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Written by Timothy Sexton
The Right Stuff
The prevailing theme of the book is right there in the title. Ah, but what exactly is this theme referring to? What, exactly, is “the Right Stuff.” It is kind of like the definition of pornography: hard to define, but you know when it you see it. It is not a cowboy swagger nor it is an attitude of superiority. The closest one may get to a precise definition is something akin to grace under pressure with an underlying and uncontrollable stimulation to seek out pressure rather than run from it. That’s not really the “Right Stuff” but you get the idea.
The Space Race
The Space Race is another famed term related to the astronaut program. It refers to alleged race between the US and the Soviet Union to be first to land a man on the moon. Turns out that there was really was any competition; the Russians had already beaten us to the moon with an unmanned craft and had determined that that really was not any compelling reason for a human to follow up.
Our Rockets Always Explode
The success of landing a man on the moon in 1969 has given the NASA program a certain air of inevitability that speaks quite hardily to America’s sense of our own superiority and ingenuity. When a job has to be done, we do it and we do it right. Often better than others. This is the myth of the events leading to the Mercury program which in turn led to the Gemini and Apollo programs which ultimately led to putting a man on the moon. The reality is that while the Russians were beating us into space, to the moon, putting a man into space, putting a woman into space and pretty much everything else…our rockets kept exploding. This may seem a narrative point rather than a thematic one, but consider that definition of seeking out pressure and maintaining grace while under it as a fairly good description of what “the Right Stuff” is and then put yourself into the shoes of those seven men chose to be America’s first astronauts who were actually already well into their training while those rockets still kept blowing up on the launch pad. THAT is having the Right Stuff!
The Mercury Program: America's First Reality Show
The term “reality show” did not exist at the time those seven men were chosen nor was a familiar term yet when Tom Wolfe wrote his book about it. When reading the history of what went into deciding first who would actually be astronauts (at one point trapeze artists were seriously considered) and then how not only their image but the image of their wives were carefully crafted through a series of exclusive articles in Life Magazine (the most widely subscribed magazine in America at the time) that detailed in often excruciating detail (to the wives) of their lives as perfectly coiffed little housewives inside their homes in a little village manufactured just for them…and you definitely sniff the aroma of television manipulation of the facts into a manufactured sense of “reality” sold to Americans that was to come.
The Death of the Test Pilot
The pinnacle of heroism in the skies over America until the Russians launched Sputnik had been the test pilot. Alone against the elements in an aircraft that maybe had the potential to withstand breaking new speed records...but maybe didn't...the test pilot was the ultimate flyboy. And the ultimate test pilot was Chuck Yeager. Yeager held the distinction of being the human being to break through the sound barrier and at the time astronaut selection was being made held more flying records and more honors and more decorations than any pilot in US history. He was a natural, of course, to become America's counterpart to Yuri Gagarin, the first man to ride a rocket into orbit around the earth. Yeager lacked only two things: youth and a college diploma. He was declared ineligible and with the success the Mercury programs, test pilots would be the forgottten heroes of aviation, lost in the exhaust and roar of enormous Roman Candles carrying men into space. Yeager was the last of his breed.
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