“Who’s the best pilot you ever saw? You’re lookin’ at him.”
It’s impossible for me to revisit the true story of Chuck Yeager and the original Mercury 7 astronauts without thinking of the incredible cast of character actors who portrayed their historical counterparts in the 1983 film The Right Stuff. I grew up with the movie, which helped my Dad to instill in me an appreciation for air and space exploration beyond the realm of science fiction. But for some reason I can’t explain, the book remained ever on my to-read list. That is, until the untimely passing of author Tom Wolfe this past week. I felt like I owed it to the author as a memorial of sorts to take in the original 1979 book that inspired both the movie and my childhood. With that in mind, it is of eternal awesomeness that I finally get the original in audiobook form, performed by Dennis Quaid (and it is most definitely a performance). Those who have seen the film will recall it was Quaid who portrayed “Gordo” Cooper, the last of the Mercury astronauts… and the best pilot you ever saw.
Tom Wolfe is noted for a genre known as “new journalism,” which means that everything in this book is journalistic fact embellished with the flourishes of novel writing. The result is somewhere between a novel and a newspaper, historically accurate and beyond capable of making character and situation blast out of the story. The somewhere “in between” I speak of means that it doesn’t follow the “show, don’t tell” rule of novel writing because it’s reporting details as a journalist would. But at the same time, some of those details are the kinds of extraneous tidbits that would never find their way into a journalistic account, but they really flesh out the storytelling.
The central theme of The Right Stuff is that undefined quality that comprises the title, somewhere beyond dedication, professionalism, quality workmanship, superior skill, and unfaltering arrogance. America’s first astronauts are compared to an idea near and dear to my heart, the idea of the single combat warrior. As exemplified in the Biblical tale of David and Goliath and exacerbated as a result throughout the Middle Ages, the idea is that instead of kingdoms and nations going to all-out war (and all of the devastation that implies), the best warrior — he who possessed that inexorable and seemingly holy-powered Stuff — would face off against his opposing counterpart in a winner-takes-all combat to the death. In those days of yore, the idea was that God would power the hand of the righteous to victory. In the days of the Cold War and the early space race with the Soviet Union, the prayer of America’s rocket jockey cold warrior was simple: “Please, Lord… don’t let me fuck up.” The Mercury program was wrought with drama, propaganda, patriotism, and any number of mishaps that required both the pilots and their wives to smile at the camera while the press and their fellow pilots laughed at them for competing with chimps, and while the Soviets ran circles around the entire program. And yet, in spite of everything, these original astronauts proved themselves and became bona fide American heroes and icons to a public that somehow knew their names but couldn’t otherwise really tell them apart. It seems truly unfair to say it that way, but that is the nature of the passing celebrity spotlight. Those who once stood in it fade even while their legends persist and the details remain obscure.
This book is all about those details, the stories behind the legends, and the people behind names. It is a celebration of flawed humanity and a recognition that the early astronauts were a very different kind of pilot than the engineers and scientists we put into space now. Today, nations cooperate in scientific pursuits that results in all manner of advances across a wide variety of scientific, commercial, and technological disciplines. Back then, the space race was an international pissing contest that helped to possibly mitigate a nuclear war. Test pilots to the end, these men were the quintessentially right people for the right job at the right time in history… by any other name, The Right Stuff.