The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Treasure of the Rubbermaids 24: Rocket Men
The on-going discoveries of priceless books and comics found in a stack of Rubbermaid containers previously stored and forgotten at my parent’s house and untouched for almost 20 years. Thanks to my father dumping them back on me, I now spend my spare time unearthing lost treasures from their plastic depths.
If you, a 21st century person, ever sees one of the old Mercury space capsules in a museum you’ll probably be amazed at how small and primitive it seems. (Whatever device you’re reading this on right now has more computing power than all of NASA had at the time.) It looks more like a toy, something that a kid might have in his backyard to play rocket ship, rather than a vehicle that actually took men into space. Your next thought might be, “What kind of fool would have volunteered to strap himself into that on top of a giant cylinder filled with highly combustible fuel and ride it out of the atmosphere?”
To understand that you can read The Right Stuff.
This isn’t some dry account of the early days of America’s space program filled with dates and scientific facts. In fact, if that’s the kind of history you’re looking for then you’d probably find this disappointing. What Tom Wolfe did here is try to convey the mindset of an America panicked by suddenly finding itself behind the Soviet Union in the space race, and how in its desperation it turned seven pilots chosen to be the first astronauts into national heroes. Those men would find themselves in a media spotlight where the image they presented was often more important than their actual skills in the cockpit.
Wolfe starts by explaining what the ‘right stuff’ is by taking us back to late ‘40s when a hotshot test pilot named Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. The fact that Yeager did this with broken ribs and used a length of sawed-off broom handle as a lever to close the hatch on his X-1 rocket plane because he was in too much pain to lean over made it that much more impressive. What adds to his legend is that he got the injury in a drunken horse riding accident the night before and hid it from his superiors for fear they’d replace him on the flight. That’s the kind of thing that shows that Yeager had the right stuff practically dripping out of his pores and put him at the top of the test pilot pyramid.
Yet when the Soviets launched Sputnik and America scrambled to catch up Yeager wasn’t seriously considered as an astronaut candidate, and to many of the other test pilots who were setting speed records and pushing the boundary of space anyhow in their rocket propelled aircraft it was only a matter of time until they'd be flying into space anyhow. To them the Mercury program was a publicity stunt in which the astronauts would only be sealed in a can and shot into space without really flying the ship at all. Hell, it was so easy that a monkey could do it, and a couple actually did.
Yet after the media declared the Mercury 7 as the best and bravest that America had to offer everyone started forgetting about the test pilots and put all the resources and attention on the astronauts. The seven men themselves would start pushing back for changes that gave them more control of their spacecraft, and while they may have started out as a little more than guinea pigs they used their popularity to get more power and control within the fledgling NASA. This led to the egghead scientists taking a backseat while a more military mindset of operational performance became the yardstick that determined a mission’s success. More importantly to them, it would show the world that they really did have the right stuff.
This is all written more as a novel than a history. For example, rather than tell us what was happening on the ground during flights Wolfe sticks to what was going through the astronaut’s head at the time so that something like John Glenn finding out that his heat shield may have been loose comes to us as a realization that he had rather than giving us the full picture of what was going on. It also delves into the personal lives of the astronauts where they and their wives would try to present an All-American image even as some of the men were taking full advantage of the new celebrity they had attained.
It’s also frequently very funny. There’s a great sequence near the beginning about how if you find yourself on an airline flight with a problem and the pilot on the intercom explains how there is nothing to worry about in a calm southern drawl it’s a direct result of generations of pilots imitating Chuck Yeager’s accent over the radio to mimic his understated sense of calm.
As a space geek and historical stickler I do find it lacking at a couple of points. Wolfe doesn’t give you any details about what happened to these men later so that you wouldn’t know something like Alan Shepherd would eventually be one of the men who walks on the moon after being grounded with an inner ear problem after his first flight. I also think he also does a disservice to Gus Grissom whose mission nearly ended in disaster after splashdown when his capsule door unexpectedly blew open. Grissom nearly drowned at the capsule was lost at sea. (It was recovered almost 40 years later. It has been restored and can be seen at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS.)
Wolfe uses Grissom’s heart rate which was higher than any other astronauts during their mission to strongly hint that he was in a state of near panic during his flight, and that he probably did blow the hatch despite his claims that he had done nothing wrong. In other words Grissom didn’t really have the right stuff after all according to Wolfe. It’s still unclear as to why the hatch did blow, but even back then on a subsequent mission Wally Schirra had deliberately blown his own hatch as a test and showed that the force required to do it left visible bruises on his hand while Grissom had no marks at all. I’ve also read other accounts and seen various documentaries in which other astronauts and NASA officials adamantly claim that it must have been a technical failure, not anything that Grissom did wrong. Wolfe omits all of this to leave a reader with a very strong impression that Grissom ‘screwed the pooch’. This seems especially unfair in that Grissom wasn’t alive to defend himself when the book came out since he had died in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire which also killed two other astronauts. (It’s a bitter irony that they couldn’t get out because the hatch of that spacecraft was badly designed so that it couldn’t be opened when the fire occurred.)
Despite some flaws, it’s still a fantastic read that really digs into the idea of how the macho code of these men was sometimes a crippling burden, it was also maybe exactly what was needed to get a bunch of guys to willingly climb into rockets. I also highly recommend the movie adaptation although it’s more of an emotional story than historically accurate.
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