, Lieutenant Daniel L. Enfield, to use himself as a test subject-something he had not yet done in other types of crashes.55
In all these experiments, the procedure has been to measure g-forces, observe the effects either on test vehicles or on their occupants, and test the effectiveness of various safety devices. However, the work of Task 78507 has involved considerably more than staging crashes with actual vehicles. For instance, tests were conducted in August 1955 and again in June 1956 on certain energy-absorbing steering wheels developed by the Ford Motor Company. For this purpose, anesthetized hogs were placed in the Aeromedical Field Laboratory's newly-devised swing seat and then released to impact at twenty miles an hour against both conventional and energy-absorbing wheels. The results clearly showed that injuries were reduced by use of the improved steering wheel. This was a type of experimentation that the Ford engineers had been unable to perform on their own, since company legal and public relations officers flatly refused to countenance the use of test animals.56
The swing seat was also used in the auto crash program with dummies and human subjects, the first human test subject being Lieutenant Sidney T. Lewis, Lieutenant Enfield's immediate predecessor as task scientist.57 Swing-seat decelerations were almost unrealistically brief as compared with forces sustained in actual crashes, but at least the contraption was easy to operate. To be sure, humans were not impacted against a steering wheel or anything else. Instead, the seat was one of various devices used to compile data on tolerance to deceleration when restrained by lap or seat belt only and to test performance of different belts, including some expressly designed for automotive use and others prepared for commercial or military aircraft.
This experimentation somewhat resembled earlier German tests of lap-belt deceleration with a swing device, but participants at Holloman endured higher g-forces. About twenty-three g's were sustained without injury on the Holloman swing seat, although for some volunteer subjects a very definite pain threshold had been reached. Using hog subjects again, swing-seat tests were held to explore the range from serious to lethal injuries caused by deceleration sustained with lap belt only. In these tests, it was found that about forty g's were needed to produce "definite injuries to lungs, heart, abdominal organs" and "something in the order of 50 g's" for lethal effects.58
The auto crash task has used the Daisy Track, for more lap-belt-only tests with human subjects, and to a somewhat greater extent the short Bopper or crash-restraint demonstrator. The improved model of the Bopper received in March 1956 has been used with dummy, animal, and human subjects to study deceleration with a variety of safety restraints, at forces ranging up to and slightly above twenty-five g's. In mid-1957, for instance, the Bopper was being used to evaluate a combination of conventional lap belt plus a single diagonal strap across the chest and one shoulder. Earlier, Lieutenant Lewis rode the Bopper with lap belt only to a roughly twenty-seven-g stop, sustaining considerable discomfort but no irreversible injury.59
The most recent test facility to be enlisted for auto crash research is the tilting seat developed by the Aeromedical Field Laboratory's Space Biology Branch for use in subgravity studies. The seat is normally placed under water, to study subject reactions under a condition of sensory deprivation simulating subgravity, but Lieutenant Enfield used it out of water in the spring of 1958, tilting the seat completely upside down. Test subjects tried to release a seat belt in the upside-down position, and information was gathered both on the speed and efficiency of different subjects and on the amount of force required for the operation.60
[83] Still other work for the automotive crash program has been performed away from Holloman on a contract basis. A contract of December 1955 was signed with the University of Minnesota for designing a hydraulic bumper to absorb and reduce crash forces and also a superstructure to protect the occupants of open-top military vehicles (such as weapons carriers) in rollover accidents. The work was entrusted principally to Professor James J. Ryan, whose final report of 31 July 1958 announced that both contract efforts had been successful. Ryan predicts that his experimental roll-over structure--a framework of metal tubing extending above the vehicle occupants--will give protection from any but "superficial injuries," in rollovers at speeds up to forty miles an hour. It is assumed, of course, that the occupants must also have "adequate seat-belt support." The hydraulic bumper has brought impact forces in a thirty-mile-an-hour, solid-barrier collision to within human tolerance limits, again assuming the use of safety-belt restraint; in fact it has absorbed as much as eighty-five per cent of total initial impact energy in tests with a weapons carrier.61
A second contract was signed in 1956 with the Institute of Transportation and Traffic Engineering of the University of California at Los Angeles, whose crash injury research program dates back to 1948. In this case, the purpose was to conduct a series of instrumented collision experiments that would supplement the data gathered in crash experiments at Holloman. Since the Institute could devote more personnel and resources to this type of work than could the Aeromedical Field Laboratory itself, results have been quite satisfactory. The contract should be completed by the end of 1958.62
The Holloman auto crash program has been closely coordinated with still other outside institutions, beside the two universities holding crash research contracts. For instance, the crash injury research program at Cornell University Medical College supplied statistical data from actual highway crashes to be used in planning tests at Holloman.63 Still wider coordination was obtained by holding regular meetings at Holloman Air Force Base with industrial, civic, and academic representatives interested in automotive safety problems. The public demonstration held in May 1955, which really marked the formal inauguration of the Holloman program, was followed by similar gatherings in October 1956 and November 1957.64 Nor did Colonel Stapp, in particular, wait for these annual meetings in order to speak out on automotive safety problems, and above all on the case for safety belts, which has been further strengthened by results of the Holloman crash program. Colonel Stapp seldom missed an opportunity to tell the public that failure to install seat belts is "negligent suicide." He has naturally installed them in his own car, and has publicly praised automobile manufacturers for their growing interest in safety devices.65
Thanks to the pleas of Colonel Stapp and others of like mind-including the American College of Surgeons and the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board-the armed forces have committed themselves in principle to the installation of seat belts in all military vehicles. The principle has not yet been generally applied in practice, since the services have taken ample time to work out details and weigh the pros and cons of different types of belts. Nevertheless, a start has been made toward equipping vehicles assigned to Holloman Air Force Base, and meanwhile the Aeromedical Field Laboratory has been reviewing possible seat-belt standards both for military use and for the automotive fleets of the General Services Administration.66
Colonel Stapp was so firmly convinced of the continuing importance of the car crash program that he sought to raise it to the status of a separate project rather than merely a task of Project 7850. In 1956, this move was approved both at Center level and at command headquarters, but ultimately it failed for lack of support at Headquarters, United States Air Force, where some persons claimed that enough information on automotive crash forces was already available.67 No doubt the rejection of the new project also reflected enduring skepticism in some quarters as to the advisability of doing automotive research at an aeromedical laboratory.
Criticism of the Holloman car crash program briefly came to a head in the summer of 1957, following the publication of illustrated news stories concerning crashes staged by Mr. Derwyn Severy of the Institute of Transportation and Traffic Engineering, University of California at Los Angeles. Severy was directly in charge of the crash research contract entrusted to the Institute by the Aeromedical Field Laboratory, so that the Air Force was duly mentioned in connection with this publicity; and when the stories showed late-model sedans being crashed for research purposes there were some persons, including at least one Congressman, who concluded that the Air Force was purchasing [84] new cars just to have them wrecked. Actually, of course, Severy does research for other sponsors as well, including automobile manufacturers, and no late models were ever crashed on behalf of the Holloman program. At the same time, Severy himself was quoted as saying that a seat belt to save lives in a head-on high-speed collision had not yet been devised-a technically true statement but one that, in its context, could easily suggest that the merits of seat belts were being exaggerated by such proponents as Colonel Stapp. Certainly the opponents of the seat-belt campaign did not fail to make this point.68
The entire affair was summed up by Colonel Stapp as a "ridiculous series of publicity blunders and Congressional trumpeting resulting therefrom,"69 but it was enough to hearten critics of the Holloman crash program, while the fear of "Congressional trumpeting" made officials at higher headquarters understandably hesitant to rush to the program's defense. Nevertheless, this minor tempest was followed by an important triumph. It was one more reason for Colonel Stapp's co-workers and allies in the industrial and academic fields, such as Mr. John O. Moore, head of the Cornell crash research program, to arrange a personal appearance for him before the House of Representatives Special Subcommittee on Traffic Safety. This subcommittee, headed by Congressman Kenneth A. Roberts of Alabama, was just then investigating the very subject of automotive safety devices. When Colonel Stapp gave his testimony, on 5 August 1957, he was able to clear up misconceptions that had arisen and thoroughly convinced Roberts and other Congressmen of the value of the Holloman crash research program. Congressman Roberts even went so far as to assure Colonel Stapp that he should have no worry about funds for his automotive crash research in the next year's budget.70
Unfortunately for the auto crash task, the Air Force itself decided that this program should be phased out by October 1958,71 and Congress did not try to overrule the decision. Even if the task had not been formally cancelled, it would have enjoyed extremely low priority amid all the biosatellite efforts and related workload assigned to the Aeromedical Field Laboratory in the course of 1958.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that in November 1957 the laboratory held the last, the most elaborate, and certainly the most interesting of all its yearly meetings with outside representatives on automotive crash problems. Entitled Third Annual Automotive Crash and Field Demostration Conference, it brought over a hundred persons to Holloman for a three-day session and featured research paper and discussion, demonstration of safet devices, actual automotive crashes, an impact tests on such facilities as the Bopper and the Daisy Track. Professor Ryan of the University of Minnesota demonstrated the bumper and the roll-over structure he was working on under contract. Another highlight was the first use of one of the laboratory's recently acquired bears as a test subject, on a twenty-g Daisy Track deceleration run. This in itself was bound to attract attention, because the bears' arrival just a few days before had a1ready received an unwelcome wave of publicity, and also because of the mere fact that an early press story concerning the conference had mistakenly announced a pig experiment instead. An official release clearing up the latter point gave rise to the classic headline (conceived, of course, by Colonel Stapp): "Pig Tale Disproved by 'Bear' Facts."72
This release failed to mention that bear (having shown no outward ill effect of the ride) was later sacrificed in order to look for possible internal injury. Yet that detail, too, was soon featured on t front page of the Alamogordo Daily News and at least mentioned in other papers as well. Indeed, some of the publicity about the conference was just plain unfavorable. One visitor, in particular, was highly offended when another prepared release was politely but firmly taken out of his hands by a young lieutenant at the Center's Information Services Office. The release in question was quite innocuous; it contained a statement by Indiana Congressman John V. Beamer, another attendant at the conference who highly praised the entire car crash program, and it also made brief reference again to the bear experiment. But it could not be distributed publicly until cleared by higher headquarters. The visitor out of whose hand it was lifted then poured out his grievance in angry terms to the Alamogordo Daily News, which included it in the same feature story that openly discussed the bear's death.
The local paper--whose general treatment of the Center has been extremely cordial--threw in for good measure the complaint of a Chicago reporter that he had been "bounced off the base" soon after he arrived to cover the conference. In effect, there had been some undeniable confusion as to whether or not press coverage would be allowed, involving higher headquarters as well as different units of the [85] Air Force Missile Development Center. It was also true that in the end all reporters who so desired, whether from Chicago or from Alamogordo, were permitted to attend. And it is possible that even the less favorable publicity may have done some good, indirectly, by reminding people of the conference and of its basic theme--automotive safety.73
One reason why the bears' arrival attracted wide attention was that they reached the Air Force Missile Development Center just after the Soviet Union shot off a dog in Sputnik II. There was speculation that perhaps the United States Air Force planned to outdo the Russians by placing not a mere dog but a great big bear in orbit. Actually, of course, there was no such intention; yet it was not far-fetched to make at least some connection between bears at Holloman and travel through space. G-forces are g-forces, whether experienced on the highway in an auto crash, in emergency escape from aircraft, in landing on Mars, or in returning again to Earth. Patterns and orders of magnitude naturally vary in all these cases, but the cases do have some points in common. Thus with the same test facilities, and within the same program of deceleration and impact tests, the Air Force Missile Development Center's Aeromedical Field Laboratory has made contributions toward the solution of an extremely broad range of operational problems. This is in addition to the service it has performed in compiling basic research data on human and animal g-tolerances. The study of deceleration and impact, along with the Aeromedical Field Laboratory's research on windblast and on such branches of space biology as cosmic ray hazards and subgravity, must therefore be listed among the truly significant accomplishments of the Center.