The Right Stuff is a book written in the seventies about the sixties, which was made into a movie in the 80s, took the 90s off and then was read by me sometime in 2010. It is about the mercury seven and is very similar in to Apollo thirteen in tone. All that being said, it is anything but by the numbers. It was written by Tom Wolfe (who was indeed raised by Wolfes), but is not related to Virginia Woolf even though he was born in Virginia.
Though there’s a lot of action in the book, it is actually really about the titular “right stuff” that may or may not be possessed by certain men in a certain profession. Mainly test pilots in the late fifties and early sixties. Lucky for us, that righteous stuff, even in story form, cannot be stated–only shown. And so we are treated with one thrilling story after another. The most thrilling of them occur with a man named Chuck Yeager at the controls. These are some of the best flying stories I’ve ever read.
The ego of the fighter pilot is said to be immense and having seen Top Gun, I feel qualified to agree with that assessment. Which is why it is all the more shocking, that Yeager the best star pilot in the galaxy was not chosen. And because the ego of the fighter pilot is so immense, so are all the other pilots equally shocked. And because the fighter pilot’s ego is so immense, it is not shocking that a great many of them (Yeager included) didn’t even sign up to be astronauts in the first place. Their immense egos, you see, would not let them look beyond the fact that the first flights would be merely “manned” not technically “piloted.”
And so we are left with the Mercury Seven. Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. Out of the seven, I was familiar with merely three of them. And truthfully I suspect I only know Gus Grissom because he and I are both from Indiana and we had to learn about him in fourth grade (Thank you Mrs. Quakenbush). The other two Alan Shepard and John Glenn should be recognizable to most everyone who grew up in America.
Though I remembered it vaguely once it was stated, I do admit to being a bit surprised upon being reminded that Shepard was the first American in space. For some reason, I thought it was John Glenn. Wolfe goes into why I thought that. Turns out John Glenn was the only one who really understood what was going on. Knew what the mercury program was and actually worked to make sure it was perceived in the way it was. Even though there is no proof that getting up at four in the morning and running for 2 hours helps you to sit weightless in a floating capsule thousands of miles above the earth. It’s part of the right stuff.
At any rate, Americans liked him so much that they simply moved the goal for glory from being the first American in space to being the first American to ORBIT the earth, which he was. Also they kind of ignored that the Russians did all this before them and still do to this day. So sometimes you’ll hear that Glenn was the first man to orbit the earth, be annoying and correct those people when this happens. Tell them he was the first American to orbit the earth. Then scoff and say “Haven’t you read The Right Stuff?’
The Right Stuff goes into a lot of territory, from the astronaut’s political hangers on to the pecking order of the astronaut’s wives. Their celebrity status and their ticker tape parades, but the best part is always the stories about the speed of the rockets and the test planes. It’s no mistake that NASA called it Project Mercury. The Right Stuff is the first on our list to be a true story, but it captures the awe factor of the space race. Especially in the present age, after we’ve been to the moon and shrugged it off as being boring. The Right Stuff is able to make even the creakiest of envelope pushing stories sound thrilling. The breaking of the sound barrier, or tumbling slowly head over heels at midnight over Australia, The sunsets in space, and what to do when you’re plane stalls out and the chute won’t open and you’re a hundred miles from home and 25,000 miles above the open desert.
Next up: Ninety-four!