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am 4. April 2013
The test pilots and astronauts might seem an odd choice of subject for Tom Wolfe. Up to this point, much of his work had been about pose - the bohemian pose (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, 1965), the radical pose (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, 1968), and boy he was good, very good at it. In The Right Stuff, he wrote about the real thing, the original seven astronauts of America's first manned space program and the qualities he genuinely admired in men like General Chuck Yeager who blasted five Germans out of the sky in one single day and by the time he was twenty-two, he had thirteen kills. Just after the war he became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound. After breaking the so called sound barrier, Yeager was the ace of aces, well known in his circle in a kind of abstract way, but it was Tom Wolfe who made him a pop icon with this book. With his unparalleled flying record, laconic bravado and independent streak, Yeager struck Wolfe as the natural hero of his book. Based on a series of articles written for Rolling Stone magazine in 1973, The Right Stuff became an immediate bestseller when it was published in 1979.

The Right Stuff is the story of the astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, probably the most genuinely admired group of Americans during the 1960s. Wolfe follows a group of test pilots and their wives through their training and first assignments in the mid 1950s. Many of the early fighter jet pilots were killed in flying accidents, but this fraternity in general is clearly different from other men of their generation. The competition to excel as fliers has given them a different view of danger and success: being on top of the profession is more important than any consideration of risk. And the man on top of the profession clearly is Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager who helped create the whole ethos of test flying while working at Muroc Field (later Edwards Air Force Base) in the Mojave Desert in 1947. While still only twenty-four, he was selected to try to "break the sound barrier" in the Bell X-1, basically a rocket. Many considered the feat impossible (quite a number of pilots have perished in the attempt, Geoffrey de Havilland among them). Yeager, however, takes the task in stride. During a midnight horse race against his wife, just the night before the flight, he injures himself, breaking two ribs. The next day he can't hardly move his right arm. He knows that if he goes to the flight surgeon, he'd be grounded, so no way. The X-1 had to be carried up to twenty-six thousand feet underneath the wings of a B-29. At seven thousand feet, Yeager had to climb down a ladder into the X-1's cockpit, and then he had to push a handle at his right to close the cockpit door, which of course is impossible for him in this condition. But Yeager had anticipated the problem and his trusted engineer had secretly slipped him a nine inch broom handle. So with this added bit of supersonic flight gear Yeager went aloft and broke the sound barrier.

But in 1957 the Soviet Union launches Sputnik "Chrushchev's Comet," the first man-made satellite and the entire nation is in shock. The political leaders want immediate action, not to wait three or four years for an advanced X-1 type rocket, so they choose to take a "quick and dirty" approach, using existing Redstone and Atlas rockets. The endeavor, called Project Mercury, is put in the hands of NASA. President Eisenhower decrees that the pool of applicants for astronaut positions be restricted to test pilots. But the fraternity is less than exited, because they would not be flying, just sitting in a capsule without any control, as "spam in a can," as they put it. Still, many apply for the project and after humiliating medical tests, Pete Conrad, Wally Shirra, Alan Shepard and John Glenn emerge to a great media event. Tom Wolfe describes their different personalities, the technicalities of their training and the many problems with test rockets. Then Shepard is selected to become the first man in space, but that man turns out to be Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut. Project Mercury still presses ahead and finally John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the earth. The astronauts are now part of President Kennedy's circle, and thanks to their success, Kennedy commits the United States to putting a man on the moon by 1970.

This book shows Tom Wolfe at his very best, critical and not without satire, but historically and technically accurate, tough - in short it is great stuff.

Film treatment
In 1983 The Right Stuff was turned into a drama film by Philip Kaufman who also directed. It stars Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid and Barbara Hershey. Critics were quite enthusiastic and the following year The Right Stuff won 4 Academy Awards and got 4 nominations.
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am 28. November 1998
Tom Wolf did a great job with most of his facts. However I believe he made a dreadful mistake when he implied Gus Grissom panicked and blew the hatch on the Liberty Bell 7. The official investigation did not place any blame on Gus. Yet Tom Wolfe would make the reader believe Gus was some kind of fool. If that were the case, would NASA have then given him command of both the first Gemeni and Apollo flights?
Obviously Tom Wolfe must have felt the needed to smear the name and reputation of this National Hero -- many years after Gus, Ed White and Roger Chaffee had died in the launch pad fire of Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967. It was certainly too late for Gus to defend himself personally. Others can help by understanding that "The Right Stuff" is wrong about Gus Grissom.
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am 22. Juni 1999
After reading this book I found that I had learned what I wanted to learn: about the history and sociology of the early US manned space program. I am not a fan of Wolfe's off-hand, gee-whiz, overbearing style. However, I must admit that this style was very effectively applied in this work. I checked up on some facts with more pure historical sources, and found that Wolfe's presentation was accurate--though of course I checked only a tiny percentage of what's in the book. Many of the tales seem to me to be apocryphal or just historical fiction. But overall the book succeeds in putting the Mercury program in the context of the times (policically and sociologically) and rest of the test flight program. As such it is quite an achievement.
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am 23. Januar 2000
In the early '80s, I was to graduate from school and got interested in flying for the US Navy. My mother sent a copy of T. Wolfe's book hoping to sway my dangerous intent and take a 'real' job. WRONG. About 9 months later I was soloing over Corpus Christi Bay and on my way to flying Navy jets.
Wolfe has written an epic that spans from the early days of flight test through the beginning of the US manned space program. It will increase the heart rate of aviators, aviation buffs and armchair pilots/astornauts. I highly recommend that anyone remotely interested in aviation/space read this book. While it may not be accurate to the smallest detail, the overall scope and feel for a era gone by can never be or has ever been captured in the history books.
Regarding Gus Grissom, new facts are coming to light that will clear his reputation. Wolfe does hammer Gus in the book about what was known at the time Wolfe wrote "The Right Stuff". However, all the research and reading that I have done, Gus was probably the smartest engineer and best test pilot of the M-7 astronauts . He had a reputation of being a real nuts and bolts engineer and a hard nose pilot. He could handle any situation while flying experitmental aircraft or on the ground discussing craft/engine design with NASA's engineers. If any one has ever seen the old NASA films of the Apollo program, when Gus is doing the radio tests on that fateful day, he really gives the engineers hell from the capsule owing to poor communication on the radios "Jesus Christ, we can't talk between three building, how the hell are we going to talk on the moon." Classic Gus. Ironically, when Apollo One caught fire moments later, the hatch was redesigned not to repeat the same incident that happened to Gus in Liberty Bell 7 - and Gus, Chaffee and White paid the ultimate price.
Read this book. It is one of the best books I have ever read and was a real inspiration during my Navy days and beyond.
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am 14. August 1998
Membership in the unique fraternity, or subculture, which elite pilots comprise requires tremendous tenacity, skill, courage and sacrifice. Wolfe's book provides a primer on this unique life, going on to specifically relate the stories of those selected for the Mercury project. For those of us who reluctantly rise from bed to plod at unsatisfying jobs for rent money, this book will be both humbling and illuminating. One reads of the exhiliration and the heights of achievement possible for the devoted and gifted, despite what may be poor monetary compensation.
Much of the descriptions of people, events and feats is surely dramatization, but the story remains striking. Though he ignores the rules of grammar, the author vividly relates the furor of the early US space program: the public's anxiety over the program, the urgency at NASA and Capitol Hill, as well as the emotions of the astronauts in the cockpit, in training, or at press gatherings. The book provides a fair synopsis of America's leading edge late-fifties and entire-sixties aerospace technology, as well as the public's perception of it.
Be prepared for some disenchanting accounts of the deliberately concealed imperfections in all heroes. We also learn of the many blunders and failures in the design and launch of NASA's space vehicles. Those who were previously cynnical of the space administration will likely find their views changed after reading this book.
This story teaches the benefits of vision and dedication.
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am 16. Dezember 1998
The Right Stuff is a wonderful book agout the Mercury 7, the first US astronauts. I love this book,it really inspired me, and made me realise what true heroism really is and what special people pilots and astronauts really are. An interesting sub-plot to the book is the story of Chuck Yeager, ''the Astronaut who never was'', Wolf's description of his courage and skill made you realise he was a born Astronaut, and NASA made a real mistake when they didn't pick him, a mistake the film emphasises. I read the Right Stuff after seeing the film, however the books a 1000 times beter! This is a brilliant book and I would recomend it to anyone who needs a hero. Oh, and by the way. I'd like to point out that Frank Whittle, who invented the supersonic engine, was British and if the British government hadn't have withdrawn funding we would have been the first nation to break the sound barrier. Wolf didn't mention this, I wonder why mmmmmmmm.....
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am 18. April 1999
This is one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read. I'm not saying it's one of the best books ever written, but it is an enthralling read from the first page to the last. It's books like this that remind me why I love to read. The characters and plot are compelling, exciting and inspiring.
If you have even a passing interest in the development of the American space program, this is a must-read. The aspect that I found most appealing is Wolfe's characterization of the mental and emotional requirements of making it to the top as a test pilot. At the same time, though, the author does not fall into the trap of glamorizing these American heroes too much. These men have plenty of faults to go along with their incredible achievements. The Right Stuff is a highly enjoyable, well-rounded portrayal that anyone can enjoy.
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am 28. Juli 2000
The Right Stuff is a facinating and accurate depiction of the saga of the Mercury astronauts. Tom Wolfe really does a wonderful job of making both an interesting factual presentation of history as well as a colorful portrayal of the lives of those directly involved. The stress on the wives of the pilots for example gives one the untainted look at these incredible ladies composure and character that is seldon captured in other historical novels. The astronauts and pilots themselves who were regarded as more than human by the press of the period, are also portrayed very artfully in this often candid expose' on their often carefree regard for the dangerous jobs they constantly undertook. These men and women truly had the 'Right Stuff' at a very unpredictable period in US history: the dawn of the space race. High pressure situations continually kept all those involved on constant edge. This book carries you from the testing flight testing years at Edwards airforce base where Yeager is the king, through the Sputnik challenge and the American failed rocket testing early on, and finally arriving at the eventual successful space flights themselves. Throughout the book is the ongoing weave of eager and relentless reporters, a clamoring nation of people demanding immediate success, as well as the political pressure through three presidential administrations all piled on the shoulders of those connected with the program. The pressure cooker builds as the story progresses, and the explosion of success takes everyone involved by surprise including the astronauts themselves. This is an incredibly unique period in US history depicting the first astronauts who were idolized in a time when the nation truly needed heroes for its own personal pride. These men restored patriotism at a time when the feeling was considered lost. Additionally Wolfe covers the early years of the space programs development, including the Air Forces success with the X-15 project which was over-shadowed by the popularity of the Mercury program. The Mercury program's success sparked the later Apollo and Gemini programs almost immediately after the first flight with Alan Shepard. The sudden success of the NASA space program created a silent upheaval in the national brotherhood of pilots that is brilliantly detailed by the author giving a a full picture to the reader. One really gets the full practical viewpoint and daredevil gallantry of the test pilots in this book that is seldom touched elsewhere. In addition to that the author describes the beginning of the space program and the early positioning of power within that reveals an almost complete upheaval at times by its early architects (scientists, engineers, pilots, and all) and finally settling into a sensable orderly structure in the later years. This book truly sheds light on the early years of the NASA space program and gives one the candid look behind all the fanfare showing what really was happening outside of the public eye. Tom Wolfe completes a very tasteful coverage of the lives of the people involved and the evolution of the exploration of the new frontier with this exciting work. I found the later movie that followed the book to be very much in keeping, however there are many details that are left out of the movie that are covered in the book. This alone makes it a must to read. parts of the story that were unable to make it to the big screen was the flight of Wally Shirra and Scott Carpenter. These two flights alone had a great deal to do with setting the future direction of the space program. This is one you will enjoy as it will capture you interest from the beginning and leave you with a sense of national pride at the bravery and true pioneer spirit of all the people involved. You will be amazed as I was at the out-pouring of affection these men generated on America during this period. A stunning portrayal of a unique period in American history. All in all a great book to read and enjoy. I am very grateful to Tom Wolfe for having written such a novel, as this was a story that needed to be told.
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am 24. Dezember 1998
This was the first book by Tom Wolfe I had ever read, and went on the read many more. This book has great historical value, and has helped me along the route of my educational career emmensly. I love Tom's style of writing, very casual and warm, but with much knowledge and ultimately without flaw. The way he presents the book with hard-core facts mixed with bits of humor provides a light atmosphere,and makes the book highly enjoyable. He makes you feel as if the two of you are old buddies who share an inside joke about "Pancho's", "Flying and Drinking and Drinking and Driving", and "The imaginary ziggaruat that is the Right Stuff" 5 stars to a great read!
P.S. the movie's good as well!
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am 2. November 1996
I first read "The Right Stuff" over 10 years ago and I
typically re-read the book every two years. Tom Wolfe has
produced one of the best looks at manned flight starting
from 1947 and the breaking of the "sound barrier" up to the
end of Project Mercury.

The chapters are well thought out, from the beginning in
which we learn that the mortality rate for test pilots in
the 1950's was 24%(!!) to the chapter that explains why all
airline pilots sound alike, to the description of Chuck
Yeager losing control of a Starfighter at over 100,000 feet.

I cannot recommend this book too strongly.

Dave Zechiel
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