Tom Wolfe published The Right Stuff in 1979, a full 52 years after Charles Lindbergh, the first celebrity flyboy, shocked and captivated the nation with his aerial deering-do, crossing the Atlantic all alone in his single-engine Spirit of St. Louis, from Long Island to Paris in just over a day and a half.
His fame opened doors for him, but also led to the kidnapping and murder of his toddler son Charles Jr.
For the subjects of Wolfe’s book, the seven astronauts of NASA’s Mercury program, the first U.S. manned space flight venture — Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton — celebrityhood brought great access to “goodies,” such as a social standing that had them outranking just about everyone except the President.
Glenn eventually landed in the U.S. Senate where he served for 25 years. Grissom, however, was killed in a 1967 capsule test for the Apollo program, along with two post-Mercury astronauts.
By the time Wolfe wrote his book, the Mercury program was rapidly receding in the nation’s rear-view mirror.
After all, its five flights had lasted just two years, from May of 1961 to May of 1963. Since then, it had been followed by the Gemini program (10 two-man flights in 1965 and 1966) and by the Apollo program (11 three-man flights from 1968 to 1972).
In 1969, Neil Armstrong in Apollo 11 became the first human to walk on the Moon — and the first of 12 men from six flights to leave footsteps in the moondust.
Then, quite suddenly, the effort to reach out into space — to explore, to adventure — was over.
In 1973, Skylab was sent into earth orbit, the first of a series of flights with men and, eventually, women in the planet’s atmosphere — but not beyond. The focus became learning about our own world and the environment of space, not to go risking it all by pushing the limits to their furthest extent as Lindbergh and the original seven astronauts had.
So, when Wolfe wrote his book, much had changed in the nation and the world in the twenty years since the Mercury Seven had been selected. The otherworldliness of NASA’s flights had gotten to be routine in the sense that their focus was now close to home (although, in time, as the Space Shuttle Challenger  and Space Shuttle Columbia  flights would show, they still courted death).
By this point, astronauts weren’t seen any longer as flyboys. Often, except as in the case of Apollo 13 when their survival was touch and go, they seemed workmanlike, even dull.
A big part of the reason for that probably had to do with Armstrong who, in his dour way, was a kind of anti-astronaut.
In the blank, unspeaking, unsmiling persona he offered the world, Armstrong was the antithesis of those first seven astronauts who, as Wolfe details in The Right Stuff, had more than a bit of yahoo in them.
By the time he went to the Moon, Armstrong had witnessed the floods of adulation that had washed over those original seven. Glenn, as the first American to orbit in space, and, to a lesser extent, Shephard, as the first American to get to space, felt the greatest jolts of this hero-worship, but the other five got their share.
In writing The Right Stuff, Wolfe may have been reacting to Armstrong’s glumness.
Before and after the flight, Armstrong fled from public attention. It was as if he were saying: OK, I did my job, now leave me alone.
Not those first astronauts. They lapped up the attention — and all that came with it, including fast cars, cheap homes, a huge influx of cash through the licensing of their stories to Life magazine, job opportunities and status as heroes.
The nation needed heroes, apparently. That’s the only explanation for how it played out. The seven didn’t expect such acclaim.
But they enjoyed it.
“The right stuff”
By contract, Armstrong, a civilian, didn’t seem to want to be thought of as a hero.
Wolfe makes clear that those original seven not only wanted to be treated like heroes, they also saw themselves as heroes.
The astronauts came into the program from the fraternity of military test pilots who would take an experimental aircraft up into the clouds and push it to the limits and beyond. And push themselves as well.
There were many ways to fail, and failing in such a high-risk endeavor often meant dying.
But those who didn’t fail — those who put their skin on the line to see what these machines (and themselves) were capable of — proved that they had the right stuff.
This wasn’t a phrase they used, this idea of “the right stuff.” It was a term that Wolfe employed to capture the way these test pilots felt about their job and their skills.
I suspect that the astronauts and the test pilots knew that Wolfe was onto something in identifying their obsession with “the right stuff.”
“Lutheran cloud of Original Sin”
In writing The Right Stuff ten years after Armstrong’s Moon stroll and twenty years after the original seven astronauts were selected, Wolfe was providing important insights into the start of the space program, important insights into the history of the thing, even if he wasn’t writing as an academic or even popular historian would write.
There is a baroqueness to Wolfe’s style, a willingness to synthesize his story through his rich cultural, psychological and social intelligence. Consider this sentence which no one was ever likely to write about the space program if Wolfe hadn’t taken up the subject:
“In other situations, however, [Slayton] had Grissom’s lack of patience for party manners and small talk and Grissom’s way of lapsing into impenetrable blank stares, as if some grim wintertime north-county Lutheran cloud of Original Sin were passing in front of his face.”
Or consider this sentence about the great self-confidence that a pilot must have, which is to say, arrogance:
“But on the other hand…one’s health pilot ego loved the glory — wallowed in it! — lapped it up! — no doubt about it! The Pilot Ego — ego didn’t come any bigger! The boys wouldn’t have minded the following. They wouldn’t have minded appearing once a year on a balcony over a huge square in which half the world is assembled. They wave. The world roars its approval, its applause, and breaks into a sustained thirty-minute storm of cheers and tears (moved by my righteous stuff!) And then it’s over. All that remains if for the wife to paste the clippings in the scrapbook.
“A little adulation on the order of the Pope’s.”
Pushing to the literary limit
There is a novelist’s, even a poet’s, storytelling going on here.
But, unlike Shakespeare or Faulkner, Wolfe is rooting his story in actual people who did actual things.
What he does is to inhabit these people and then talk on their behalf, using their language, except for such references to, for example, a “Lutheran cloud of Original Sin” which they would have been able to feel but not put into words.
Indeed, he is putting into words — as if they were their words — the experience of these seven astronauts. It is a dicey thing for a non-fiction writer to attempt, a flyboy kind of thing.
An arrogant thing, too.
It is going to the limit of what is possible and acceptable in non-fiction, and pushing that limit as far as it will stretch. It is risking utter failure. If you try this and it doesn’t work, you, the writer, are a fool.
If it works, though, well, you’re pretty special. You’ve shown your moxie and your skills and your ability to take risks, to put your literary skin on the line.
You show, if you can do this, and do it well, better than well, that you have — aw, you know — the right stuff.
Patrick T. Reardon