Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff is about understanding the people and the times surrounding the United States’ entrance into the space race. At the heart of the story is the “right stuff” itself, the unique quality that test pilots and astronauts possessed that enabled them to brave danger not only willingly but eagerly as well.
Wolfe begins his story of the Mercury program at Edwards Air Force Base on the high desert of Southern California. Edwards becomes the mecca of the prime test pilots after Chuck Yeager reaches Mach 1 and breaks the sound barrier there in 1947. In addition to his speed record, Yeager’s coolness in a crisis, instinctual flying skills, and combat success during World War II place him at the top of the flying brotherhood and make him the standard against which all test pilots will measure themselves. Yeager and others of his elite status face death every dawn by testing new jets and arrive promptly for “beer call” at 4:00 p.m., performing flawlessly with a hangover and on little sleep. Even such recklessness was part of the mythical right stuff.
Meanwhile, the gauntlet of space travel is thrown down by the Soviet Union when it launches the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. Since many Americans fear that the Soviet Union will soon be dropping bombs from space, the United States turns in a Cold War frenzy to Wernher von Braun and the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to play “catch up” in the space race. President Dwight Eisenhower mandates the selection of seven astronauts for the Mercury program. Following stiff and rigorous competition among the best test pilots in the country (excluding non-college-educated pilots such as Yeager), the seven are chosen and burst onto the American scene as virtual “single combat warriors,” prepared to go head-to-head with the Soviets in a...
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