The only thing that is more incredible than the events depicted in Tom
Wolfe’s novel The Right Stuff is that they are all true. Wolfe follows
the evolution of America’s budding space program by taking the reader behind
the scenes of the Mercury program which first launched Americans into space.
The main focus of the story deals with the astronauts themselves and how
they and their families dealt with the political pressures of the space
race. These seven test-pilots-turned-astronauts epitomized the yearn for
superiority and hero-worship so sought after during the 1960’s decade.
At the same time, the reader gets a sense of the human frailty, internal
conflicts, and personality clashes that were hidden to the general public
yet plagued the astronauts’ inner circle. This last aspect of The
Right Stuff is the real treasure of the book and what I found
most informative about the entire story.
In a way, NASA was asking for trouble when it picked the Mercury astronauts. It stands to reason that they picked test pilots; they had a vessel no one had ever used before and who better to choose than fearless test pilots? But NASA did not actually want pilots. What NASA really wanted was human cargo. After all, even a chimp could serve as the captain of the capsule as was proven in the first shot into space and again for the first orbit. After that initial “chimp shot,” NASA expected to throw in Alan Shepard, Jr. in order to qualify the mission as the first American manned space flight. After some internal mutterings, NASA got its way and America had a national hero. Soon the astronauts were not resigned to the fact that they were expected to be mere passengers and demanded that they be treated as pilots. What started out to NASA brass as obedient figureheads for a politically-charged space program was turning into a case of borderline mutiny. What the astronauts soon realized is that NASA had paved the way by building the astronauts’ images up to super-human proportions. No matter how fierce the political storm raged inside, the public only saw heroes who could do no wrong.
Of almost equal magnitude to the pressure from the public and NASA, personality conflicts among the astronauts themselves produced sparks. With ability and piloting expertise only rivaled by ego, Glen, Shepard, Grissom, Cooper, Slayton, Carpenter, and Shirra had very little common ground other than aviation and drive. John Glenn, the only Marine in the group, served as the moral policeman which often infuriated the other men. Alan Shepard, Jr. had a Jeckle and Hyde personality that made predicting the pilot’s mood uncertain. The clash between these two giants culminated when it came time to pick the first man to go up. It seemed that competition, friendly and of the other variety, was one of the few common threads of these men.
No matter what differences the astronauts had, family served to join the seven heroes. While their husbands were dedicating every minute to the space program and challenging death at every turn, the wives were required to deal with the public. Before every launch these veteran pilots’ wives had to stand idly by as the men they loved hurled themselves skyward atop a controlled explosion called a rocket, waiting for news of survival or disaster. With the news-hungry press always wanting that first photo-op of a dead-hero’s weeping widow in case of a mishap, the astronauts’ spouses had to endure launch after launch with media vultures literally circling their homes. It got to the point that one of the wives actually shut the door in the vice-president’s face, much to the ire of the high-ranking official. With as much bravery as their spousal counterparts, these women persevered the program. Not only did the men attain that golden title of The Right Stuff, but the wives were just as deserving of such an honor.
The Right Stuff stands as a literary treasure. The documentary of the Mercury space program only serves as the backdrop to the human drama of history unfolding. The human players in the story interact with the politics of the day, families, and each other with true human spirit and American courage. This book would easily qualify to be kept on the fiction shelf under the heading of inspirational if not for one minor detail: it really happened.