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Written by Timothy Sexton
Spam in a Can
Aside from “the Right Stuff” itself, the most famous (or infamous) metaphor to make its way into the public vernacular from Wolfe’s book is the phrase “spam in a can.” This phrase is a derogatory metaphor for describing the fact that while the government wanted test pilots to become their astronauts, piloting the actual craft was the least important aspect of the job. Since every part of the mission trajectory could be in the hands of the scientists back on the ground at Mission Control, the astronaut himself was essentially just a piece of manufactured product resembling a test pilot, but actually a test pilot sitting in a shiny can.
The “Demon” is a metaphor for the forces that kept obstructing test pilots from successfully pushing their jets through to Mach 1 and through the sound barrier. Nobody was really sure what would happen if any pilot was ever successful and when they first learned the result was a sonic boom, those on the ground assumed that Chuck Yeager’s plane has exploded. The “Demon” is thus not an entirely evil metaphorical image as there was always the very real possibility that beating it back was just simply beyond the reach of man’s knowledge. The rejection of such negative possibilities, of course, is an essential element in the makeup of “the Right Stuff” and that element is what leaves the mysterious force characterized in the minds of the pilots as entirely and irredeemably Satanic.
A Great Colonial Animal
The press was complicit in mythologizing the astronauts and their wives to transform them into heroes long before they had ever done anything heroic inside or even near a rocket carrying them into space. The very thin line between government propaganda and an independent press was never so blurry during this period of American history as the coverage of the Mercury program. Wolfe recognizes this and makes it a thing of recurring satire while also transforming the individuals involved into a giant amorphous singular unit he brilliantly describes in metaphorical term as “a great colonial animal, an animal made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a single nervous system." That nervous system was not connected to a brain sitting inside a publisher's office or a network news producer's studio, but the government of the United States of America.
The Big Daddy of the Skies
Chuck Yeager stands apart from the Mercury 7. He embodies the Right Stuff and he is the last hero of the age of the test pilot. The iconoclastic quality of Yeager is uniquely given metaphorical depth as “the big daddy of the skies over the dome of the world.” That metaphor enlarges the mythos of Chuck Yeager as he straddle the world of the 1950 world of testing new aircraft. While some pilots may secretly have thought they were better than Yeager, none would have been stupid enough to actually come out and say it. His figure looms over the entire narrative, but the sad truth is that right then—at the peak of his career as the unquestioned big daddy of the air—he was nearer to becoming outdated, outmoded and out of fashion than anyone could possibly have imagined.
Our Rockets Always Blow Up
Definitely a recurring motif even if it falls just slightly short of becoming a mantra, Wolfe engages the phrase “our rockets always blow up” first as an effective bit of imagery that reminds readers that America was lagging far, far behind the Soviets technologically during the Space Race. Gradually, however, the phrase takes on more significance than mere imagery until it achieves the level of metaphor. The metaphorical meaning is expansive, too. As a commentary on the technology gap, it serves simultaneously to give a nod of appreciation for just how much the lousy Russian commies contributed to space exploration while also acting as a reminder that “we did put a man on the moon!” The metaphor also extends into the sphere of how the Mercury program was an unqualified success as propaganda. The press and the government were colluding to create heroes before they even had the chance to be heroic. The repetition of the phrase in the book becomes the equivalent of the actual reminder to Americans every time they heard that another rocket exploded that these guys really were heroes just for signing up to climb aboard a gigantic stick of dynamite that…always blew up.
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