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Written by Timothy Sexton
Some readers may well wonder—and rightfully so—why a book documenting the true story of the Mercury astronaut program devotes so much space to a pilot who never even considered for the job. And therein lies the overarching irony of the entire book. Although it seems inconceivable now that anyone but trained military pilots would be trained to become the first men in space, the reality is that for a time pilots had just as good a shot as trapeze artists in a circus. The decision to extend the offer of becoming astronauts exclusively to military pilots was made far less on the basis of their technical qualifications than on the basis of public relations. Not only would the first astronauts appear to already be the most qualified even before training, but they would also appear to be the smartest of the qualified: only pilots with a college degree were invited. Yeager did not possess this and so despite being beyond all the argument the greatest military pilot in American history to that point, he did not have the right stuff to become an astronaut. Even though not nearly everyone in the process by that point agreed that a pilot was a better choice than a circus performer.
The Right Stuff: N/A
The single greatest irony of the book—and one so seemingly at odds with the very premise that it is easily overlooked—is that this semi-mystical thing which separated the cream of the crop of test pilots from the also-rans and the dead was absolutely, positively not a requirement at all to become an astronaut. Whatever the “Right Stuff” was or wasn’t, there was nobody who was going to argue that Chuck Yaeger didn’t have it. In light of subsequent events in his career as an astronaut, many argue quite strongly that Gus Grissom most assuredly did not possess it. What Grissom did possess that those who fell by the wayside during the testing process did not possess—but that those like Yaeger and others not even invited may well have possessed—was the ability to being one of the seven highest scorers in the battery of training scenarios which became the actual substitute for the Right Stuff. If your scores on those tests placed you in the top seven, whether you really had the Right Stuff or not was utterly and irrefutably meaningless. And impossible to determine since the one thing that can be said for sure about the Right Stuff is that it cannot be quantitatively measured.
The First Rule of the Right Stuff Club
Wolfe writes that every single night “at bases all over America, there were military pilots huddled in officers clubs eagerly cutting the right stuff up in coded slices so they could talk about it.” Another great irony of the Right Stuff is that as a result of Wolfe’s book it has become ordained as the gold standard for heroism among pilots despite the fact that the phrase is not mentioned or the concept directly addressed by those to whom it means the most.
The Mercury astronauts are bona fide American heroes. They were all willing to sit on top of a gigantic rocket and face literally something nobody knew anything about despite the fact that many of the unmanned test rockets spectacularly exploded on liftoff. The astronauts were also proven heroes in having survived a profession with one of the highest mortality rates ever: test pilot. Despite the heroism exhibited and the iconic status awaiting them and despite being the representatives owner class of that indefinable something separating true heroes from nearly everyone else, those in charge of actually piloting the Mercury spacecraft from the comfort and safety of solid earth at Mission Control routinely referred to the seven astronauts “glorified klutzes” and more. Of course, the klutzes had the last laugh; everyone still knows the names of at least one or two of them, while few ever knew the identities of the name-callers.
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