Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1652
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...
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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 pilots volunteered in large numbers for the assignment, despite their misgivings. Those who decided to volunteer for Project Mercury very soon discovered a whole new set of assumptions at work in the space program. The seven finalists would not be chosen for their prowess as pilots, but rather for mental and physical stamina and adaptability. The rules were understood only by the doctors and scientists, who subjected the fliers to exhaustive and often humiliating examinations and tests, which made it abundantly clear that the fliers were merely lab rats in the brave new world of space exploration.
When the seven chosen—Alan Shepard, Virgil I. Grissom, John H. Glenn, Jr., M. Scott Carpenter, Walter M. Schirra, L. Gordon Cooper, and Donald K. Slayton—were presented to the press and the American public, not only was no mention made of their experience and qualifications as fliers, no one was really interested. The press asked about their wives and children, their religious affiliation, and their feelings of patriotism, not their stellar records as fighter jocks and test pilots. Determined to take a fitting tone and express the proper sentiment in a matter of serious national concern, the press (or, as Wolfe calls them, the Victorian Gentleman or Genteel Beast) played a major role in the drama of the space race by portraying the astronauts as clean-cut, clean-living repositories of the highest moral virtues, whether or not the facts warranted such an interpretation. The press allowed no hint of the hard-drinking, hard-driving lifestyle of the astronauts to reach the American public, believing it their duty to provide “proper and fitting” images of America’s newest heroes.
The press made instant heroes of the astronauts’ wives as well, whose faces, airbrushed almost beyond recognition, appeared on the cover of Life magazine, which bought exclusive rights to their stories. The stories did not mention that Betty Grissom spent only a handful of days a year with her husband or that Gordon Cooper and his wife had been separated before he was chosen as an astronaut, because these facts did not fit conveniently with the required wholesome image. As test pilots’ wives, the fear they endured while their husbands flew dangerous missions was private. As astronauts’ wives, their anxiety not only became a public spectacle (as their homes were invaded by hordes of reporters), but it paled in comparison to the agony they suffered facing the idiotic and largely unanswerable questions of the press after the splashdown.
As the astronauts proceeded with their training they found themselves pitted against the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which wanted to use them only as experimental subjects, while they wanted at least some control over the operation of their capsules. Their job description evolved through continuing compromises with NASA concerning how much control they would be allowed over their flights, with the end result being that the astronauts were to be something between passengers and pilots. The astronauts lobbied for and got several changes in the design of the capsule, including a window, a hatch they could “blow,” or open by explosives from the inside, an override control on re-entry, and other operational functions.
Although the public was led to believe all of the Mercury flights were successful, and all seven of the astronauts heroes, the astronauts themselves judged each other by their own standards as test pilots, and some were found wanting. Grissom, for example, apparently lost emotional control while waiting, floating in the middle of an ocean, to be picked up and blew his capsule’s hatch prematurely, sinking the capsule and losing all of the valuable information recorded inside. Among themselves, the other six pilots believe he panicked and exhibited an alarming lack of the right stuff. Carpenter, who considered his orbital flight a great success, was considered less than successful by the others because he immersed himself in the in-flight science experiments assigned by NASA, at the expense of operational efficiency. Cooper probably exhibited the most impressive demonstration of the right stuff by actually falling asleep atop the rocket before his liftoff.
The unprecedented hero-worship that the Mercury astronauts inspired surprised no one so much as the astronauts themselves. Until their first meeting with the press, no one suspected the level of hysteria their existence would produce. They were great heroes before they donned a space suit or put a foot inside a capsule, worshiped for offering themselves up as sacrifices to the space race. Wolfe traces this phenomenon to an ancient element of warfare, the single-combat warrior. Hero-worship of the single-combat warrior was common in the pre-Christian world and the Middle Ages. Single-combat warfare pits each army’s fiercest and most talented warrior against the other in lieu of a full flight between the entire armies. Sometimes this one-on-one fight settled the affair, with no full-scale fight taking place, and sometimes the result of the single combat was taken as an omen of what was to come, as an indication of which side was God’s chosen in the fight. These single-combat warriors were treated as national heroes before they went into battle, much as the astronauts were treated as heroes before they were launched into space. According to Wolfe, the astronauts were the Cold War’s single-combat warriors, offering to sit on top of the rockets to keep the Soviets from domination of the heavens.
Wolfe’s distinctive style and narrative voice permeate The Right Stuff, setting a tone of high energy, enthusiasm, and humor. His use of exclamation points, italics, alliteration, and repetitive terms gives an almost cartoonlike feel to the narrative. This tone effectively offsets the bland, wholesome image of the astronauts promulgated by the press and NASA officials. This book provides one of the first glimpses behind the official propaganda of the space program and offers a fascinating insight into the history, technology, and personalities of one of the United States’ most remarkable and ambitious enterprises.