When Space Travel Mattered: Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff

The Right StuffThe Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

A little while ago, Canadian Chris Hadfield was all over the news for his time aboard the International Space Station. While up there, he appeared on TV, sent tweets and Skyped some teenagers at a high school. It’s probably the most attention the space program has gotten up here in years.

It wasn’t always this way. Decades ago, space travel was novel, exciting and exceedingly dangerous. It still is, but there was this romantic appeal that they could explode at any moment. And they sometimes did, with a national audience watching on television.

In his enjoyable, energetic look at the first years of the space program, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff captures this attitude with a simple phrase he repeats often: “Our rockets blow up.” It’s a marked contrast from the secretive Soviet program, which seemed like a string of successful launches, each attributed to a pseudonymous Soviet Integral. As American rockets exploded and played catch-up, the Soviets were launching Sputnik and putting Laika into orbit. Coming at a time of international tension, this was a significant gap: if they could out a dog in space, what about a nuclear warhead?

The Right Stuff starts off a few years before the Mercury Program begins in earnest, with test pilots in the California desert, drinking and hanging out at Pancho’s, flying rocket-powered airplanes and pushing the proverbial envelope. The big personality to come out of this group is Chuck Yeager, former fighter jock and arguably the most famous test pilot of all time. During the Second World War, Yeager piloted fighters over France, getting shot down in the process. After the war, he moved to testing experimental aircraft: new propeller-driven fighters and the first jet-engined fighters. Out in a new airstrip built on the salt flats out in the desert, they moved to more powerful airframes as they looked to break the sound barrier. Soon Yeager was flying the X-1, little more than a rocket with wings, dropped from a bomber mid-air.

Wolfe goes through the history of these flights and how they gradually led to the first manned rocket flights: it wasn’t baby steps, but two competing programs, with two classes of fighter jocks. As NASA looked to launch a rocket into orbit, the Air Force was testing a series of aircraft designed to take off from the ground, fly into space and land on a runway. These two programs show the divide between the  how two classes of people in the program: fighter jocks and science wonks.

The jocks take a more macho approach to it: they’ve flown airplanes under trying conditions and think they can handle anything thrown at them. The wonks are looking to develop a way to get into space period; they didn’t see astronauts as anything more than a passenger. Naturally, these two met head on as the US tried to catch up to the Soviet space program.

The missions were scientific in nature, mostly to prove that humans were capable of space travel. The pilots constantly looked for ways to change the missions, to give them some more freedom: a window in the front, a controller to make the capsule tilt and yaw in space. It’s a fascinating struggle and you can see the seeds of how the space program’s evolved since then in here.

Personally, the most interesting part to read about is how space was in the 1960s. Now, it takes a Hadfield to get space in the news. But back in the days of the Gemini program, it was wall-to-wall coverage of space flights, with crowds of reporters hanging out at the launch site, the astronaut’s house and elsewhere. Returning astronauts were welcomed with ticker-tape parades in New York and met presidents. It’s unlike anything I associate with the space program now.

Wolfe’s book deals with more than just the flights. He goes into the strain it put on the astronauts marriages – especially on those who left their wives back home and slept around while training in Florida – to the media’s infatuation with them to the in-fighting inside NASA, as the seven rose in stature and were able to demand more (well, less to do in space, actually) and more from the science team. And the outsized personalities in here like Chuck Yeager or Scott Crossfield are compelling as hell. It’s a who’s who of some of the most seminal figures in aviation history.

Rating: 8/10. Hyperbolic and with nearly as much energy as a Titan rocket, The Right Stuff is one of Wolfe’s best books. Like all of his stuff, it’s an energetic book, full of jolts and blasts and recurring phrases. I can understand if it’s too much for some people (some of his other books got that way for me) but the people he profiles puts this over the top. Never before and never since have test pilots been so interesting. Recommended.


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