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The Right Stuff: Spaced Out

“Ten years after the American moon landing — 20 since Sputnik 1 — astronauts and space-race lore have receded enough into the past to warrant rethinking. Tom Wolfe tells the early space story as if it were myth, and it is.”

by

There’s nothing in this world that certain white, small-town, God-fearing, airplane-flying boys hanker af­ter so much as the right stuff. The right stuff cannot be described or explained. Anyone crass enough to try and put it into words ipso facto probably doesn’t have it. Tom Wolfe is crass enough to try and put the right stuff into words, which ipso facto probably means he doesn’t have it. The right stuff is a man’s “ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment — and then go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite — and ul­timately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.”

Like Predestination, there’s no earthly, definitive way of knowing for sure if you’ve got the right stuff, which is no doubt why so many Protestant boys, accustomed to looking for signs of election, spend their lives trying to prove they’ve got it. According to Wolfe, you can even be fairly certain you’ve got the right stuff and then fuck up — at any time — and find out after all that you didn’t have it — usually at about the same moment you are dying, except you’re not caring about dying so much as discover­ing that you probably didn’t have the right stuff and eating your heart out thinking now everyone is going to know.

This business about the right stuff and death is where things get a little mysterious and paradoxical, although people with the right stuff, Wolfe says, usually don’t dwell much on mysteries and paradoxes because thinking like this can foul up the reflexes, the coolness, etc. While a good sign that you’ve got the right stuff is caring more about having it than dying, it is also true that anyone trying to prove he’s got the right stuff has a very good chance (one in four) of dying while doing it, and dying — ­almost more than anything — probably means that you didn’t have it (the moxie, the reflexes, etc. to pull it out, etc.). You fucked up.

There’s something about thinking about the right stuff and writing about the right stuff that makes you talk like this, like a drawlin’, Appalachia-raised, country-boy — ­like Chuck Yeager, to be precise, the most righteous possessor of the right stuff who ever lived, according to Wolfe, the hottest of the hot-shot test and fighter pilot jocks. Nerveless, rocket-testing Chuck was the first man to fly past Mach 1, the man whose cooler than cool, aw shucks manner — “now folks, we’re just goin’ through a little tiny mite of turbulence” (the plane has just dropped 1000 feet, your heart is in your mouth) — was imitated by every post war pilot until it became standard pilotese: The voice of God, if God were good. But though writing about the right stuff and thinking about the right stuff from the point of view of the men who have the right stuff makes the white-knuckled jet-rider in you especially grateful for the captain-virtues that time and again have put your heart back in your chest, it tends to make you forget for a while that even though these men with the right stuff are brave and capable, they are also colossally infantile chumps. It’s a scary combination.

The reader might lose this complexity from time to time, but Wolfe never lets go of it — it’s his foremost achievement in this long-awaited book — although there are good things and bad things about his method. Wolfe describes the many parts of right stuffness by never allowing the reader to know what, precisely, he thinks of it. He steers our sympathies toward the pilots who seek the right stuff, and then abruptly cuts our feelings off. He writes from everyone’s imagined perspective — even that of rocket-riding chimpanzees — but because Wolfe is ev­erywhere, be is also nowhere. Wolfe does all perspectives in the same, “I am my subject and therefore you (reader) are my subject” style, sometimes using the same phrases to describe very different things; and eventually he winds up counterfeiting his own language.

While writing from the point of view of the first astronaut-contenders who endured grueling, sadistic tests at Lovelace Clinic, Wolfe coins the, phrase “White Smocks.” White Smocks are the cold, clinical, note-­taking dehumanisers. White smocks specialize in humiliating procedures, like giving barium enemas and then making the men walk two flights to a toilet. They “teach” chimps to be “astronauts” by zapping electric current through’ the soles of their feet when they fail to perform correctly. But later in the book, while writing from the perspective of Scott Carpenter — the only one of the seven Mercury astronauts who was at all interested in ex­perimental science — the term White Smocks is as­sociated with an enlightened, humanistic purpose which is foiled by NASA engineers, by pro-operational, anti­-science types whose champion is Wally Schirra.

The effect is dizzying, and issues get clouded, not clarified. Wolfe’s “stuff” becomes very repetitious — lots of dummy-heads but one ventriloquist. Instead of high­-lighting the nuances of the events and personalities he is chronicling, too often Wolfe’s style homogenizes them, and by making all “the dramas” he writes about sound equally charged, Wolfe sometimes neutralizes rather than heightens their impact.

The essence for Wolfe is not the content of disputes but their disputeness. A particular controversy becomes Any Controversy, with absurdly reductive results. He writes with identical irony, identical identi­fication/alienation, often identical pitch when describing controversies as different in degree (and significance) as Kennedy versus Khrushchev in Cold War strategy, the astronauts’ self-concept as jock pilots versus NASA’s idea of them as “lab rats,” and Alan Shepherd’s “astronauts can fuck around discretely” line versus John Glenn’s “astronauts shouldn’t fuck anyone.” By the end of the book, Wolfe’s “politics” (what are they?) and sense of proportion about events are so askew that, explaining the  public’s diminished interest in the astronauts after 1963, he attributes this to the installation of telephone hot lines and the ban on weapons in orbit. Then the Cold War ended, he says; nowhere in The Right Stuff are Vietnam, the assassinations, or various civil rights movements ever mentioned with relationship to the space program, or American focus on it.

This is dumb. Throughout The Right Stuff, too, the press is “the Victorian Gentlemen,” a herd of toadying mush-peddlers, hawking pure-boy astronauts in the ’60s, possible Watergates-under-every-politician in the ’70s. But the important thing for Wolfe (even assuming he were entirely right about the press as “herd”) is not that these phenomena have had entirely different effects on society, but that journalists hawk. What a piddly thing to get huffy about considering all the shit — like the racism in the space program (let me not mention the sexism) — that Wolfe allows to go flying by.

Well, enough about the good stuff, now for some criticism. Despite the thwack this book ultimately delivers to the soul, a lot is very interesting, a good deal is funny, much is exciting, and there are some Wolfian set-piece gems.

The Right Stuff, a history of the pioneering Mercury missions, was expected about five years ago, but Wolfe’s delay probably benefits the book. Ten years after the American moon landing — 20 since Sputnik 1 — astronauts and space-race lore have receded enough into the past to warrant rethinking. Wolfe tells the early space story as if it were myth, and it is.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, there was a Russian Menace who made a bid for possession of the heavens. American presidents, senators who appropriated billions to put a man in space, citizens who wept when freckled-face John Glenn talked about the flag — all looked to the astronauts to “represent” them in the sky. During the Cold War, the astronauts were invented to serve as “single combat warriors,” soldiers symbolic of the nation, or, to be more exact, as human sacrifices — since most American rocket-launchings up to this point had ended in ludicrous fizzle-outs or horrific fire storms. Everyone expected that the astronauts would die. Only one incen­tive could make otherwise ordinary American boys will­ing to sit on top of a rocket that was probably going to blow up: the lure of the right stuff, the military ideal of masculine virtue (rockets are dangerous, but we’re used to danger), the scent of glory to “the boys,” the ring in the bull’s nose to Kennedy.

Wolfe’s descriptions of the evolution of the fighter jock ego are superbly on target, its source in the World War II fighters, its nurturance in the jet and rocket testing programs at Muroc (later Edwards Air Force Base). Wolfe also dramatizes  exceedingly well the way the right stuff mystique trapped the Mercury astronauts in a Catch-22 maze: The testing process was designed to select the most gullible, most serviceable (I would rather die than fuck up), least introspective, least curious pilots; but to the astronauts, their ability to play NASA’s game (there is no shit I will not eat) and get selected was evidence of their possession of “the stuff.”

And what was (is) the kick? First, the life: never growing up, fraternity days forever, living away from the wife and children, flying all day, then drinking, then driving fast cars while drunk (more pilots die in cars than in planes, Wolfe says), and screwing around — although women seem to be very, very low on the pleasure totem pole, and right-stuff women are, as described by Wolfe, “moist labial piping little birds.” (Who’s talking here? Pilots say “labial”?) Second, the glory: ticker-tape pa­rades, moms on national TV. Third, the “goodies,” every military man’s due, but extra for astronauts: money, meeting presidents and rich people, book contracts, etc.

As is probably clear, when they aren’t flying planes or rockets, the astronauts Wolfe writes about are not what could easily be called fun people. Alan Shephard liked to do Jose Jimenez routines, Wally Schirra was a “gotcha” kidder. After Wolfe’s splendid opening chapters on avia­tion history and the birth of the space program, where he freely exercises his eye for grisly detail, the middle of the book sags dully as Wolfe “becomes” each astronaut — Gus Grissom and Deke Slayton being pits in the valley. Their lives all seem pathetically bleak and circumscribed by callow needs. The lives of their wives and children seem bleaker still. Little wonder that “the wives” seldom looked enraptured to see their husbands returned from space. From the stories Wolfe tells, it might even have given a few of the wives some pleasure to see “the bastards,” their husbands, catapulted into the great blue beyond.

But the saga picks up momentum again as Wolfe describes how “the valiant lads” altered the Mercury program, little-by-little turning themselves from ex­perimental subjects into jock pilots who could, and in certain cases had to, control their space vehicles. The descriptions of the space shots themselves are ex­traordinarily exciting, Wolfe showing his journalistic “right stuff” each time, taking the story to “the edge” and pulling it out “with moxie, experience,” the works. It’s amazing, really. We know the outcomes — although not all the details, actual risks, human and mechanical foul ups — and still Wolfe makes the reader wonder, “Yeah, yeah, and then what happened? Did he crash?”

At several other points along the way, Wolfe is in top form, summarizing and satirizing with wild Rabelaisian excess and grotesque Brueghelesque detail: The scene in which John Glenn, first man to orbit the earth, addresses the Senate, introduces his wife Annie as “the rock,” and the old curmudgeons stand up and shout “Amen.” The scene in which poststroke Joe Kennedy meets Glenn and starts crying, but only half his face can move. The scene of the astronauts’ welcome to Houston amid an indoor barbecue; whole steers are being roasted, and enormous greasy joints are served to the stunned pilots and their families who can barely keep the meat from slipping off the paper plates onto their laps. The scene of Alan Shephard in the first Mercury space capsule after a four­-hour delay in his launch, horrified that his unstaunchable need to urinate, for which no provision has been made, will be broadcast across the wires of the world.

Here is Wolfe on the first assemblage of potential astronauts: “Conrad … flies into a room with thirty-four other young men, most of them with crew cuts … and the unmistakable cocky rolling gait of fighter jocks, not to mention the pathetic-looking civilian suits and the enormous wristwatches. The wristwatches had about two thousand calibrations on them and dials for recording everything short of the sound of enemy guns. These terrific wristwatches were practically fraternal insignia among the pilots. Thirty-odd young souls wearing Robert Hall clothes that cost about a fourth as much as their watches: in the year 1959 this had to be a bunch of military pilots trying to disguise themselves as civilians.”

Here is Wolfe’s description of one of the fiascos at Cape Canaveral: “The mighty white shaft rumbles and seems to bestir itself — and then seems to change its mind … because the flames suddenly cut off … and there’s a little pop. A cap on the tip of the rocket comes off. It goes shooting up in the air, a tiny little thing with a needle nose. In fact, it’s the capsule’s escape tower. As the crowd watches, stone silent and befuddled, it goes up about 12,000 feet and descends under a parachute. It looks like a little party favor. It lands about three hundred feet away from the rocket on the torpid banks of the Banana River. Five hundred VIPs had come all the way to Florida, to this goddamned Low Rent sandpit, where bugs you couldn’t even see invaded your motel room and bit your ankles until they ran red onto the acrylic shag carpet — all the way to this rockbeach boondock they had come, to see the fires of Armageddon and hear the earth shake with the thunder — and instead they get this … this pop … and a cork pops out of a bottle of Spumante.”

And here is Wolfe describing the grim staging setup by Life photographers when the first three Mercury astronauts were announced: “To show three astronauts having an outing with their families at the same time, even in different locations, would have been stretching the truth considerably. To present such a spectacle at the Cape — which was, in effect, off limits to wives — was an absolute howler. On top of that, if you were going to put astronaut families together for a frolic on the beach, you ­could scarcely come up with a less likely combination than the Glenns, the Grissoms, and the Shephards — the clans of the Deacon, the Hoosier Grit, and the Icy Commander … In fact, they looked like three families from warring parts of our restless globe who had never laid eyes on each other until they were washed up upon this godforsaken shore together after a shipwreck, shivering morosely in their leisure togs, staring off into the distance, desperately scanning the horizon for rescue vessels, preferably three of them, flying different flags.

“As for the Other Four, they might as well have dropped through a crack in the earth.”

There is much, finally, that is touching about the alienation of these men from one another, from their families, and from the images America had of them. There is also something extraordinarily moving about what the astronauts did, regardless of their personal motivations and the politics behind the money that financed their undertaking. I remember watching the launchings on TV (sometimes at school), absolutely spell­-bound by the whole thing, unperturbed by the tech­nolingo of “rogers ” and “a-okays.” I always appreciated the the sensation of speed under control, and I admired and still admire physical courage. I didn’t want the astronauts to die, and l don’t think this feeling had anything to do with Russia. I thought even the most clonelike astronauts were exceedingly brave. Some had more than bravery. Whether this sort of courage and the cool daring the astronauts and test pilots manifested is ever separable from the blockheaded nonsense of right stuffness isn’t answered by Wolfe, and it isn’t asked. For him, they are ineluctably of a piece.

The book ends with a harrowing account of Chuck Yeager’s escape from a careening NF-104 rocket in 1963. He had tried and failed to take it faster and higher than the Russians. He finally ejects. While sailing through the air, a piece of metal from the seat mechanism hits him. His eye is cut; it starts to bleed, then, suddenly, his face begins to burn under his helmet. His eye is bleeding, his face is burning, one finger catches fire as he tries to rip his helmet off, and all of this is happening as he’s parachuting toward earth. He lands, remains cool, and lives to tell about it. Just before this flight, Wolfe tells us Yeager was feeling particularly pissed off about Kennedy’s insistence that a black astronaut be trained. Yeager goes up and comes down, and the Russian record is never broken. And does Wolfe admire the right stuff and what it can get men to do more than he mocks them? I honestly couldn’t tell. ❖

THE RIGHT STUFF. By Tom Wolfe. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $12.95.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 8, 2020

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