On Oct. 4, 1957, the Russians launched the Sputnik I satellite. It loomed for three weeks, orbiting around our planet. The United States feared that missiles would be next. Tom Wolfe’s, The Right Stuff, takes the reader behind the tightly, heavily censored, airbrushed Life Magazine and hero-worshipping gullible press narration of the Mercury 7 project and lands the reader right in the late 1940s-60s, when America was in a frantic Cold War race to beat the Russian Communist threat of world control.
President Eisenhower’s administration answered Sputnik’s menacing orbit with the establishment of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration-NASA. The battle for America’s very existence on Earth began, drawing talent from our country’s finest engineers, scientists, physicists and medical doctors. And apes.
Great unedited clips of the first press conference introducing the Mercury 7 astronauts. After reading The Right Stuff, the press conference takes on a richer dimension of understanding the astronauts discomfort. Except for John Glenn.
But a war needs warriors. Western Civilization’s battle stories, going back to Greek and Biblical times, demand a single combat warrior. A hero to worship and adore. Prior to battle. Just in case. David to defeat the Russian Goliath. St. George to slay the Communist Red dragon.
Enter: not the best fighter pilot, or highly qualified master of aeronautic combat , but, NASA selects, as Chuck Yeager coined those individuals who applied to sit atop a screaming fuel-filled rocket, “Spam in a can.” America’s first astronauts were chosen not on their stellar flying record, but because of their physical and behavioral traits, which scored an A+ on the B. F. Skinner scale of adaptability.
Project Mercury Astronaut Training film produced by NASA.
For those pilots who had climbed the competitive test-pilot pyramid to ascend the peak of “True Brotherhood,” what an emasculating reality. After all, all these guys had wanted to do, since they were kids, is fly. And be the best, fastest, bravest, strongest pilot, period. No one signed up to be a lab rat.
Yet, those with the right stuff can adapt and do. Fly, they do. Wolfe explains the Calvinistic Fighter Jock philosophy of those elected with the the “right stuff,” the true grit and aura that taps only a very few. With each sub-orbital and orbital flight, the pilots jockey for their status within their fraternity and throughout NASA, the United States and the world. Gaining control of their capsule, now called spacecraft, The Right Stuff reveals history written like a novel, albeit sanitized, of the machinations behind America’s race for domination of the heavens and the triumph over the Communist Threat.
Wolfe’s flamboyant style, combined with serious journalistic research, established the 1960s literary movement known as “New Journalism.” Think Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
Nostalgic, highly-produced look back at the Mercury 7 experience.
With humor, great coinage, lots of exclamation points, alliteration and brilliant observational insight about America’s mores, foibles, morals and worries, The Right Stuff captures the American ethos, a country in desperate need of heroes.
Stuffed into space suits, probed, spun, poked and prodded, the pilots complained but complied with the rigors of pre-flight preparation. NASA was flying into the unknown and a military life is based on order. However, being stuffed into the role of a public relations puppet, paraded and adorned as perfect heroes and hunted by the press, this was an unforeseen unwelcome humiliating shock—at first—to the astronauts and their wives. Well, to most of them. But, the Mercury 7 were chosen because they were the perfect specimens of adaptability. The sports cars eventually arrive, carousing “Flying and Drinking and Drinking and Driving” goes unreported and the wives’ smiles masked their frustration as they present the perfect family life, on command. Wolfe’s story endears the reader to appreciate and be in awe of the seven’s “right stuff.”
The book is worth rereading now in our interesting political climate. It offers the reader a chance to reexamine the United States place in the world, a topic that seems to orbit uncontrollably in today’s stellar landscape of politics, technology, journalism, fact and fiction.
The Right Stuff reveals the roll-your-eyes-big-sigh hypocrisy of the press and the bravery of the Mercury 7. The book was the nation’s first behind-the-scenes look at NASA, deftly written, allowing the reader to feelAmerica’s on-edge nerves triggered by the Cold War. Writing took a new direction, retreating from the present culture of anti-hero/victim as portrayed by Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman and returning to the traditional style of clear pro- and antagonist.
The United States was faced with the cold reality that these seven guys were heroes, risking their lives, carrying the hopes of a nation atop a rocket.
If vague memories of a film by the same title come to mind, forget it. None of the surviving seven liked it, particularly the depiction of Gus Grissom. In a 2011 inspiring interview at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum with astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, the film Apollo 13 is highly praised.
Looking forward to our discussion this week. You can listen live next week on Tuesday at 9:30 on NPR WJCT 89-9 FM or download the podcast.