Hey Read This.. ‘The Right Stuff’ Has, Well, The Right Stuff

Posted on January 30, 2012

The Right Stuff

by Tom Wolfe

We all have our own idea of the archetypal astronaut. Buzz cut. Courageous. Nice teeth. Blue eyes. We all know what the astronaut’s wife is like as well. Beautiful. A homemaker. Able to contain her inner turmoil as her husband rockets hundreds of miles into space. On top of that, we all (myself included) wanted to be one of those guys, strapped into a seat hurtling into the cosmos. Imagine being one of those early astronauts? What would the first couple of guys who willing strapped themselves on top of rockets that, literally, had all exploded until the first successful launch of an American into space be like? That’s the subject of ‘The Right Stuff’, by Tom Wolfe, the story of the original Mercury astronauts.

At the center of the book is the irony that the American government sought the best-of-the-best pilots to do an activity that, quite literally, was easy enough for a chimp to do. And as far as them risking life and limb? In fact, these guys were more likely to die as test pilots than they were as astronauts.

No, rather their main difficulty was learning a new set of rules. The fact that ‘the right stuff’, a mix of guts, smarts, quick thinking and god given talent, was no longer what determines who was on the top of the pyramid. Rather it was a panel of doctors, the media and bureaucracy that determined who would be an astronaut.

Here are some fun things I learned:

-Alan Shepherd peed on himself while waiting to be launched into space as the first American in space.

-You know how all pilots sound alike? That’s because of Chuck Yeagar. The dude was awesome and everyone started imitating him on the radio. On top of that? He would regularly call people who were way older than him ‘son’. Also, the last chapter is about him crashing a plane from 150k feet up in the air. Half of his body is melted off and some kid drives up in a truck and is like ‘Holy cow, are you okay mister?” And Yeagar asks for a knife and cuts off part of his finger. So awesome.

-Gordon ‘Gordo’ Cooper stayed in orbit for about a day. One of the things that the scientists wanted was for him to take urine samples every hour or so. For obvious reasons, this is pretty difficult in zero-g environments, and some escaped. For a while he was able to corral the urine but eventually it got into the electronics and shorted everything out. So, using a false horizon and the stars, he brought the capsule into re-entry and was only 5 miles away from his mark. That’s a pretty good example of ‘the right stuff’, by the way.

-Early astronauts were some of the most prolific drunk drivers of the generation. Chuck Yeagar broke the sound barrier because he got wasted and went for a horseback ride with his wife and fell down the night before. Generally speaking any test pilot was flying hungover.

I’ve come this far without mentioning Wolfe’s prose. If you’ve never read anything by him, do yourself a favor and do it now. It’s truly singular. I’d have to recommend ‘The Right Stuff’. It’s an intimate portrayal of everything leading up to what ends up being one of our nations finest achievements.


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