Tom Wolfe is a dandy. Fashion-wise, Wolfe belongs to era of men’s style and concern with their appearance that is as out of joint with the Space Age as the street urchins of Dicken or the ladies with sense and sensibility desperately seeking a husband of means. For that matter, Tom Wolfe hanging out with the Mercury 7 astronauts—those fearless fighter pilots who the first to sit atop an American rocket and blast through the atmosphere—seems impossible to imagine. The seminal figure at the heart of—and the coiner of the term—New Journalism may have been the unlikeliest chronicler of process that led to the creation of America’s space program, but in retrospect it is impossibly difficult to imagine any writer who could have done it better.
The New Journalism at which Wolfe was at the vanguard eschewed the traditional dry reportage of the Who-What-Where-When-Why-and How tradition of journalism. Adopting literary techniques from fiction and making their own presence part of the story went against every old school established convention of reporting history. While The Right Stuff is an example of Wolfe’s radical New Journalism style presented with considerably more restraint that in previous books, it is precisely the way that the non-fictional history book reads more like a wild picaresque novel that makes it so hard to put down.
Readers should be warned against the danger of casually picking up a copy of The Right Stuff because by the time you get about ten or so pages into it, you can pretty much count on having to set aside the time it takes for you finish it. The origin of the book was Wolfe’s assignment for Rolling Stone magazine to cover the very last mission to the moon, Apollo 17. While writing that article, Wolfe became increasingly fascinated with the idea of trying to find out what it took to freely volunteer and even pursue a coveted spot on a very limited list of men willing to sit on top of the world’s longest Roman Candle and patiently wait for somebody else to come along and light the fuse.
To fully appreciate the magnitude of that act and get closer to understanding Wolfe’s obsession with finding the answer to that question, it is vital to learn what happened way more often than not to the unmanned Roman candles that acted as practice runs before these men. Unless you are already familiar with the early history of America’s Space Race with the Soviet Union, you will have to acquire that essential knowledge. And there is absolutely no more informative or entertaining way to acquire knowledge about what happened to American rockets or what exactly constitutes the right kind of stuff for a person to possess in order to make them climb aboard that Roman candle than by reading Tom Wolfe's deliriously captivating history of the NASA Mercury program.