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The Right Stuff (1979)

por Tom Wolfe

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4,011622,266 (4.21)150
The true story of Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton - the seven men chosen for the Mercury Project manned space flight program in the U.S.
  1. 20
    Failure is not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond por Eugene Kranz (Utilizador anónimo)
  2. 10
    V-2 por Walter Dornberger (dukeallen)
  3. 10
    A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts por Andrew Chaikin (paulkid)
    paulkid: Chaikin gives a respectful account of the later astronauts' journeys and their personalities, while Wolfe gives irreverent and hilarious depictions of the mood and personalities surrounding the beginning of the space race (ie, Mercury and pre-Mercury).
  4. 00
    Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery por Scott Kelly (JenniferRobb)
  5. 00
    Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth por Andrew Smith (bluepiano)
    bluepiano: Wolfe tells of the early and sometimes would-be astronauts and Smith of the later ones who walked on the moon. Both books are wonderfully readable.
  6. 00
    Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void por Mary Roach (nessreader)
    nessreader: The shift in corporate mentality in NASA between the testosterone drenched fighter pilots of Wolfe's era and the team orientated and PR-paranoid present is instructive. The terrifying discipline required seems equal; in any case, interesting to compare.
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Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, The Right Stuff, chronicles the diverging research of high-altitude rocket planes and spaceflight from the early 1950s through Project Mercury, contrasting the Mercury Seven astronauts with test pilots at Edwards AFB and Naval Air Station Patuxent River, with Chuck Yeager standing out as exemplifying the “right stuff” even though he was not chosen for the space program. Wolfe writes in a somewhat conversational style, working to capture the mentality of test pilots of that era and how it defined what it meant to be a pilot for generations to come, much as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and others did for pilots of the early twentieth century. Wolfe further evokes the heady emotion of the days of Mercury, when the immediacy of the Cold War turned the Space Race into a battlefront of sorts and the astronauts into Single Combat Warriors to whom the public paid homage. However, Wolfe points out that the test pilots at Edwards were skeptical of the space program, particularly as those running it initially conceived of the pilot as little more than a passenger in a capsule. Meanwhile, the test pilots in the high desert were flying rocket planes to altitudes that required the same skills as a spacecraft, such as control of attitude jets since the air was too thin – or nonexistent – for the plane’s control surfaces to work as the plane had crossed the boundary into space. Despite these achievements, the astronauts captured the public’s imagination and eventually succeeded in using their public positions to regain some of their status as pilots, though the heady days of Mercury did not last into the Gemini and Apollo programs, where spaceflight became more routine as astronauts were longer regaled as Single Combat Warriors.

The style and success of Wolfe’s book ensured its adaptation and Hollywood has done so twice, first in Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film and again in the 2020 television series from National Geographic. This Vintage Classics copy is a nice paperback edition with a great pop-art cover and an introduction from Astronaut Scott Kelly that helps to capture of the legacy of The Right Stuff. Something appears to have gone wrong during the formatting process, however, as there are several typographical errors throughout the book (extraneous letters jumbled in the middle of words, words divided by a hyphen as if they were meant to be split between two lines, and multiple instances of the number 1 in place of an “l” or an “I”). These occur often enough to be noticeable, but thankfully Wolfe’s narrative is engrossing and makes up for it. ( )
2 vote DarthDeverell | May 18, 2021 |
The story of the first seven American astronauts, compared and contrasted with the life of Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier. But this is far more than just a biography of names, dates and places. Wolfe delved deep into what it meant to be a Test Pilot in the years after the Second World War; how these men thought, and talked, and lived (and sometimes died). He also brings the whole story of the pilots' families into focus; what it meant to be married to a test pilot and how it affected the wives, especially in times when male and female roles were far more stratified than they are now. If this book had been written in the 1930s or 1940s, it would have been science fiction; but it goes far beyond any goshwow pulp melodrama.

All this is reflected back on the way these pilots were lauded by politicians, businessmen, the media and the American public. This adds a further dimension to the book, making it into a social history of the 1950s and 60s seen through the prism of the space programme.

Wolfe develops his theory that the top pilots had a particular mindset, the "Right Stuff" of the title. If you have to ask what the "Right Stuff" is, especially by the time you've read this book, then you are irretrievably blind to it, and you certainly don't possess it yourself. Wolfe identifies it, using the language of the time, as comprising in part of "manly virtues", though this phrase is italicised so often that I could not help but think that his tongue was firmly stuck in his cheek when he wrote it.

The 1983 film captures the book extremely well, though there is so much more in the book that the film couldn't pin down. For example, Glenn's wife Annie was (sympathetically) portrayed in the film as a somewhat shy and retiring character on account of her stammer; the film's depiction of her husband's tender relationship with her is a key part of its character portrait of John Glenn. But the book makes the point that Annie Glenn was neither shy nor retiring, coming as she did from "good pioneer stock", quite capable of holding her own in life and only quailing before a media onslaught that would roll over most people.

The book also returns often to the Air Force manned X-15 spaceplane project and its planned successors. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, whilst American administrations focussed on rocketry, the achievements of the X-15 pilots, in flying to the edge of space and beyond were broadly ignored. Yet the X-15 programme would eventually produce the first man to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong.

I can only fault the book on one error of fact; when talking about the Soviet Vostok vessels, Wolfe translates the Russian word 'Korabl' as 'Cosmic', when in fact it means 'ship'. Quite what the NASA astronauts would have thought, when they were pressing for changes to the Mercury capsule and the mission profiles to give them much more of the role of pilots rather than just payload, to know that the Russians were referring to their rocket as a "ship" from the outset will most likely remain lost.

The writing is resolutely Sixties, both in phrase and usage; but it is a fine piece of writing nonetheless and thoroughly deserves the accolades it received at the time of publication.

(Having said that, I'm sad to say that my copy, a film tie-in Bantam A-format paperback printed in the UK in 1983, is probably one of the nastiest books I've handled in recent years. Pulpy paper, a cover that displays edge and corner wear as soon as I picked it up, and excessively narrow margins and big blocks of text made worse by the displacement of the text towards the bottom of the page, resulting in almost no bottom margin, made the actual reading of this book an unpleasant experience. Fortunately, the content more than made up for this.) ( )
2 vote RobertDay | Mar 5, 2021 |
It is a good book and a very informative read about the start of the US space program and how it quickly was setup to counter the Russian launches. What kind of people were flying on the first rocket ships. Pretty impressive.

Recommended for all and not only for people interested into the space race back then. ( )
  gullevek | Dec 15, 2020 |
The Very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff, that Righteous, Righteous stuff, the Indefinable, Unutterable, Integral Stuff.

Test pilots have The Right Stuff. Astronauts have The Right Stuff. Thus Tom Wolfe pulls us into Chuck Yeager's world in Muroc in the 1940's when the sound barrier is about to be broken and segues us into the original Seven - the chosen ones with the righteous, righteous stuff, the first men into space. (Never mind a monkey's gonna make the first flight! Never mind our rockets always blow up!)

Wolfe goes into detail about the astronauts' lives, the astronauts' wives, the Drinking and Driving, the Drinking and Flying (oh, wait, there WAS no flying for these Mercury Seven!), the astronauts' grumbles and gripes, the astronauts' allegiance to Mom and apple pie!, the astronaut's - uh - groupies??

As always with Tom Wolfe, you're there with Yeager in the X-1, you're floundering in the ocean with Gus Grissom, you're looking at the fireflies with John Glenn in Friendship 7, and you're there (and just as upset) with the chimpanzee receiving the electric shocks in the feet when he screws up.

And you're there when some Friend of Widows and Orphans comes to your door after there's been an accident. . .

I have to give a shout out to local hero Scott Carpenter! Okay, maybe he had a bit too much fun up there in Aurora 7 (some controversy surrounds this), but he was well loved here. Also, as an aside, Grissom's capsule was recovered in 1999. Unfortunately, still no way to determine if the hatch "just blew".

Interesting read. Recommended if you can handle Tom Wolfe's writing style and can get in the back of the spaceship and peek around front to see what's really happening. ( )
2 vote Chica3000 | Dec 11, 2020 |
There is setting of Hemingway in the style, it's helping in the (very few) dry passages.
The book is doing a great job at answering: what is motivating a band of proud men at risking his life on seating on top of a rocket to go into space for the first times. ( )
  jbrieu | Nov 6, 2020 |
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The true story of Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton - the seven men chosen for the Mercury Project manned space flight program in the U.S.

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