The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe is probably one of the most fascinating books I’ve read over the last few years.
Now, I’ve read Tom Wolfe’s A Bonfire of the Vanities before. A fictional-cultural-commentary novel about a rich white New Yorker who crashes into a young black man with his car, drives off out of fear of attacks, only to deal with exponential repercussions later as he attempts to evade justice.
Wolfe, a “New Journalist,” is, of course, famous for exploring culture in his books, fiction or otherwise, especially as it relates to that of particular institutions. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe delves into the hippy subculture of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. In his more recent book I am Charlotte Simmons, a novel, Wolfe peels back the layers of the privileged elite at a top American university.
Carrying the torch of Wolfe as a “social novelist,” these days, you could say is the bestselling author Ben Mezrich, who’s known for The Accidental Billionaires (which inspired the film The Social Network), Bitcoin Billionaires (a sequel of sorts), and the upcoming The Antisocial Network.
The Right Stuff, published in 1979, chronicles the lives of the American fighter pilots who became the first astronauts in NASAs Mercury Mission.
It’s impossible to talk about The Right Stuff without mentioning the timing of its publication in American history. 1979. A time of deep economic stagnation. America had just seen President Nixon resign. The ending of the Vietnam War had left deep scars in the nation’s psyche. Americans were being held hostage by Iranian militants. And at that point many Americans were largely over some of NASAs greatest accomplishments. We’d landed on the moon ten years prior. Had gone back several times, actually. It was the time of the so-called “antihero.”
The Right Stuff went against the grain, by reintroducing the American fighter pilot heroes that the nation had come to love during the early years of the NASA era. When rocket technology was still very experimental, and in fact, oftentimes killed the test pilots who flew new aircraft. A lot of people forget that from the late 40s through the early 60s, we were in a real technological tug of war with the Soviets, and for a time Russia was far ahead of the U.S. It really wasn’t clear during a good part of the Cold War which side would ultimately come out ahead. It was believed that whoever controlled space would come to dominate the globe. There was some real fear amongst our governmental leaders, and the American populace. Some of which was real. Some imagined. All of which was harnessed by the government to fund the early NASA program, in the effort to beat the Soviets into space.
Wolfe’s writing, as always, is evocative, illustrative, and naturally cinematic. And it’s at its best when dealing with social psychology and culture in the hyper competitive, hyper driven, hyper masculine world of the fighter pilots.
Take for instance the way in which Wolfe describes the “great invisible ziggurat.” Which is a metaphorical pyramid of sorts and means to measure a pilot’s status amongst other pilots. One’s position on the ziggurat is critical, and something a pilot is always striving to elevate. Status is gained, essentially, through not only feats of flying, but staying cool under pressure. Being unflappable. Being not necessarily fearless, but not allowing fear to control you while operating aircraft. Performing flawlessly in the most dangerous of situations, while at the same time being unshakably suave about it. Grace under fire. That’s what it meant to have the “right stuff.”
At the top of the great invisible ziggurat, at one point, was Chuck Yeager, the pilot who broke the sound barrier in 1947. Over the course of the early NASA missions into space–known as Project Mercury–the fighter pilots chosen would each have a turn to reach the summit themselves. Each demonstrating their own measure of the “right stuff” as they performed in the different missions into space. Alan Shepherd became the second man, and first American to go to space in 1961. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth one year later.
The Right Stuff covers an intense period of American history, and profiles men who, really, were the best and the bravest in the world. Fighter pilots have to be in top physical and mental shape. Able to undergo hundreds, even thousands of hours of intense training. You have to be willing to risk your life every day. At one point, something like one out of four pilots were killed while testing experimental aircraft. Think of the incredible sacrifice that requires, of both the pilot, and his family. These were all young men, in their 20s, or early 30s, for the most part. Almost all of whom had wives and children staying with them on base during their flights. All while being paid a military wage, which was not that much. This was a special group of people who did extraordinary things.
It would be impossible to run through everything Wolfe covers in this nonfiction novel. But there were definitely a few anecdotes and stories I found interesting.
Going back to Chuck Yeager. Did you know he broke the sound barrier with two broken ribs after a night of heavy drinking and horseback riding? Yes, horseback riding. See, Wolfe describes a culture of Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving that every pilot was generally expected to live up to, if they wanted to demonstrate that they had the right stuff. It wasn’t enough to do amazing things in the air. It was much better if you could do it on three hours sleep, loaded up with coffee, and maybe still sloshed from leaving the bar at three in the morning.
So, the night before Chuck Yeager was scheduled to attempt to break the sound barrier in the new X-1 at Muroc Army Base, which later became Edwards Air Force Base, he had gone out drinking with his wife, and at some point, decided to go horseback riding. Well, he got thrown from the horse when he crashed into a gate, and wound up with two broken ribs.
Now, having broken bones would obviously be a problem when flying in general. It was especially a problem considering the cockpit design of the X-1. The pilot had to secure the door to the cockpit from inside with his right arm, an almost impossible task for Yeager with his two broken ribs. So, he had a janitor named Sam secretly cut off nine inches from a broom handle so he could use it as leverage to properly shut the door.
I find this story really endearing, because it combines classic American recklessness with classic American ingenuity. America may blunder or fail sometimes, but it always seems to rise up to the occasion with some out of left field solution. Think of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, and how the NASA engineers and astronauts brilliantly Macgyvered their way out of that jam.
Another fascinating factoid Wolfe shares in The Right Stuff is the dangerousness and unreliability of the cockpit ejection system in the early, experimental aircraft. And this actually may still be the case now. But in the event of an imminent crash, a pilot was far from safe when they ejected from a doomed aircraft. And that was because when the seat ejected from the plane, it hit a “wall” of air that was almost like hitting a solid substance. Pilots lost limbs, joints, even had the skin torn from their faces. Some were even killed by the force of hitting the air wall itself. Remember, when you eject from an aircraft, you’re still traveling at the same speed, only you’re not protected from the air current as you are behind the thick glass of the cockpit. Ejection was actually so hazardous that most pilots simply chose to stay with the aircraft in the attempt to control or mitigate a possible crash, no matter how lost the cause appeared.
Imagine that for a second. You’re strapped to a giant rocket, basically, with your life in your hands. With no fail-safe. No secure, safe means of exiting in the event of a catastrophic failure, which happened a lot. At the time, there was something like a 56% that at some point a pilot would have to take their chances with ejection. Would you get into a car if you knew you had better than 50% odds of getting into an accident? Now think if you had to do that in a car where the air bag itself had a high chance of killing you. At least in the car example you’d be on the ground. But in the air, things can spiral into chaos really quickly. This is why only the best and brightest were allowed in experimental aircraft. It’s why pilots needed to have the right stuff.
I’ll leave you with Tom Wolfe’s definition of the right stuff. He writes:
“The idea here 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…and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to God.”
My novel Nemesis is now available on Amazon.