The space story that wasn't really about space: Why Tom Wolfe wrote The Right Stuff

It was a stylish account of America's race for space, and the 'psychological mystery' of the men in shimmering spacesuits who became the new knights of their age. But its author was a man in a very different kind of suit.

By Alec Marsh
Published 23 Oct 2020, 11:35 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 04:57 GMT
John Glenn blasts off in the Mercury-Atlas 6, February 20, 1962. The Ohio-born astronaut was the first ...

John Glenn blasts off in the Mercury-Atlas 6, February 20, 1962. The Ohio-born astronaut was the first American to orbit Earth, and is arguably the central figure in Tom Wolfe's 1979 book The Right Stuff.

 

Photograph by NASA

There is the conventional story of how Tom Wolfe, the leading exponent of 'New Journalism' in 1960s America and the man who charted the rise of LSD and pop culture, became the chronicler of the US’s race to get its first man into space.

He was sent in 1972 to Kennedy Space Centre in Florida by Rolling Stone magazine for the launch of Apollo 17, the last – so far – manned mission to the moon. What he came back with was a four part series of articles, not about NASA’s Apollo mission, but its first manned space venture, Project Mercury. That, and the seven astronauts who took part in it; known then and now as the Mercury Seven.

These articles, in turn, spawned the book, The Right Stuff, that continues to encapsulate for many the dawn of American space fight in the 1950s and early 1960s. And there was nothing conventional about this.

Related: 50 Favourite images from Apollo 11

Born in Virginia in 1930, Tom Wolfe's perpetual trademark was a white suit, which he wore often in combination with a Homburg hat and two-tone shoes, and in later life accessorised with a cane. Intended in part to make him appear deliberately out of place, according to Wolfe it made people 'want to talk to him.' He died in 2018. 

Photograph by Mark Seliger / Farrar, Straus and Giroux

‘This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity,’ wrote Wolfe. ‘What is it, I wondered, that makes a man will 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?’

So he went to find out. ‘I decided on the simplest approach possible,’ he said. ‘I would ask a few astronauts and find out.’ This began at Cape Canaveral in 1972. ‘I discovered quickly enough that none of them, no matter how talkative otherwise, was about to answer the question or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage...’

Wolfe dug deeper, interviewing former astronauts, military test pilots and non-pilots – those ‘intimately involved in the beginning of the era of manned rocket flight’ in America. He also spent time poring over the archives of the Johnson Space Centre in Houston.

Read: why the Apollo missions made Florida synonymous with space.

An X-24A experimental aircraft kick-starts its rocket-powered flight after being launched from the wing of a B-52 mothership, 1970. Test pilots involved in such high-risk work were said by Wolfe to have 'the right stuff' - an indefinable quality that transcended and intensified with the astronaut program of the 1960s and early 1970s.

 

Photograph by NASA

It took him the best part of a decade to complete The Right Stuff – which was published in 1979. Doing so led him ‘to a rich and fabulous terrain that, in a literary sense, had remained as dark as the far side of the moon for more than half a century: military flying and the modern America officer corps.’

And here is the point in that the book is in some respects less about space and rather more about what’s going on, on the ground here on Earth: namely the Cold War, and what, precisely, goes on insides the heads of young men – those that would volunteer to be fired into space on top of a rocket. ‘The Right Stuff became the story of why men were willing – willing? – delighted! – to take on such odds in this, an era literary people had long since characterised as the age of the anti-hero. Such was the psychological mystery that animated me in the writing of this book.’

Wolfe credits Winston Churchill’s personal doctor Charles Moran – who had served as a doctor in the trenches of the First World War – with helping to locate the answer. In The Anatomy of Courage‘Moran predicted that in the wars of the future adventurous young men who sought glory in war would tend to seek it as pilots,’ wrote Wolfe. ‘In the twentieth century, he said, they would regard the military pilot as the quintessence of manly daring that the cavalryman had been in the nineteenth.’

And this was true – until 1957. That’s when Russia shocked the world – and particularly the USA – by launching Sputnik, the world’s first satellite into orbit. Sputnik lit the touch paper of the space race, leading to the creation of NASA in 1958 and start of Project Mercury, the American bid to get the first man in space.

While the Soviets got there first – when in 1961 Yuri Gagarin was blasted into outer space – the U.S. was not far behind. In 1961 astronaut Alan Shepard become the first American in space. Then they went one better, when another of the Mercury Seven, John Glenn, orbited the Earth three times aboard Friendship 7 on 20 February 1962. His flight lasted four hours and 55 minutes but it granted him an eternal fame in the annals of space exploration.

Related: Step inside the hometown of the first man in space.

The Mercury 7 astronauts dressed in their 'Mercury suits.' Developed from high altitude U.S. Navy suits, the pressurised aluminiumised nylon and neoprene suits had to be custom-made for each astronaut. Back row, left to right: Alan Shepard, Virgil 'Gus' Grissom, Gordon Cooper; Front row, left to right: Wally Schirra, Donald ‘Deke’ Slayton, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter.

Photograph by NASA

Glenn was a former Second World War fighter pilot, who became a test pilot after the war, before volunteering for Project Mercury. (He went on to serve as a U.S. Senator for three decades and returned to space aboard the shuttle in 1998.)

In many respects The Right Stuff follows the Glenn career trajectory: Wolfe begins the book by drawing us into the glamorous if lethal world of America’s test flight pilots in the 1940s and 1950s – pilots like Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier on 14 October 1947 in an X-1, men who were determined to push the envelope in planes that, in Wolfe’s memorable phrase, ‘were like chimneys with little razor-blade wings on them, [where] you had to be “afraid to panic”.’

In one scene Wolfe describes how the pilots would listen to the inflight recordings of colleagues who had died in air accidents – those last seconds as the plane dived and they were shouting ‘for one last hopeless crumb of information’ that might rectify the situation. When the tape stopped, wrote Wolfe, ‘everybody around the table would look at one another and nod ever so slightly, and the unspoken message was: Too bad! There was a man with the right stuff.’

Unlike the revered test pilots, however, the Mercury astronaut was just ‘spam in a can’. ‘The Mercury capsule was not a ship but a can,’ wrote Wolfe. ‘Not only did it involve no flying, there wasn’t even a window to look out of.’

So why did the astronauts to do it – when the risks were so enormous? For Wolfe, the answer lay in the training, background and the groupthink of the men who made up the officer corps – plus a national call to arms. This was ‘the Cold War version of the dangerous mission,’ wrote Wolfe in The Right Stuff. ‘One of the maxims drilled into all career officers went: Never refuse a combat assignment.’ And then there was the appeal of becoming the first man in space.

And that’s how the public saw it. ‘The question of whether an astronaut was a pilot or a mere guinea pig never entered into it for a moment,’ wrote Wolfe in his diagnosis of the phenomenon. ‘The seven Project Mercury pilots could have been designated Single-Combat General, a category with the honours and privileges of five-star general but with none of the duties and obligations of command. The mantle of Cold Warrior of the heavens had been placed on their shoulders.’

Published in 1979, The Right Stuff's unconventional narrative techniques were classic of the 'New Journalism' movement Wolfe helped pioneer. The book inspired many future astronauts. One of its subjects, John Glenn, was said to have approved of the book; less so the 1983 film.

Photograph by Simon Ingram / National Geographic

“The book should not expand our view of man into the dimensions of the cosmos –but draw the entire cosmos into the dimensions of man’s love of himself or, rather, his ceaseless concern for his own standing in comparison to other men.”

Tom Wolfe

As well as dissecting the patriotic glory-seeking, the machismo and the bravery – and the way society responded to it – there was another reason for Wolfe’s decision to dedicate most of a decade towards the book. And it’s rather more personal: he noticed that two of the Mercury Seven were born in the same year as him - 1930 - and reminded Wolfe of himself in other ways.

Here’s the writer Michael Lewis on Wolfe and The Right Stuff in Vanity Fair: ‘The early astronauts had some traits in common, he noticed. They tended to be born oldest sons, in the mid-1920s, named after their fathers, and raised in small towns, in intact Anglo-Saxon Protestant families. More than half of them had “Jr.” after their names." 

‘This is really a book not about the space program,’ Wolfe wrote in a letter quoted by Lewis, ‘but about status battles between pilots in the highly competitive world of military flying. To be successful the book should not expand our view of man into the dimensions of the cosmos – but draw the entire cosmos into the dimensions of man’s love of himself or, rather, his ceaseless concern for his own standing in comparison to other men.’

Wolfe still had to do the research, to get the information and personal stories from those people intimately involved, from people like the great Chuck Yeager, in order to process the entire mass and then retell it in his own unique way. How did he penetrate this world? In 1980 he told Rolling Stone it came down to listening, and not trying to fit in: ‘If you’re willing to be the village information gatherer, they’ll often just pile material on you. My one contribution to the discipline of psychology is my theory of information compulsion. Part of the nature of the human beast is a feeling of scoring a few status points by telling other people things they don’t know.’

And the outcome met with approval, a bestseller that won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in the U.S. – as well as motivating and inspiring a generation of future astronauts and scientists. Glenn and Schirra, another Mercury astronaut, praised it, and Wolfe himself revealed that while not all the pilots or widows of pilots had congratulated him on it, ‘almost all seemed grateful that someone had tried – and it had to be an outsider – to put into words certain matters that the very code of the pilot rules off-limits in conversation.’ In other words, the right stuff.

Four decades on its reputation stands and Wolfe’s story continues to captivate readers. Among the many who have paid tribute to the book and its author is former NASA shuttle commander Scott Kelly, who spent a year in space aboard the International Space Station in 2016. ‘Like the Mercury astronauts he brought to life on the page, Tom’s contribution and influence can never be replicated,’ Kelly wrote in 2018, after Wolfe’s death. Kelly, who read the book when he was 18, credits it with turning around his university career and giving him an ambition to fly and become an astronaut.

On this side of the Atlantic, fans include Professor Chris Lee, the recently retired Chief Scientist of the UK Space Agency: speaking to National Geographic, he praises Wolfe for fleshing out the back stories of the astronauts involved but also shining a light on ‘the real impressiveness’ of the endeavour. 

‘All the engineering that went on in the background behind the scenes – how they built the rockets in the time they did, how they built the life supports systems, how they tested them in double fast time,’ he says. ‘It was a huge engineering feat, and I don’t think I had recognised that.’

Wolfe’s book ends with the completion of Project Mercury in 1963 and astronaut Gordon Cooper’s dramatic re-entry from orbit, which had to be accomplished manually after technical failure. It proved what the Mercury Seven had said, that there was a place in space for the pilot after all, leading to the ‘acceptance by their peers as test pilots of the space age’.

Having observed the Gemini and Apollo programmes, for Wolfe Mercury remained iconic. ‘Not even the first American to walk on the moon would ever know the outpourings of people’s most primeval emotions that Shepard, Cooper, and, above all, Glenn had known,’ he wrote. ‘The era of America’s first single-combat warriors had come, and it has gone, perhaps never to be relived.’ Fortunately, it remains in the pages of The Right Stuff.

Alec Marsh is a journalist and author of the Drabble and Harris books.

The Right Stuff is streaming now exclusively on Disney+.

The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic.

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