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The Right Stuff

Tom Wolfe


(Seven pilots scale the ziggurat of manliness on the quest to be America’s space heroes.)

Mercury-Redstone 3 rocket launching Alan Shepard in 1961 to become the first American in space. Courtesy of NASA.

Tom Wolfe probably awoke one morning and thought to himself, wouldn’t it be great if reading about current events were as fun as reading novels?  And with as simple an idea as that, he kicked off the movement known as New Journalism.  And Wolfe sure is fun to read! (…unless you demand your literature to be free of earthy language and conversational style—but let’s face it, J. D. Salinger had already paved the way for this, if not Lawrence Sterne.)

The joy of reading Wolfe leads to the first of three conjunctions he manages to pull off in this book that are likely to leave a reader in awe.  His style cultivates two apparently contradictory impressions—that this guy can really write with exquisite skill, and yet if he talked the way he writes he would get along fine at Pancho’s with any of the down home Midwest-bred pilots he writes about.  His style is a sort of elevation of the vernacular, like one of Shakespeare’s commoners.  He is particularly a genius with descriptive phrases, including strings of adjectives—look at the titles of some of his books (below), for instance.  How about a few examples from The Right Stuff:  “Grissom’s way of lapsing into impenetrable blank stares, as if some grim wintertime north-country Lutheran cloud of Original Sin were passing in front of his face.” (ch.6).  Another from the same chapter, about how Life magazine covered up Annie’s speech impediment: “…there were going to be no ferocious stammering jackhammer stutters on the home front.”  Then in ch.7, on certain visitors who came around to check out the astronauts: “…young juicy girls with stand-up jugs and full-sprung thighs and conformations so taut and silky that the very sight of them practically pulled a man into the delta of priapic delirium.”  Wolfe is simply a charmer with words, that’s all there is to it.  Three other, longer, choice gems are: his nailing of Yeagerspeak—that now institutionalized calm, folksy airline pilot manner (ch.3);  the description of the chimp flight including the military pilots’ laughter at the idea that this is our first astronaut (ch.9);  and a vivid, sickening depiction of Houston (ch.13).

The second surprising conjunction is Wolfe’s ability to write chapters that follow a timeline but also have thematic unity.  The book moves forward from the 1950s into 1963, but many chapters and sections deal with distinct topics that cut across the series of events, such as the challenges faced by the astronauts’ wives, or the notion of the single combat warrior.  I have never seen such a deft melding of concept and chronology.  And the chapters are woven together not only by the connectedness of the occurrences they describe, but also by vibrant recurring phrases that capture the broader themes perfectly and so remind us of them at intervals:  the most prevalent examples are “The Right Stuff” itself, “ziggurat”, “left behind”, “Flying and Drinking and Drinking and Driving”, “a monkey’s gonna make the first flight”, “our rockets always blow up”, “Integral”, “it could blow at any seam”, “Genteel Beast”, and “the Brotherhood”.

The third feat is the one for which the author deserves the deepest respect.  He took a hard and frank look at the astronauts and the space program, but, remarkably, he did so while preserving the romance and iconic stature inherent in these people and their space missions.  Most of the historians and journalists the media present to us apparently have the lifelong goal of destroying any icon they can find.  And the opposition, though they may have good intentions, are being obscurantist when they protect their beloved Alexanders or Columbuses or Washingtons from the culture-vultures at all costs.  Wolfe does not dissemble the facts, but nor does he use them to bludgeon real courage and excellence to smithereens.  I suspect that the reactionary who vehemently denies any human side to a hero, and the radical who is disgusted at the idea of raising anything on a pedestal, are telling us a lot more about their own emotional architecture than about the real world.  This book would be a pill for either of these kinds of folks.  We can come away from The Right Stuff shaking our heads at John Glenn’s posturing, and at the same time realize that we (or at least I) don’t have as much grit as there is in his big toe.  For another example, the reader won’t really think getting into space first is going to win the Cold War, but we’re still ready to cheer and weep with the millions as the Mercury 7 parade down the streets of New York.

Finally, the book is damn aptly named.  Wolfe’s magic glasses have penetrated into one of the deepest motivating forces in human (not just American) culture.  He has extracted this mysterious quality—guts, machismo, the it factor, coolness—from certain historical personages and events, and has portrayed it simply and beautifully as if he were a poet sociologist from another planet.  


SUMMARY (by chapter)

1. “The Angels”: The common deaths of Navy pilots.

2. “The Right Stuff”: The aviator’s machismo as a supreme and binary quality.

3. “Yeager”: Chuck Yeager, as quintessence of Right Stuff, breaks the sound barrier.  Project Mercury begins, with the object of getting a man in space before the Russians do.

4. “The Lab Rat”: Despite cynicism about going into space in a capsule, many pilots volunteer.  Semifinalists undergo medical and psychiatric tests.  Pete Conrad counters the humiliation with hilarious pranks, and loses his place as a result.

5. “In Single Combat”: Seven are chosen—not so much for flying ability, as for adaptability to space travel, for there will be little flying to be done.  The press doesn’t really treat them as pilots, but as heroes!  John Glenn eats it up, wrapping them all up in God and Country.  The chosen are the modern single combat warriors, testing fate’s choice between the United States and Russia, like champions of the armies of old.

6. “On the Balcony”: Suddenly the “astronauts” are the poster boys of the country, hounded by the press, whitewashed and presented for public adulation in Life magazine and the newspapers.  John Glenn, sweet-talker and pure American-pie Presbyterian good guy, courts the worship, with the other six sometimes begrudgingly following.  Even the wives have their share of privacy invasion and retouched presentation by the media to the public.

7. “The Cape”: Cape Canaveral is the place where they “let it all hang out”—hard driving, motel trysts with pool girls, etc.  At one point, Glenn assumes a leadership position by telling the others to be more responsible and cool it with the girls.  For this position he is not popular with the others, especially since it is becoming clear that he is endangering all of their chances at becoming the first man in space.  Only one of them will be chosen for the first flight.

8. “The Thrones”: The astronauts are occupied with training, and attempting to alter the Mercury Project to give them more control of the flight.  Meanwhile, the X-15 rocket plane project continues at Edwards Air Force Base.  While the media follows Mercury despite its ridiculous capsule and trained chimps and slow progress and several humiliating failures in test launches, pilots at Edwards had already been flying and dying in rockets, and nearing space.  When new altitude and speed records are hit, the media begins to turn from Mercury to the X-15 folks.

9. “The Vote”: To Glenn’s resentment, Alan Shepard is chosen to be the first man in space.  Chimps had made the trip first, much to the amusement of the pilots at Edwards.  Suddenly, less than a month before the scheduled flight, Russia sends Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the earth.

10. “Righteous Prayer”: Shepard boards the rocket.  Take-off.  His hopes are not that he survives, but that he performs well.  The flight, and landing in the ocean.  All goes smoothly, more mildly than the centrifuge, though he barely sees a thing.

11. “The Unscrewable Pooch”: Shortly after Shepard’s triumphal welcome, Gus Grissom becomes the second American to lob into space.  He mistakenly pops the top off the capsule at the wrong time, however, and it sinks.  Though he doesn’t receive the star treatment like Shepard, and though his peers consider him to have goofed up, to the public he is still immune to taint.

12. “The Tears”: A chimp orbits the earth.  The Vice President tries to impose himself on Annie Glenn when John is waiting in the rocket.  Then John Glenn takes off.  Three orbits and down safely [wonderful action here].  Then Glenn reaches the acme of Right Stuffness.  John F. Kennedy comes to visit him.  He speaks to Congress.  He makes America cry, right down to New York cops and the president’s father.  Glenn is our single combat warrior.

13. “The Operational Stuff”: Deke Slayton is excluded for a minor medical condition, and Scott Carpenter goes up to perform the next orbit.  He wastes fuel, almost bungles his re-entry, and lands 250 miles from the carrier.  So “operational” becomes the word of the day in the face of continued Soviet superiority in space.  Wally Schirra gives the operational, textbook flight—6 orbits, 10% of fuel use, landing 4.5 miles from the carrier.  The United States is now confident that they could perform a 17-orbit flight like the Soviet Titov, if they felt like it.

14. “The Club”: The Next Nine are chosen—the Gemini and Apollo astronauts, intending to make it to the moon.  These recruits essentially serve the Original Seven at first, and tend to aggravate the veterans.  Meanwhile Gordon Cooper, last of the seven, goes up for 22 orbits.  He comes down the biggest hero next to Glenn, because he had to re-enter manually due to an electrical malfunction, and performed perfectly.  [And with that, the Right Stuff zenith results are in:  Shepard yes, Grissom no, Glenn yes, Carpenter no, Schirra yes, Slayton no (poor guy didn’t get a chance), Cooper yes.]

15. “The High Desert”: Edwards Air Force Base, despite being outshone in the public spotlight by NASA, is in two different businesses: cultivating astronauts, and sending rocket planes into space that, unlike NASA’s spacecraft, can take off and land of their own power.  Chuck Yeager, on a practice run for a height record, is forced to bail out, and suffers serious burns.  This is almost symbolic of the end of an era.  On that very day, the cancellation of the rocket plane project is announced.

Epilogue:  With the decline of Cold War hostility in 1963, the “mantle of the Cold Warrior of the Heavens” became a little anachronistic:

“The ‘single-combat warriors’ had been removed.  They would continue to be honored, and men would continue to be awed by their courage; but the day when an astronaut could parade up Broadway while traffic policemen wept in the intersections was no more.  Never again would an astronaut be perceived as a protector of the people, risking his life to do battle in the heavens.  Not even the first American to walk on the moon would ever know the outpouring of a people’s most primal emotions that Shepard, Cooper, and, above all, Glenn had known.  The era of America’s first single-combat warriors had come, and it had gone, perhaps never to be relived.” (last page).  


Tidbits of Significance 

No, herein the world was divided into those who had it and those who did not.  This quality, this it, was never named, however, nor was it talked about in any way.

As to just what this ineffable quality was… well, it obviously involved bravery.  But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life.  The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process.  No, the idea here (in the all-enclosing fraternity) seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment—and then go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite—and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.  Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality.  There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of tests.  A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even—ultimately, God willing, one day—that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.



Manliness, manhood, manly courage… there was something ancient, primordial, irresistible about the challenge of this stuff, no matter what a sophisticated and rational age one might think he lived in.



The X-1 had gone through “the sonic wall” without so much as a bump.  As the speed topped out at Mach 1.05, Yeager had the sensation of shooting straight through the top of the sky.  The sky turned a deep purple and all at once the stars and the moon came out—and the sun shone at the same time.



Lyndon Johnson, who was the Senate majority leader, said that whoever controlled “the high ground” of space would control the world.  This phrase, “the high ground,” somehow caught hold.  “The Roman Empire,” said Johnson, “controlled the world because it could build roads.  Later—when it moved to sea—the British Empire was dominant because it had ships.  In the air age we were powerful because we had airplanes.  Now the Communists have established a foothold in outer space.”

-on the political motivation for the space race, ch.3.


It was as if the press in America, for all its vaunted independence, were a great colonial animal, an animal made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a single nervous system…

In either case, the animal’s fundamental concern remained the same:  the public, the populace, the citizenry, must be provided with the correct feelings!

-on the elevation of the Mercury astronauts to hero status, ch.5.


They were so famous, so revered, so lavishly fussed and worried over at all times that they were without peers in this new branch of the military.  Everywhere they went in their travels people stopped what they were doing and gave them a certain look of awe and sympathy.  Sympathy… because our rockets all blow up.  It was a nice, friendly, warm look, all right, and yet it was strange.  It was a sort of glistening smile with tears and joy suffusing it; both tears and joy.  In fact, it was an ancient look, from the primordial past, never seen in America before.  It was the smile of homage and astonishment—at such bravery!—that had been given to single-combat warriors, in advance, on account, before the fact, since time was.

-of the astronauts, ch.6.


Like his predecessors in the ancient past, he had reached the blessed state where one was far more afraid of not delivering on his end of the bargain—having been paid up front—than he was of getting killed.

-of Alan Shepard, ch.10.


This horrible rat-gray city was suddenly touching, warm!  You wanted to protect these poor souls who loved you so much!  Huge waves of emotion rolled over you.  You couldn’t hear yourself talk, but there was nothing you could have said, anyway.  All you could do is let these incredible waves roll over you.

-of New York City as the astronauts rode through in a parade, ch.12.


And what was it that had moved them all so deeply?  It was not a subject that you could discuss, but the seven of them knew what it was, and so did most of their wives.  Or they knew about part of it.  They knew it had to do with the presence, the aura, the radiation of the right stuff, the same vital force of manhood that had made millions vibrate and resonate thirty-five years before to Lindbergh—except that in this case it was heightened by Cold War patriotism, the greatest surge of patriotism since the Second World War.  Neither the term nor the concept of the single-combat warrior did they know about, but the sheer patriotism of that moment—even in New York, the Danzig corridor!—was impossible to miss.  We pay homage to you!  You have fought back against the Russians in the heavens!  There was something pure and rare about it.  Patriotism!  Oh, yes!  Here you saw it in a million-footed form, before your very eyes!  Most of the seven had been around the Kennedys at one time or another, with Jack or with Bobby, and knew the way a crowd reacted to them—but it was something different from this.  Around the Kennedys you saw a fan’s hysteria, involving a lot of shrieking and clutching, with people reaching out to grab souvenirs and swooning and squealing, as if the Kennedys were movie stars who happened to be in power.  But what the multitudes showed John Glenn and the rest of them on that day was something else.  They anointed them with the primordial tears that the right stuff commanded.



The unutterable aura of the right stuff had been brought onto the terrain where things were happening!  Perhaps that was what New York existed for, to celebrate those who had it, whatever it was, and there was nothing like the right stuff, for all responded to it, and all wanted to be near it and to feel the sizzle and to blink in the light.




…like a child, you wonder for a moment—what is it like to be an astronaut?—but are ready for a grown-up answer; 


…you want a perspicacious, witty, and spirited analysis of American culture.



(for the airborne reader:)

  • Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days  (1872).
  • Franz Kafka, “The Aeroplanes at Brescia”  (1909).
  • Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Wind, Sand, and Stars  (1939).  [In chapter 2 of The Right Stuff, Wolfe calls him “the most gifted of the pilot authors”.]
  • James Gould Cozzens, Guard of Honor  (1948).

 (for the follower of Wolfe’s observations of American culture:)

  • Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby  (1965).
  • Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test  (1968).
  • Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word  (1975).
  • Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities  (1987).

Find It!

Hardcover: Apparently it hasn’t been republished in hardback! Luckily there are still a bunch of the original edition around used.

Paperback: The Picador edition.

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