The Right Stuff

  • Author: Tom Wolfe
  • Published: 1979

"Instant classic". It’s what they said when the book was first published, and it’s what any reader today is likely to say upon turning the final page. Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is a non-fiction knockout. Technically precise, meticulously researched, and dripping with swagger. It’s the story of fighter jocks turned astronauts, of astronauts turned heroes, and heroes turned yesterday's news. It's a razzle-dazzle run-down of NASA in it’s infancy and America's race to space against the dreaded Russians. It is literary journalism at its finest, brimming with verbal acrobatics and guided by a bloodhound’s nose for the truth. But mostly, as Wolfe himself put it, it’s the story of what makes a man “willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse?” 

Tom Wolfe began writing about the space program in the early 1970's as a journalist for Rolling Stone. Through his many interviews with astronauts and NASA personnel he became increasingly interested in the motivations of the men who became America’s first astronauts. Who in God’s name would volunteer for such deadly missions? “Our rockets always blow up!” was the common refrain at the time. He quickly had his answer. Test pilots. Fighter jocks. Men willing to push aircraft to their limit in order to outrun the sky and sound itself. What kind of a nut wants to stick the landing on a heaving aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean in the dead of night? Men who possessed “the right stuff“. As Wolfe puts it:

It was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process. No the idea here seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment - and then go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite…”

Capturing the spirit and bluster of these daredevil pilots, many of whom where combat veterans form WWII and the Korean War, informs Wolfe’s writing style and viewpoint throughout the novel. It’s the “in” that gives The Right Stuff its unforgettable style. Wolfe opens the book at a time when it seemed like pilots were dropping like flies. “A Navy pilot faced a 23 percent likelihood of dying in an accident. A 56 percent probability, that at some point (he) would have to eject from his aircraft and attempt to comedown by parachute.”   Many men were burnt beyond recognition in horrific crashes in the swamps of Florida and the high desert of Edwards Air Force base. It was funeral after funeral. Disaster was almost guaranteed. It was how you handled it that mattered. 

“A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff… that you might be able to join the special few at the very top, that elite, who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.”

No one embodied the spirit of the right stuff more than Chuck Yeager. Wolfe’s chapters on the unflappable farm boy from West Virginia turned combat veteran, experimental test pilot, and the first man to break the sound barrier, belong in a time capsule. These passages set the stage for the grand drama of the Mercury astronauts, and perfectly portray the mindset, pride and egos of the men chasing glory atop the globe.

When the Russians launched Sputnik, the Earth’s first artificial satellite in 1957, America collectively lost its mind. “Nothing less than control of the heavens was at stake”! We had to control “the high ground!” We faced “National Extinction!” The Speaker of the House was convinced that, “The Soviets would send up space platforms from which they could drop nuclear bombs at will, like rocks from a highway overpass.

The hunt for astronauts was on. Since the nation’s first astronauts would be more like passengers than pilots, sitting inside fully automated capsules, “NASA’s original civil-service job specifications for a Mercury astronaut did not even require that the star voyager be a pilot of any description whatsoever. The astronaut would not be expected to do anything; he only had to be able to take it.” NASA was ready to issue a call to the general population for volunteers, “when the President himself, Eisenhower, stepped in. He foresaw bedlam. Every lunatic in the U.S.A. would volunteer for this thing!” He immediately directed NASA to make selections from the 540 military test pilots already on duty, despite their obvious over qualifications. 

The fact that monkeys were the first creatures to make the flights was an endless source of ridicule amongst pilots who considered the role of astronaut beneath their skill set. For the lucky seven that were selected, it was an insult that would never fail to rankle. But it soon mattered not, because Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schurra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn, and Scott Carpenter were elevated to a status of exultation unlike anything the country had ever seen. Wolfe likened them to “single combat warriors” in the eyes of the press and people. “In single combat the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for a pitched battle between the entire forces… The space war was on… they were risking their lives for their country, for their people, in ‘the fateful testing’ versus the powerful Soviet Integral.”  The public ate it up. It was time to put our warriors in space.

The story unfolds from there, and it’s a wild ride. There are the hilarious passages poking fun at the “genteel beast”, (Wolfe’s nickname for the press), whose ravenous appetite for exclusives constantly conflicts with their self appointed role as the virtuous conscience of the nation. There’s the friction amongst the astronauts themselves - chiefly between the cocky and cool Alan Shepherd and the goody-two-shoes John Glenn. There’s the growing assertiveness of the astronauts as they demand changes to the spacecraft (Give us a window! Give us more control!). The surreal mental testing, the endless training, the minutiae, the check lists. The grand success of Shepherd’s first journey to the stars, and the embarrassing failure of Gus Grissom’s reentry when he loses the capsule to the bottom of the ocean. The pranks, the tickertape parades, the urine in the space suits. To give-away more would be a crime.

Wolfe pulls it all off with a verve unlike anything I’ve ever read. His style is charisma itself. He’s cynical, sarcastic, delighted, ironic, jingoistic, controversial, hilarious, raw and heartfelt - sometimes all in the same paragraph. It’s impossible to imagine the journey of these seven swaggering souls being captured by anyone else. The Right Stuff is surely a product of its time, but its magic has not dimmed an iota. It remains a supersonic shot across the sky. A powerful piece of history written by the merriest of pranksters. I loved every word of it.