In which neophyte astro-gal Netty takes a ride on a rocket with The Right Stuff …December 15, 2013
So, one of my besties this year developed an obsession with early manned spaceflight. In the space (ha, ha, geddit?) of only six months of so, she has gone from watching the odd NASA doco about the moon to collecting bits and pieces of various actual spacecraft. And a giant inflatable astronaut or two.
Me, I’m kinda clueless when it comes to the universe. I mean, I can tell you the names of the planets – and that one, Pluto, that was stripped of its planetary status, which seems kinda mean to me. I know a few blokes actually walked on the moon (or maybe the barren desert beds of Arizona – I’m kidding, Teens! I’m kidding!), but I can only name Armstrong and Aldrin. What else? Um, stars are pretty. And yeah – you get the picture.
One thing about which I’m not quite so clueless is American writer Tom Wolfe. I first discovered him when I plucked a collection of his work, called The Purple Decades, out of a review box in the late 1980s. Even then it was a reprint. Loved it, and went on to read a lot of his non-fiction and a couple of his novels (Bonfire of the Vanities remains a favourite to this day). However, I deliberately skipped over The Right Stuff, first published in 1979 and later made into a successful film – even though two of its chapters are excerpted in The Purple Decades. Bah, astronauts, I thought to myself at the time. That won’t be very interesting …
Um, wrong. Oh so very wrong. Who woulda thunked it?
I was surprised to discover just how interesting this stuff really is. What should not have surprised me is that a journalist of Wolfe’s great expertise and mastery could distil what could potentially have been an impossibly technical read into something easily digested by the layman/utter novice/village idiot. Sure, there’s a bit of physics and some stuff about pitch and yaw in there, but it’s not the dense, impenetrable subject matter I had originally feared. At its heart it is the story of seven extraordinary yet ordinary men – and their wives and families – and the duelling Yank/Soviet race to get a man into space and beyond.
Wolfe had originally envisaged a history of the 1960s-1970s American space missions, but eventually solely settled on the Mercury program. This involved seven astronauts, drawn from the ranks of the era’s hot-shot military pilots; fighter jocks who had the indefinable “right stuff” (aka the “righteous stuff”) of the book’s title - a combination of unbelievable, unshakeable courage in the face of constant mortality and good old-fashioned, testosterone-charged machismo.
The “Mercury Seven” were John Glenn, a Marine Corps pilot; Scott Carpenter, Al Shepard and Wally Schirra, Navy pilots; and Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton, Air Force pilots. Despite some disgruntled murmurings from their peers (pilot extraordinaire Chuck Yeager – the first man to break Mach-1, the sound barrier – famously dissed the program for not involving any actual piloting, noting that a monkey was going to make the first flight), they were courted by politicians – then President John F. Kennedy took a personal interest in the program and was responsible for signing off on most of its funding – and feted as rock stars by the American public.
Wolfe creates an almost unbearable tension as he describes in vivid detail the actual missions – I could feel my heart beating just that little bit faster as I tore through those pages, made all the more unbearable because I did not know the astronauts’ fates, and I had deliberately avoided equipping myself with said knowledge. Shepard was eventually anointed as the first to be blasted into the stratosphere in that tiny little capsule aboard that massive rocket, followed by Grissom; while Glenn made the first orbital flight, followed by Carpenter, then Schirra, then Cooper. Some of these missions go perfectly to plan; others prove a little more hair-raising. And Slayton – who was originally slated as the second in space – was cruelly grounded by a heart condition.
What I found just as interesting as the Mercury space program itself was the military pilot backgrounder, which was essentially a precursor to eventually going into orbit. To this end, The Right Stuff opens with a chapter on these pilots, centring on Pete Conrad – who tested for the Mercury program, but was rejected on the grounds that he was unsuitable for long-duration flight (he went on to take part in the subsequent Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions and was the third man to walk on the moon), and his first wife Jane. Conrad, then a Navy pilot in his mid-20s, was eventually stationed at the famous Patuxent (Pax) River naval air station base in Maryland. During the course of this chapter, set in the late 1950s, scores of Pete’s colleagues fall out of the sky during the testing of the latest jets and crash to fiery deaths, while Jane and the fellow wives keep their eyes peeled on the skies and the telephones within arm’s reach. It’s a remarkable, beautifully written and finely wrought depiction of the almost unimaginable stress these pilots – and their families – endured on a daily basis, when there was a one-in-four chance the man was not going to walk back through the front door after a day’s work.
As Wolfe says in the 1983 introduction to his book, it was borne out of an “ordinary curiosity” about the “psychological mystery” as to why these men were not only willing, but “delighted” to take on the fearsome odds and “sit on top of an enormous Roman candle and wait for someone to light the fuse?” And he admirably succeeds in giving the reader an insight not only into the missions themselves, but the indomitable, inscrutable mindset of these men.
So while I won’t be scampering off to buy a piece of heat shield from one of the Mercury capsules any time soon, The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe and my good old bestie have left me with a newfound respect for, and appreciation of, the first astronauts and their miraculous cosmic adventures.