It's very hard to describe how good this book is without making you sit down and read the whole thing. Instead, I'll just describe it. The Right Stuff is the story of the seven astronauts of the Mercury program. They were the first Americans to go into space, then orbit the earth. Tom Wolfe writes it more like a thriller or a drama, using what must have been an enormous amount of research and interview material to weave an incredibly realistic picture of the time. I utterly inhaled every page of this book. Intoxicating stuff.
Flight test pilots in the fifties had a risky existence. The deaths described are gruesome and harrowing for all involved. Particular attention focused on the wives of the pilots, at home and all waiting to hear the bad news that would be delivered to one of them on days when 'something had happened out there'.
One pilot was able to eject from his plane, but even that didn't go well:
'He had had about thirty seconds to watch the Pax River base and the peninsula and Baltimore County and continental America and the entire comprehensible world rise up to smash him. When they lifted his body up off the concrete, it was like a sack of fertilizer.'
Pilots had a hierarchy, a great ziggurat to ascend, to aim for the top without dying on the way there. Being able to land on carriers, being able to take off from them, being able to do both at night, being in combat, being shot at in combat, downing an enemy plane... there was no apparent end to the possible levels of achievement and of self-sorting that went on.
All of it was alive in the mind of each pilot, but never explicitly talked about. Only ever in coded terms and roundabout ways. But each knew it was there.
'In this fraternity, even though it was military, men were not rated by their outward rank as ensigns, lieutenants, commanders, or whatever. No, herein the world was divided into those who had it and those who did not. This quality, this it, was never named, however, nor was it talked about in any way.'
This chapter is, at first about Chuck--the man himself--and his incredible track record and reputation. Most interestingly, Wolfe identifies him as the progenitor of 'the pilot voice' which was subsequently copied by all the pilots that looked up to him who then, eventually, went on to be civilian pilots.
'He would soon be at an altitude, in the thin air at the edge of space, where the stars and the moon came out at noon, in an atmosphere so thin that the ordinary laws of aerodynamics no longer applied and a plane could skid into a flat spin like a cereal bowl on a waxed Formica counter and then start tumbling, not spinning and not diving, but tumbling, end over end-like a brick...'
Chuck and his contemporaries fly, in their rocket planes, ever closer to the edge of space. But never into orbit. Space seems to be the domain of the Russians, the urgency of the need to beat them ever growing as Project Mercury is formed and the pilots scoff at the idea of being 'spam in a can', human cannonballs, strapped into capsules and blasted skyward.
'Sputnik I took on a magical dimension among highly placed persons especially, judging by opinion surveys. It seemed to dredge up primordial superstitions about the influence of heavenly bodies. It gave birth to a modern, i.e., technological, astrology. Nothing less than control of the heavens was at stake. It was Armageddon, the final and decisive battle of the forces of good and evil.'
With the government wanting progress, they needed recruits to head into space. With dozens applying from the corps of test pilots around the country, they went through a grueling battery of physical and psychological testing, some which seem little better than completely spurious. This leaves seven man carried forward, with others left behind in the dust wondering why they didn't make the grade. Some of the testing was unpopular to say the least.
"General Schwichtenberg," said Conrad, "you're looking at a man who has given himself his last enema. If you want enemas from me, from now on you can come get 'em yourself."
The seven chosen astronauts are announced at a press conference to rapturous applause and national excitement. Only thing is, they can't quite get their heads around why everyone is so interested in all the wrong things. Wolfe equates to medieval trial by single combat, where two heroes would duel rather than send the whole armies towards one another. With astronauts heading into space, this was single combat with the USSR in an otherwise very cold war.
'All the questions about wives and children and faith and God and motivation and the Flag... they were really questions about widows and orphans ... and how a warrior talks himself into going on a mission in which he is bound to die.'
The Mercury 7 adapt to their odd new life where the eyes of the nation are upon them. For some, it's simple and just fine (mostly Glenn). For others, it's unusual and not what they were expecting. I suppose that nobody really knew what they were or what they were to become, 'astronauts' being such a new concept to everyone - including the astronauts themselves.
'Gus realizes it's his turn to say something, and he is petrified. He opens his mouth and out come the words: "Well ... do good work!" It's an ironic remark, implying: "... because it's my ass that'll be sitting on your freaking rocket." But the workers started cheering like mad. They started cheering as if they had just heard the most moving and inspiring message of their lives: Do good work! After all, it's Little Gus's ass on top of our rocket! They stood there for an eternity and cheered their brains out while Gus gazed blankly upon them from the Pope's balcony.'
Away from home in Florida, many of the men cut loose and go wild partying. Fast cars, parties, drinking and sleeping around. It dawns on them, however, that they have a bigger responsibility and probably need to rein it in.
'They were all beginning to realize that the stakes were tremendous. With the first flight into space, the holy first flight, one of them would become not only the pre-eminent astronaut ... but also the True Brother at the top of the entire pyramid. The first American into space-who might very well be the first human being to go into space-would have an eminence that not even Chuck Yeager had ever enjoyed, because he would belong not just to the history of aviation but to world history.'
Preparing the astronauts for launch happened in sync with the preparation of Ham the chimp for his test flight too. The role of who an astronaut is or what they do was still being figured out because, after all, what the hell are they if chimps could do essentially the same thing?
'Considerable attention had been given to a plan to anesthetize or tranquillize the astronauts, not to keep them from panicking, but just to make sure they would lie there peacefully with their sensors on and not do something that would ruin the fiight.'
Deciding who would be first into space came faster than expected with the inauguration of JFK and renewed scrutiny of the program. Rather than the meritocratic method that had been assumed by Glenn, they chose the first into space by way of a vote among the astronauts.
'It was a shocking thing, and yet it had happened-Glenn was absolutely sure of it. To get around the agony of having to designate someone to sit up on top of the first rocket-a peer vote! After he, Glenn, had spent twenty-one months doing everything humanly possible to impress Gilruth and the rest of the brass, it had been turned into a popularity contest among the boys.'
"All right, I'm cooler than you are. Why don't you fix your little problem ... and light this candle."
The launch finally happens and the entire chapter covers something like fifteen minutes, the total time of the launch. (Wolfe excels here; the book was astonishingly good already, but then this account from Shepard's point of view is staggering.)
'Time seemed to speed up tremendously in the final thirty seconds of the countdown. In thirty seconds the rocket would ignite right underneath his back. In those last moments his entire life did not pass before his eyes. He did not have a poignant vision of his mother or his wife or his children. No, he thought about abort procedures and the checklist and about not fucking up.'
An otherwise successful second suborbital flight—with Gus Grissom in the capsule—suffers a human error, right at the last moment. It tarnishes the experience for Gus, but otherwise makes no serious mark. It dawns on the astronauts, and those around them, that they were a new sort of untouchable hero.
'The truth was that the fellows had now become the personal symbols not only of American's Cold War struggle with the Soviets but also of Kennedy's own political comeback.'
'Far from having a tarnished record, he was a hero. He had endured and overcome so much. He was back solidly in the rotation for whatever great flights might come up in the future... as if by magic.'
John Glenn becomes the first American and second human to orbit the planet. It is a watershed moment, having a much larger impact on the public than either of the previous two flights combined. It becomes a moment of patriotic pride and outpouring of emotion that the country hadn't seen, it seems likely, since the end of WWII.
'Out in the middle of the intersections were the policemen, the policemen they had all heard about or read about, New York's Finest, big tough-looking men in blue greatcoats-and they were crying! They were right out in the intersections in front of everybody, bawling away tears streaming down their faces, saluting, then cupping their hands and yelling amazing things to John and the rest of them"We love you, Johnny!"-and then bawling some more, just letting it pour out. The New York cops!'
After Carpenter's flight in which he becomes enthralled by experiments and observations, he manages to flub a few things on re-entry and came relatively close to having serious issues. Not that he realised it or thought so, but his colleagues disagreed and spoke of panic and stress behind his back. It was taken as an indication that things weren't being taken seriously enough; operational excellence had to come first if they were going to have a chance at beating the Russians.
The next flight was...different.
'That became the verdict on Schirra's performance: "A textbook flight." He had done everything on the checklist. He had turned in a hundred percent performance. He had successfully proved that a man could ride around the earth six times and barely turn a hand or move a muscle and hardly use an ounce of fuel or expend an extra heartbeat and never, not for a moment, surrender to psychological stress, and ride the ship down to a designated drop in the vastness of the ocean. Sigma, summa, Q.E.D.: Operational!'
The next generation of astronauts arrive just as the final flight of the Mercury program takes place. These are the astronauts that will be around for Gemini and, later, Apollo. Among them is Neil Armstrong. The social structure of the two groups, their wives and NASA itself is still figuring out how on earth it all works.
'The exalted status of the Original Seven was a fact. Once the initial euphoria of being chosen as an astronaut had subsided, Conrad and the others realized that now, for all their righteous stuff, they occupied a somewhat humiliating position in the corps of astronauts. They were like plebes, rookies, fraternity pledges.'
We come almost full circle back to Yeager at Edwards Air Force Base, where the equation has fundamentally changed since his first days there. The new step up that all pilots aspired to was now to be an astronaut. And even the flying itself had started to change.
'They were even developing an automatic guidance system to bring the X-15 back through the atmosphere at a precise angle of attack. Maybe the age of "the flyboys," the stick'n'rudder fighter jocks, was about finished.'
'Of course, all aircraft records were losing their dazzle now that space flight had begun. It was getting to be like setting some sort of new record for railroad trains.'
'The single-combat warriors' war had been removed. They would continue to be honored, and men would continue to be awed by their courage; but the day when an astronaut could parade up Broadway while traffic policemen in the intersections was no more.'
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