The major theme of the Mercury astronaut story is the “right stuff” itself. While the pilots and astronauts who have the right stuff avoid directly defining the concept themselves, it suggests putting one’s life on the line on a regular basis and having the coolness and the nearly superhuman reflexes to survive. The book’s fifteen chapters recount how the right stuff is crucial for understanding the first astronauts who went into space and how that special quality was perceived by the public during this Cold War drama.
While in the news the successive Mercury flights are the pride of the United States’ Cold War feud with the Soviet Union, among the astronauts it becomes an internal jockeying for position, as well as a struggle between them and the engineers, doctors, and administrators who “run the program.” Within the ranks, the astronauts have occasional “seances” to discuss problems such as the possible bad publicity that could result from their adulterous intrigues. Glenn, Carpenter, and Grissom argue for self-control, while the others, led by Shepard, claim the right to a private life when they are off-duty. While such issues sometimes divide them, they stand united in their insistence on making both linguistic and engineering changes in the program. They want to be called “astronaut-pilots” (not “passengers”) and insist on calling the capsule their “spacecraft.” They successfully fight for a window on the capsule and for more manual control of flights.
The Right Stuff is slang history, often told in the language in which it was lived. The pilots and their wives are fascinating people whom Wolfe is able to capture in great detail, using the words and concepts, the slang and nuances of pilot lore to usher readers into their world. For example, since the pilots’ code prevents them from mentioning the right stuff directly, Wolfe discovers the indirect language by which they allude to it during informal gab sessions. Instead of claiming their own bravery during a flying crisis, they will describe how the radar man is in shock, looking just like a “zombie.” That description announces both the danger of the situation and the pilot’s right stuff for surviving it unscathed.