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Written by Timothy Sexton
Wolfe engages religious imagery throughout the book to endow certain situations with mythic dimensions and to transform events and objects into symbol. While the focus of the book is the Mercury astronaut program, standing outside that group and every bit as important a character is test pilot Chuck Yeager. Yaeger is most famous—aside from not being an astronaut—for being the human to blast through the sound barrier and Wolfe draws upon Biblical iconography to portray that accomplishment as defeating an invisible demonic force that had not just stifled his peers, but took the lives of many. In addition, the Right Stuff also carries with a profound layer of righteousness and being picked to go into space makes each astronaut part of the “the Chosen.”
The figure of Chuck Yeager remains always completely human, but Wolfe engages his presence and his absence from the proceedings as a special sort of imagery that manages to make him a loner, an outsider, a figure of needlessly lost potential as well as the ultimate embodiment—indeed the personification—of the Right Stuff. The imagery of Yaeger takes center stage in the exposition of what led to the decision to choose test pilots to become astronauts, but as the focus shifts to those astronauts and leaves him on the outside looking in, he becomes more image and less fully engaged character. While still—always—remaining abundantly human.
What many who were not alive at the time and unfamiliar with the story may not realize is that Mercury astronauts were every bit as much a manufactured celebrity as they were manufactured pilots. The truth is that in a sense, they were actually more celebrities once they joined NASA than they were pilots anymore despite their behind-the-scenes struggle to wrest control of the actual flights of their rockets away from the scientists at mission control. The media was essential in creating the myth that extended just as much to the wives of the astronauts. In the hands of Wolfe, the Media essentially becomes a collective character and that character is predominantly portrayed in imagery making the press the comic relief of the book. The astronauts were too serious to become jokes (although one gets the distinct impression that Gordon Cooper could have enjoyed a second career as a comedian if he so desired), their wives already too much a figure of constructed reality and the scientists dealing with constantly exploding rockets definitely were not fodder for jokes. That left the media should not be as funny considering how it becomes difficult to see where NASA public relations ends and an independent press begins.
The Third Man
Each of the seven Mercury astronauts gets to become the star of their own little mini-drama as their turn to blast off rolls around. Alan Shepard becomes the Columbus of the Age of Space Exploration, Gus Grissom becomes a tragic figure and Gordon Cooper fulfills his role as the clown prince by falling asleep while waiting for the countdown. The imagery that lingers and where Wolfe take the opportunity to make his real point is the story brilliant descriptive imagery with which he relates John Glenn’s turn at bat. Glenn—the Boy Scout that every American thought would be chosen to become the first American in space actually must wait in line behind Shepard and Grissom. That may have been a disappointment for John Glenn, but for Wolfe it would become literary gold. Armed with the knowledge gained by watching two men take of before him, Glenn becomes—in Wolfe’s exciting narrative—prepared for everything: he knows exactly how many g-forces to expect, he knows that the escape tower apparently fired prematurely even though the jettison tower light is on…only to quickly apprehend that he is mistaken, the tower is on schedule as is the jettison tower…he knows to the second when the G-forces will hit 3 and then 4 and then 5. As the sound of hell ripping right out of the earth rattles around him, John Glenn knows to the pound how much the rocket on that launch pad weighs and that one ton of the liquid oxygen inside is burning away every second. The point of Wolfe’s focus on Glenn’s preparation as the centerpiece of his imagery of the astronaut’s rocket blasting off is abundantly: without making the metaphor concrete or the analogy obvious, Wolfe is drawing a parallel between how much these explorers know about their mission and how little the explorers who came to America four centuries earlier knew about any aspect of their journey and what awaited
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