Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s account of America’s space program up to Project Mercury, evolved from his curiosity about the kind of person who was willing to sit on top of a thirty-six story container of explosives waiting for the fuse to be lit. His interest in these individuals—who they were, where they came from, and how they felt while perched atop twenty thousand pounds of liquid oxygen—fueled the research that resulted in this entertaining and enlightening look at America’s astronauts. Wolfe explores the fraternity of fliers, the military lifestyle, the function of the press, and the nature of courage, providing the reader with an insightful journey into the heart of American culture. Although factual, the book allows itself liberties in the description of events and, for example, the re-creation of conversations or the thoughts that someone may have had.
Wolfe first discovers the “right stuff” among the close-knit group of military fighter and test pilots stationed at bleak air bases scattered around the United States in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. He describes this “stuff” as the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and . . . have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment—and then go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day . . . and . . . do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, to a nation, to humanity, to God.
This ability and willingness to “push the outside of the envelope” was the sole quality upon which the “True Brotherhood” of fliers judged themselves and each other. The right stuff determined, more surely than military rank, the fliers’ status in the rigid hierarchy of flying.
Moving from one desolate outpost to another, these fliers aspired to assignments at the mecca of flying, Edwards Air Force Base, where pilots who had reached the pinnacle of their careers were stationed. In their quest to fly ever higher and faster in the most advanced American aeronautical technology available, the Edwards pilots risked their lives daily with the offhand calm that marked their breed, hoping to achieve what many considered impossible. The supreme impossible goal was reaching the speed of Mach 1, the sound barrier. The “most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff,” Chuck Yeager, while flying with two broken ribs, achieved the impossible, reaching Mach 1 on October 14, 1947. Yeager and his fellow pilots at Edwards, living what Wolfe termed the “Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving” lifestyle, continued achieving even greater speeds for the next decade, until a monumental shift in the direction of U.S. space exploration occurred.
On October 4, 1957, ten years minus ten days after Yeager broke the sound barrier, the Soviet Union sent Sputnik I into orbit. Panic followed the Soviets’ first foray into space. It appeared to the people of the United States and their government that the control of the heavens was at stake, and an effort to launch an American into space, to close the gap with the Soviets, began immediately. After lengthy consideration about how to select the first American in space (at one point the field was to be open to any young male college graduate with experience in dangerous pursuits—mountain climbers, deep sea divers, skydivers, and the like), President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered that the first astronauts be chosen from the ranks of military test pilots.
These pilots were not overwhelmingly eager at first to volunteer for this new program, uncertain as to whether it would represent a step up in status, or a leap into obscurity. The position of astronaut was unprecedented, and the fliers had to reach a consensus on where an astronaut would fit in their hierarchy. Many fliers argued that astronauts would be no better than passive lab animals, with little or no opportunity to exhibit the right stuff. Motivated largely by the fear of being left behind,...
(The entire section is 1652 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Tom Wolfe begins The Right Stuff by introducing Pete Conrad, who did not become an astronaut until the second round of selections, and Chuck Yeager, who was never an astronaut. Still, both men have always possessed the “right stuff,” especially Yeager, “the most righteous of all the possessors.” From the third chapter onward, the worth of every astronaut is implicitly measured against that of Yeager, the acknowledged king of the fighter pilots turned test pilots. Wolfe defines the right stuff as the Fighter Jock’s combination of courage, competence, insouciance, and unshakeable self-confidence. Wolfe compares the astronauts’ right stuff to the defining quality of the Elect. In Calvinistic theology, the Elect are those fortunate souls who are predestined for salvation from the beginning of time. If one is not among the Elect, then one cannot get to be. If one does not already possess the right stuff, then one cannot get it.
The incidents in The Right Stuff are factual, but the author gives them a novelistic treatment. He does not, like some of his fellow New Journalists, fabricate conversations to which he was not privy, but he does chronicle the thought processes of the astronauts and their wives at length. He devotes detailed chapters to the suborbital flights of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, to the increasingly sophisticated orbital flights of John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper. As usual, Wolfe is...
(The entire section is 512 words.)