I’ve long believed that a truly well-written nonfiction book can make even the dullest of topics interesting. For me, the early years of the U.S. space program is actually a fascinating topic, but Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff is so well-written that I think even those who aren’t at all interested in the space program would enjoy it. In this book, Wolfe tells the story of the Mercury Seven, the first seven U.S. astronauts, starting from before the selection process even began and ending as the Mercury program ends. Besides following these seven men through the Mercury program, Wolfe also writes about their wives and about other pilots who weren’t part of the program but who had their own version of the “right stuff.”
And Wolfe tells the story with panache. The writing goes beyond straight journalistic writing to incorporate recurring motifs and stylistic flourishes. If there’s such a thing as literary nonfiction, this is certainly it:
A fighter pilot soon found he wanted to associate only with other fighter pilots. Who else could understand the nature of the little proposition (right stuff/death) they were all dealing with? And what other subject could compare with it? It was riveting! To talk about it in so many words was forbidden, of course. The very words death, danger, bravery, fear were not to be uttered except in the occasional specific instance or for ironic effect. Nevertheless, the subject could be adumbrated in code or by example. Hence the endless evenings of pilots huddled together talking about flying. On these long and drunken evenings (the bane of their family life) certain theorems would be propounded and demonstrated—and all by code and example. One theorem was: There are no accidents and no fatal flaws in the machines; there are only pilots with the wrong stuff.
The right stuff—or as Wolfe more commonly calls it, “the righteous stuff”—is the bravery, the moxie, the nerve that enables a man (and as described by Wolfe, this is very much a testosterone-fueled manly ideal) to get into an experimental aircraft again and again and push that craft beyond what anyone has done before. It enables a man to keep climbing higher up the great ziggaraut to “join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.” Those who have that righteous stuff keep climbing, and they don’t get left behind for any reason, not even for something as out of their control as fallen arches. If you’re left behind, you simply don’t have the stuff.
I’ve seen the film version of this book several times, so a lot of the information here wasn’t new to me. Several scenes from the movie were taken right out of Wolfe’s account. I was interested to learn more about the work of other test pilots, some of whom were piloting rocket engines that went nearly as fast and flew nearly as high as the spacecrafts NASA was developing. Some would even have said that what those pilots were doing was even more daring, and required a lot more skill, than what the astronauts were doing.
This points out a tension that is only hinted at in the film. The first astronauts were all test pilots, but they weren’t necessarily the seven best test pilots in the U.S., something the candidates realized early on in the selection process, when they were being subjected to rigorous rounds of medical and psychological testing:
These people [these administering the tests] not only did not treat them as righteous pilots, they did not treat them as pilots of any sort. They never even alluded to the fact that they were pilots. An irksome thought was beginning to intrude. In the competition for astronaut the kind of stuff you were made of as a pilot didn’t count for a goddamned thing. They were looking for a certain type of animal who registered bingo on the meter.
However, once the men were selected, the media anointed them as what Wolfe calls single combat warriors, the U.S.’s representatives in the struggle for supremacy against the Soviets. And as such, these men were treated as the most righteous, the most worthy, and any evidence to the contrary was ignored, even if it came from the mouth of as great a pilot as Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier and a prominent figure in this book. Wolfe depicts this tension between who the men were and who the media and government needed them to be without ever taking away from their extraordinary accomplishments.
Wolfe’s account is not at all hagiographic, but it’s always respectful. One way in which Wolfe demonstrates his respect is by depicting each of these men and their wives as individuals. The men do, admittedly, get a lot more attention and emerge as more well-rounded figures than most of the women, but Wolfe at least attempts to tell each person’s story; and even among the men, some stand out more than others. John Glenn in particular has a strong personality that sometimes eclipses that of the others, but that seems to reflect the dynamic present at the time. The great thing, though, is that each of the men is given a moment, sometimes several moments, to take center stage. It’s quite a juggling act and Wolfe handles it well.
I’m glad to have read this book and recommend it to anyone who’s even slightly interested in the space program, but I also think fans of narrative nonfiction and just plain good writing could get a lot of pleasure out of this.