In 1972 Jann Wenner, the editor of Rolling Stone, assigned Wolfe to cover the launch of NASA's last moon mission, Apollo 17. Wolfe became fascinated with the astronauts, and his competitive spirit compelled him to try to outdo Norman Mailer's nonfiction book about the first moon mission, Of a Fire on the Moon. He published a four-part series for Rolling Stone in 1973 titled "Post-Orbital Remorse", about the depression that some astronauts experienced after having been in space. After the series, Wolfe began researching the whole of the space program, in what became a seven-year project from which he took time to write The Painted Word, a book on art, and to complete Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, a collection of shorter pieces.
In 1977 he returned to his astronaut book full-time. Wolfe originally planned to write a complete history of the space program, though after writing through the Mercury program, he felt that his work was complete and that it captured the astronauts' ethos — the "right stuff" that astronauts and test pilots of the 1940s and 1950s shared — the unspoken code of bravery and machismo that compelled these men to ride on top of dangerous rockets. While conducting research, he consulted with General Chuck Yeager and, after receiving a comprehensive review of his manuscript, was convinced that test pilots like Yeager should form the backdrop of the period. In the end, Yeager becomes a personification of the many postwar test pilots and their "right stuff". The phrase itself may have originated in the Joseph Conrad story "Youth", where it was used.
The Right Stuff was published in 1979 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and became Wolfe's best selling book yet. It was praised by most critics, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
In the foreword to a new edition, published in 1983 when the film adaptation was released, Wolfe wrote that his "book grew out of some ordinary curiosity" about what "makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle… and wait for someone to light the fuse".