Book Review: The Right Stuff

thmn55csl1Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1979) is both an intimate look into the lives of early American aviators as well as a thorough review of the development of NASA and U.S. space program. Fueled by a desire to know why astronauts were willing to take the risks they did, Wolfe is able to capture the fears of a post-WWII Cold War America by providing a thorough and harrowing examination of the lives of American pilots and those around them.

Even before the first few pages can be turned Wolfe has already introduced at least a dozen deaths from early test phases. His sweeping generalizations and at times casual recounting of the loss of lives can come off as callous and hardened. The pain felt by the wives and children is viewed through a long lens. For many of the wives the deaths are expected if not accepted as inevitable. For the pilots, it is due to mechanical error or human failing – he didn’t have the “right stuff” to come of out of that barrel roll or land safely with a stalled engine.

The Right Stuff weaves a tale that’s filled with sheer terror and an utter lack of regard for one’s life. It opens with Jane Conrad, wife of astronaut Pete Conrad Jr. and her struggles with the daily fear that any day her doorstep may be visited by the base’s chaplain. Following Conrad the book moves on to the story of Chuck Yeager who infamously broke the sound barrier, achieving the speed of Mach 1. At the time believed to be unreachable, Mach 1 may never have been broken if it wasn’t for Chuck’s dogged determination and outright refusal to give up and kowtow to the bureaucratic hesitancy that plagued much of the space and air programs at the time. When Chuck is passed over to be one of the first astronauts for a chimp, you can feel the heartbreak, frustration, and outrage that he must have experienced ten times over.

The book then moves on to the stories of the first Project Mercury astronauts starting in the late 1950s and running through the early 1960s. Dubbed the “Space Race”, Wolfe follows the American race to put a man into Earth’s orbit following the embarrassingly public launch of the first space satellite Sputnik by the Soviet Union. Riddled with mistakes, the space program is slow to start and Wolfe doesn’t mince words in his scathing critique of the process and heavy political jockeying that takes place.

Such an intimate look at one of the more defining moments of American history, The Right Stuff is rightly considered one of the more historically accurate books about the early achievements and misgivings of the U.S. NASA space program. Throughout the book Wolfe expertly adds personal touches by injecting some of his own opinions about the trials that many of the pilots endured. Based on extensive research and countless interviews of the test pilots, astronauts, and even their families and friends, Wolfe is able to get the closest answer to one of the long sought questions of “why?” Why did these pilots risk life, limb, mental sanity, emotional clarity, and even loss of love and family for just a brief moment of flying? What could be the reason or desire driving them?

Was it fame or fortune? Was it for the ladies and the free-flowing booze? No. It’s because they could – because they had the right stuff. And we should thank them for it every single day.