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"Together let us explore the stars." (John F. Kennedy)
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.
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.