Quick! Name a working astronaut. Chances are, unless you’re a keen space program enthusiast, that you can’t. But there was a time—Cold War America in the 1960s—when most schoolchildren could readily rattle off the names of Alan Shephard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Shirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton: the Mercury Seven, the very first astronauts selected in 1959 by the newly-formed NASA to be the public faces in the United States’ contest with the Soviet Union for control of space. For the next four years, the astronauts could do no wrong: idolized and idealized and exploited, even before any of them had experienced the weightlessness of space.
Nonetheless, we live in a time foretold in The Right Stuff, the plucky, novel-like nonfiction book published in 1979 by the late Tom Wolfe, about the lives and careers of the early astronauts. Late in the book, Wolfe writes that in 1964, “It would have been… impossible for [John Glenn (the first American to orbit the Earth, and his fellow Mercury astronauts] to realize that the day might come when Americans would hear their names and say, ‘Oh, yes—now which one was he?’” It’s sad, but true, that within ten years after the end of Mercury, with triumphant Americans routinely walking on the moon, the public, and the otherwise deep-pocketed Congress, lost interest. At the time of The Right Stuff’s publication, it had been over four years since an American had gone into space, and it would be another two years before they returned in the newfangled, reusable Space Shuttle.
The Right Stuff captures the tension between America’s Cold War optimism and anxiety. The United States, victorious and comparatively unscathed in the aftermath of World War II, was the world’s predominant superpower—but the Soviet Union was coming up fast in her rearview mirror. There was a sense that Americans could do just about anything, and do it first, and do it better than anybody else—until the Soviets surprised the world with a rapid-fire series of space firsts: the first artificial satellite, the first animal in space, the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first man to orbit the earth, the first spacewalk, the first unmanned flyby of the moon, etc.
Of course, these Communist accomplishments were not real concerns in-and-of themselves; it was the technological capability they represented. If the Soviets could put a beeping probe—or a man—in orbit, they could put a nuke in orbit, and bring it down anywhere they pleased. And so, there was incredible pressure by the American public and America’s politicians, to “catch up” to the Communists and prove that red-blooded (and, incidentally, white-skinned) American pilots could go toe-to-toe with the Russkies and outperform them on the final frontier.
As Tom Wolfe vividly illustrates, there was much to admire in the grit and competence and patriotic enthusiasm of America’s “single combat” space warriors. Working interminable hours for near-poverty wages, the Mercury astronauts were willing to risk life and limb in order to ensure the Free World (the United States specifically) achieved long-term dominance in manned space travel. But Wolfe also shows us that drama and heroism go hand-in-hand with hubris, jingoism, and petty ambition. Sharp-elbowed astronauts vied for the infinitely prized spot of first American in space. As Wolfe explains, the macho world of aviation had a pecking order, a pyramid with room for only one man (yes, man) at the top. Only pilots with “the right stuff”—a hard-to-describe alchemy of competence, courageousness, patriotism, and charisma—could rise above lesser men and ascend to the top of the great “ziggurat.”
Stylistically, Wolfe can be an acquired taste. He indulges in long sentences and long paragraphs to provide vivid descriptions of the physical deprivations of test piloting and low-orbit space exploration, peppered with peculiar, google-proof phrases like “bell-cut collar” and “glum ochre,” and leavened with doses of dark humor. He’s not afraid to admire the Mercury Seven, while simultaneously seeing them as flawed, sometimes ridiculous, men. He can admire the courage, say, of a Gus Grissom, willing to sit atop a powerful, unpredictable Redstone missile, waiting to be shot off to god-knows-where, while at the same time carrying rolls of dimes in his pressure suit pockets to sell as keepsakes afterwards.
One of the often-overlooked aspects of the space race is the competition between the test pilots who focused on rocket-powered planes (think Chuck Yeager and his record-breaking feats in the X-1 and near-death experience in the NF-104) and the astronauts who rode then-unconventional “capsules” shot atop missiles into orbit. Obviously, the latter won out, but it’s easy to forget that for a little while, the idea was not so crazy that a man could take off from the ground in a rocket-powered airplane, achieve orbit, then return via a conventional runway landing. (This may yet happen in the not-too-distant future, but for now the stereotypical rocket launch is the way to go.)
The Right Stuff was adapted into a faithful (and highly entertaining) 1983 film and a relatively lackluster miniseries that streamed on Disney+ in 2020. In any event, even 43 years after first printing, Tom Wolfe’s “nonfiction novel” about the space race is well worth revisiting.