At the heart of The Right Stuff is curiosity - Wolfe admits as much in the foreword of the book. He was curious not only in space exploration and outer space itself, but primarily the personalities that there were willing to put their lives on the line to explore the unknown. As such, The Right Stuff is as much a character analysis as it is a book about Project Mercury. He follows John Glenn, Chuck Yeager, Alan Grisson and others as they become the first Americans in space, as well as those that support the operations. In typical Wolfe fashion, he does not just probe their professional lives, but seeks answers in their private lives as well. He probes their marriages, their quirks, their appearances, their childhoods and education in an attempt to discern the essential qualities that make an astronaut. As he comes to realize, their is no simple answer.
Wolfe's novel, as is again typical, is inherently American. Instead of focusing on dualistic competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, known as the "Space Race," Wolfe is concerned first and foremost with the American effort. The Soviets appear in the work like a distant planet; existing but not of primary consequence. Those that are not familiar with American geography might become confused with his repeated references to geography. Still, this unique approach to the topic differs from much of the other work surrounding the period of early space exploration, and again positions Wolfe as an independent and interesting voice who brings his own flair to each endeavor.
At the same time, Wolfe is meticulous in his chronicling of the NASA hierarchy and personnel. He documents the officers, the lieutenants, and perhaps most importantly, the presidents tasked with making dreams of space a reality. In this sense, he demonstrates that while space exploration is seen as a glamorous and exciting domain, there is a great deal of rote, quotidian work done along the way. There is not simply a blast-off broadcast on television, but a vast network, and an incredible amount of human energy that must first take place. He is also focused on the decision-making that occurs throughout the process, namely with the selection process for the Project Mercury, whether they be pilots, engineers, or, outlandishly, trapeze artist. This debate creates much of the tension throughout the novel. Through this incredibly detailed coverage, Wolfe effectively demystifies a collective dream. For some, this may appear banal and unexciting; however, for others, it is a privileged look into a complex enterprise, and an important moment in American history.
This is not to suggest, however, that The Right Stuff is not without its poetics. While certainly technical, Wolfe also employs his rich descriptive style. He makes art out of scorch-marks left by a rocket, or the sound of a rocket at take-off. His lyricism gives life to the characters he presents, and allows the reader to connect with their fears, and dreams. Despite the heavy jargon, and near-encyclopedic engineering knowledge, The Right Stuff is very much rooted in the individuals.
Another important point in Wolfe's novel is the idea of sacrifice. Throughout the work, Wolfe portrays characters that are willing to sacrifice their lives to get into, and he seeks to understand why. This topic is first broached at the novel's beginning, where Wolfe describes Bud Jennings, a fighter pilot filled in a plane crash. Jennings is not alone; the game of space exploration is dangerous and many lives are lost. While the act of sacrifice itself it's obvious, both for the casualties and their families, the rationale is far more difficult to understand. For some it is the pursuit of glory, for others it is the quest for knowledge and experience, for others still it is the deep love for their country. While there is no singular answer, Wolfe suggests that maybe it is the danger and sacrifice itself that makes space exploration so intriguing and arresting.