The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe

Ever since I read Moon Dust, I have been mildly obsessed with the space program. It’s not a new obsession; it’s one that lurks in the background of my mind and pops up every once in a while. I do wish that there were more of an active space exploration program, and that the space program as it is got more publicity (certainly when things go right, not just when things go wrong).

But, yes, ever since I read Moon Dust, I’ve had a renewed obsession. I watched through the entirety of From the Earth to the Moon (the story of Apollo 1 always makes me cry), rewatched Apollo 13 for the millionth time (stupid Ron Howard, sucking me in), had the Wikipedia pages on the astronauts up on a nearly permanent basis. And I acquired a copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Next step, assuming the obsession hasn’t burned itself out, is to try to find a copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s book about Apollo. (And watch the film of The Right Stuff, of course.  I may do a follow-up entry after watching it, to compare the book and the film. Oh, Ed Harris, I love your work.)

The other stimulus for The Right Stuff, for me, is the fact that it was written by Tom Wolfe. See, my senior seminar at university was on “New Journalism” – what is sometimes now called “creative” or “narrative” non-fiction.  (I won’t get into my full frustration with time-based appellations here. Let’s just summarize it by saying that in, say, fifty years, “new” forms of literature are going to have to be referred to as post-contemporary-post-post-modernist-new-literature or something ridiculous like that.) Anyway, “narrative non-fiction” is a movement that started in the 60s, as so many movements did, and changed the tone of non-fiction from very objective, impartial, and fact-based to subjective, personal, and fact-based. The writer, in creative non-fiction and new journalism, can be as much of a character as the people that he’s interviewed. At the very least, his (or her) personality and literary choices are acknowledged as a forming part of the book. Books – or articles, since a lot of the new journalism was found in feature magazines like Rolling Stone – are very personal, telling not only what happened, but what it was like. The tone is often very similar to sitting in a bar listening to someone tell about their experience.

Certainly The Right Stuff is. It’s full of facts, of course. There’s nothing in it that can’t be corroborated. There’s nothing in it that isn’t untrue. But there are any number of asides and perspectives that make it seem more subjective than you might expect from a non-fiction book.

Basically, The Right Stuff is about the beginnings of the astronaut program. I’m using that word deliberately, because in addition to the Mercury program (and all the hoopla around the Mercury Seven, the first astronauts) it’s also about the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, particularly Chuck Yeager and his group, and the unstated rivalry between the X-15 program (piloted planes that could potentially go beyond the boundary of space) and the Mercury program. It’s about the events, the politics behind them (in both a Washington and a non-Washington sense of “politics”), and the personalities involved.

The Right Stuff, as a phrase, is used informally throughout the book for that ineffable quality that pilots might have. One can lose the right stuff at any point (“it can burst at any seam”), and for any reason – some of which have to do with the person and some to do with external forces, especially doctors.

One of the things that I took away from this book – and, to some extent, Moon Dust – is how finite NASA’s goals were, and became. “Beat the Soviets.” “Put a man in space.” “Put a man on the moon.” Well, …. now what? It’s actually kind of sad – whenever they attempted to do something scientific or discover something in the Mercury program, it was thwarted for various reasons. Grissom’s capsule was lost. Carpenter was all but dismissed from the program. In Apollo, the “scientists” were looked down on, to some extent, by the pilots. And it’s sad, because the science of it, the discovery process, might not be as glamorous or as quick-rewarding, but that’s what keeps programs going.

The other thing that I found sad in this book was the dichotomy between the Mercury program and the X-15/X-20 program. It’s a great “what would have been”.  The X-programs were training and developing piloted aircraft to take off from the ground and enter space – kind of like the space shuttle eventually was, sort of. If they had been allowed to continue (they were killed to free up funding and resources for Apollo and other NASA programs), it is entirely possible that we would be closer to “space tourism” or at least more commercially viable space exploration today. We might not have put a man on the moon by the end of the 60s – and I do love Apollo – but we might be making more trips there today.

Of course, it’s impossible to say what might have been. But the overwhelming sense that I got from Tom Wolfe’s book was that NASA – and Washington – were playing the short game while the X-program was playing the long game. And too often we can’t even see the benefits of the long game for the risks, and the rewards of the short game.

This book is also a monument to how fickle and short-term public interest is. Not that the book itself has dated – it hasn’t, surprisingly. But Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier (Mach 1) and was as feted as Lindbergh. Within a few years, it was the turn of the Mercury Seven, and all the work that was being done at Edwards was ignored. Alan Shepard was the first American in space, and got a ticker-tape parade in New York and went to the White House. Gus Grissom was second, and got a handshake on the tarmac. John Glenn was the first American in orbit, and was the Golden Boy for a long time. Who can remember the others who also made orbital flights? (Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper. Deke Slayton was one of the Mercury Seven, but was grounded before he went into space.) And before Mercury was even over, attention had shifted to other aspects of the Cold War – in fact, people were declaring the Cold War over. NASA’s attention had shifted to Gemini and Apollo. The public’s attention had shifted away from NASA. And it certainly had shifted away from the test pilots outside of NASA. Chuck Yeager almost died trying to set a new flying record, and no one noticed.

It’s definitely a “new journalism” book. While Tom Wolfe is never explicitly present, the style is very much his, and you’re very much there. It’s “fly-on-the-wall” – you almost feel like you are there, watching John Glenn confront the other astronauts, or hiding in the houses with the wives and families trying to evade the press corps, or drag-racing along Cocoa Beach, or screaming up through the atmosphere in either a jet or the Mercury capsule. It’s not easy to read, exactly – the style takes some getting used to. Narrative non-fiction has become incorporated into most modern non-fiction today, but The Right Stuff is “new journalism” at its most raw (without being Hunter S. Thompson), so it can be a little bit disconcerting.

Next up on my agenda is the film – like I said at the top, I may do a follow-up post once I’ve watched that. (Probably within the week. Ah, the joys of being essentially unemployed.) And then perhaps I’ll be able to move on from this current NASA obsession, and on to other things….

P.S. I still want to read profiles, both mission profiles and post-Apollo profiles – of the CM pilots. Does such a book exist? Like Moon Dust, but for the astronauts who stayed in the CM….

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History), Non-Fiction (Science)

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