The Right Stuff: Enormous Egos and Wristwatches to Match

Tom Wolfe’s 1979 novel about the Space Race (late ’50s-early ’60s) is a portrait of the test pilots who became the first astronauts. The film based on the book is an artistic rendering of history as myth.

Wolfe compares the Space Race to single combat in ancient warfare: rather than armies clashing in the field, a champion was chosen to represent each side. Whichever champion prevailed sealed a victory for his city or nation. (Think Achilles or Goliath). This was what the Americans and Soviets were doing with their astronauts, according to Wolfe.

Once the Americans got rolling, they were unstoppable. The first to reach the moon, they could have gone well beyond if the ambition of the space program wasn’t seriously scaled back. But in those early days the soviets had a head start.

Americans relied on bombers to deliver bombs, should a nuclear war become reality; but the Russians concentrated on cheaper unmanned missiles to compensate for their inferior aircraft technology/industry, and used their captured Nazi rocket scientists to get the jump on the Yanks. The US Air Force was already working on an aircraft that could break out of our atmosphere, but when Sputnik shot into orbit, all effort was redirected at catching up to the USSR’s capsule-launching method.

Wolfe’s character portraits of the first American “star voyagers” was both fascinating and hilarious. I’ve never forgotten his colorful expose` on the collective subconscious of the test pilots/astronauts, in particular. Like the ziggurat metaphor used to describe the egocentric construct of the unspoken hierarchy according to how much of the Right Stuff each individual thought he and his peers possessed.

The Mercury astronauts were alpha males to an almost comical degree. It’s rare in this world to get so many of them crowded together in one place. You’ll usually only find such groupings in elite military units or perhaps professional sports teams. The egos are huge, but also fragile. Deep down, each of these men feared getting left behind (not making the cut) at every stage of their climb up the ziggurat.

Except, probably, Chuck Yeager. This penultimate test pilot was never invited into the space program–possibly because he’d never been to college. (Sad to think of how many potential Yeagers who will never even get a chance to fly because of this snobbery.) But in both the book and the movie you get the impression that despite all the hype about “Spam in a can” (astronauts in capsules), he remains alone and unchallenged at the top of the ziggurat, with that heavenly light shining on his aloof indifference.

I wish the clip above included just a few seconds prior, when Yeager asks his buddy about the latest high altitude record. Nobody cares about that, his buddy informs him; it’s all about capsules and astronauts these days. After a pause, the undaunted Yeager looks at the test prototype jet and opines that it just might be capable of breaking the record. Next thing you know, he’s going through the Beeman’s chewing gum ritual with his comrade, and up he goes.

Anyway, the psychological insights are only dressing for the thorough investigative reporting Wolfe wove into an informative and entertaining inside story of an elite subculture in history.

For those who haven’t both read the book and seen the film, I encourage you to correct that. It’s not a case of one being better than the other; instead they compliment each other.

2 thoughts on “The Right Stuff: Enormous Egos and Wristwatches to Match”

  1. Great movie. I’m an astronaut/space nerd myself. Those original test pilots and later astronauts were some of the bravest, most intelligent and daring men to ever walk the Earth (or float above it). Nova just did an amazing episode profiling the elusive Neil Armstrong. He was a brilliant engineer and test pilot. Pure 100% alpha. Hell, he even got himself a trophy wife in his later years.

  2. I haven’t read much about the Apollo program, but I’m sure Armstrong was cut from the same cloth. Actually the book starts out describing the angst suffered by the wife of a test pilot who I think went on to be in the Apollo program. Pete somebody (I remember Wolfe calling him “the Hickory Kid”).
    Henry Brown recently posted…Triumph of the Alpha…er, SunMy Profile

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