The story is more about the space race than space exploration in general. The Soviet Union's early space efforts are mentioned only as background, focusing entirely on an early portion of the U.S. space program. Only Project Mercury, the first operational manned space-flight program, is covered. The Mercury Seven were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. Emphasis is given to the personal stories of the astronauts and their wives rather than the technical aspects of space travel and the flights themselves.
The storyline also involves the political reasons for putting people into space, asserting that the Mercury astronauts were actually a burden to the program and were only sent up for promotional reasons. Reasons for including living beings in spacecraft are barely touched upon, but the first option considered was to use a chimpanzee (and, indeed, chimpanzees were sent up first).
Another option considered were athletes already accustomed to physical stress, such as circus trapeze artists. Wolfe states that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, insisted on pilots, even though the first crew members would not actually fly the spacecraft. When Gus Grissom lands at sea and exits his space capsule, saving the capsule seems more important to the recovery team than saving the pilot because of the value of the data.
Wolfe contrasts the Seven with the Edwards AFB test pilots, among whom was Chuck Yeager, who was shut out of the astronaut program after NASA officials decided to use college-degreed pilots, not ones who gained their commissions as enlisted men, such as participants in the USAAF Flying Sergeants Program in World War II. Chuck Yeager spent time with Tom Wolfe explaining accident reports "that Wolfe kept getting all wrong." Publishing insiders say these sessions between Wolfe and Yeager led Wolfe to highlight Yeager's character, presence, thoughts, and anecdotes throughout the book. As an example, Yeager prides his speech to the Society of Test Pilots that the first rider in the Mercury development program would be a monkey, not a real test pilot, and Wolfe plays this drama out on the angst felt by the Mercury Astronauts over those remarks. Yeager himself downplayed the theory of "the right stuff," attributing his survival of potential catastrophes to simply knowing his airplane thoroughly, along with some good luck.
Another test pilot highlighted in the book is Scott Crossfield. Crossfield and Yeager were fierce but friendly rivals for speed and altitude records.