Wednesday, May 16, 2018
The Right Stuff Paperback – March 4, 2008 by Tom Wolfe (Picador), a review by Stpehen Darori (#stephendarori@stephendarori), The Bard of Bat Yam (#BardOfBatYam), Poet Laureate Of Zion (#PoetLaureateOfZion)
The Right Stuff' is 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. . .any fool could do that. . . . No, the idea. . .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 to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day. . . . There was a seemingly infinite series of tests. . .a dizzy progression of steps and ledges. . .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."
Until now, Tom Wolfe's biggest writing problem has been to find the proper marriage between his subjects and his witty, hyperbolic, shotgun style. When Wolfe was good--as in "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" (1965) and "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" (1968)--he was very, very good. But when he was bad, he was. . .well, accused of attacking "tinsel with an axe" or of using "a two-ton wrecking ball to swat a vestigial winged fly." Still, Wolfe always took risks, he was never boring, and if at times he seemed almost to parody himself, that was part of the danger inherent in his style.
Occasionally, however, Subject-Style-Risk fell together just right. When that happened in the 45-line sentence about an attack jet being catapult-launched from an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam in "Jousting With Sam & Charlie," the result was one of the best bits of reportage to come out of the war. There was something magical about that piece. Now Tom Wolfe has written a book about Project Mercury, America's first manned space program, and about the test pilots from whom the Mercury seven, the original seven astronauts, were chosen. It is Tom Wolfe at his very best, better in fact than he's been before. It is technically accurate, learned, cheeky, risky, touching, tough, compassionate, nostalgic, worshipful, jingoistic--it is superb.
We have always felt that the sky was America's special domain. Where we led, all other nations followed; that is, until October 4, 1957, the day Russia's 184-pound Sputnik 1 became the world's first artificial satellite. Its thin, otherworldly beep-beep-beep demonstrated so advanced a state of Soviet space technology that it precipitated disbelief and panic in the American people, who had not thought the Soviet Union possessed either the capability or the expertise to put a satellite in orbit. As Wolfe notes: "The panic reached far beyond the relatively sane concern for tactical weaponry, however. Sputnik 1 took on a magical dimension. . . . It seemed to dredge up primordial superstitions about the influence of heavenly bodies. . . . Nothing less than control of the heavens was at stake. It was Armageddon, the final and decisive battle of the forces of good and evil. . . . The New York Times, in an editorial, said the United States was now in a 'Race for survival.' The panic became more apocalyptic. Nothing short of doom awaited the loser, now that the battle had begun." The next month, the Russians launched Sputnik 2, a 1,121 pound satellite carrying a dog.
The first American satellite, Vanguard 1, a 3.3-pound, grapefruit-size ball, was prepared for launch a month after Sputnik 2. On December 6, 1957, the countdown was carried live on network television. There was ignition, and then, as Wolfe writes, "a mighty surge of noise and flames. The rocket lifts--some six inches. The first stage, bloated with fuel, explodes and the rest of the rocket sinks into the sand beside the launch platform. It appears to sink very slowly, like a fat old man collapsing into a Barcalounger. The sight is absolutely ludicrous. . . . This picture --the big buildup, the dramatic countdown, followed by the exploding cigar--was unforgettable. It became the image of the space program. The press broke into a hideous cackle of national self- loathing, with the headline KAPUTNIK! being the most inspired rendition of the mood."
The inevitable consequence of this was the determination to beat the Russians in the race to put the first man in space. And the most logical place to look for men with the kind of experience and credentials that future astronauts would need was among the ranks of practicing military test pilots. There was just one hitch: the very best test pilots, the true Righteous Brothers, men like Chuck Yeager, Bob White, Scott Crossfield, Joe Walker and Ivan Kincheloe (before he was killed ejecting from a F-104 at 50 feet), had no interest in Project Mercury. These men were pilots. Anyone chosen for Project Mercury would be only a passenger. He wouldn't have control of the capsule (it wasn't even called a ship!). He wouldn't take it up, direct its flight or bring it down. The entire problem of control was to be taken care of automatically on the ground. "The human cannonball approach," Wolfe writes, "looked like a Larry Lightbulb scheme, and it gave off the funk of panic. Any pilot who went into it would no longer be a pilot. He would be a laboratory animal wired up from skull to rectum with sensors." Among the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base the Mercury project became known as "Spam in a Can." And when word got out that the first flight was to be made by a monkey!
But something was going on that the test pilots couldn't quite understand. The first Mercury astronauts--Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Al Shepard and Deke Slayton--were being hailed as heroes before they'd even flown. Everybody was treating them as if they were the first men to ride rockets. Yeager (who had become, on October 14, 1947, the first man to exceed the speed of sound when he flew the rocket-powered Bell X-1 "Glamorous Glennis" at 700 miles per hour at 43,000 feet) had flown rocket-powered aircraft more than 40 times. Fifteen other test pilots had flown the X-series rocket planes, too. These men were highly skilled aerospace professionals and not the reckless, high-guts-to-low-brains ratio, "just show me where the stick is and I'll fly it" characters depicted in Hollywood movies.
The month after the Mercury seven were introduced to the press, Scott Crossfield would begin testing the X-15, a big, black brute of a machine designed to span the gap between manned flight in the atmosphere and space. Three X-15's would be built. They would become the first aircraft to fly four, five and six times the speed of sound and would reach an altitude of 67 miles--17 miles into "space." X-15's completed 199 research flights, which produced at least 700 technical documents, an amount equivalent to the number generated by a typical 4,000-man Federal research center in two years.
Crossfield was the inheritor of Yeager's mantle, "the most righteous of all the possessors of the Right Stuff." But the press all but ignored him. What was going on? As Wolfe writes, "Here at mighty Edwards [Air Force base] itself the boys could feel the earth trembling. A great sliding of the templates was taking place inside the invisible pyramid. You could feel the old terrain crumbling, and. . .seven rookies were somehow being installed as the hottest numbers in flying--and they hadn't done a goddamned thing yet but turn up at a press conference!
Where Wolfe's book excels is in his understanding of the astronauts' inner drive. They were painfully aware of the attitude held by their peers in the test-pilot pyramid: A monkey's going to make the first flight. (Incidentally, Wolfe's depiction of the monkeys' understandable outrage at their trainers is marvelously funny.) The conflict between the scientist/engineers and the astronaut/guinea pigs arose from the seven Mercury astronauts' determination to retain their self-esteem--an esteem not shared by scientists and engineers attending a National Research Council conference on "The Training of Astronauts" at Woods Hole, Mass., who would speak of the "fully automated" Mercury capsule in which "the astronaut has been added to the system as a redundant component."
The astronaut miffed the engineers and scientists by continually trying to alter the experiments. They insisted that the capsule be called a "spacecraft" in all news releases, that it have a window, a hatch that could be opened from the inside (just like on a real flying machine); they began to dismiss or reject a number of the experiments in which they were being asked to take part, and then they began to insist on being able to control the rocket manually--the one sure way of combating the recurrent monkey-taunt.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration finally capitulated, because they had come to realize that from a political and public-relations point of view the astronauts were NASA'S ticket to continued funding. NASA had presented them as great pilots; pilots controlled their craft. The astronauts had the power of Time Inc. behind them (and a contract providing each of them with $24,000 a year for three years--a figure twice as large as they received with base pay, flight pay, housing and subsistence allowances combined) Wolfe notes in a fascinating aside that when on September 21, 1959 a cover story on the astronauts' wives appeared in Life magazine, the women hardly recognized one another: "Life had retouched the faces of all of them practically down to the bone. Every suggestion of a hickie, a furze of mustache, a bag, a bump, a rogue cells of hair had disappeared. "
Wolfe compares the instant hero status that the press bestowed on these first seven astronauts--before they had even entered the Mercury capsule--to the adulation given as far back as the pre-Christian era to certain men who had been chosen to represent their nation in "single combat." The Mercury astronauts were American Davids who had volunteered to slay the Soviet Goliath--volunteering despite the fact that our metaphorical slingshots kept blowing up. Still, no one was prepared for the reverence, the homage paid these men when they returned from space: they were gods and, in a wonderful phrase, Wolfe describes how the faces of all those who looked upon them had "that glistening look."
The first American to elicit that response was Navy Commander Alan B. Shepard Jr. who, on May 5, 1961, rode his Mercury capsule atop a Redstone rocket 536 miles downrange for 15 minutes, 22 seconds. However, 19 days earlier, in a Vostok capsule, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had completely orbited the earth. John Glenn, the first American in orbit, would not make his flight aboard his capsule until February 20, 1962, ten months after Gagarin. And the errors continued. There was the accidental sinking of Gus Grissom's sub-orbital Liberty Bell 7 on July 21, 1961 and Scott Carpenter's waste of fuel during his one orbit on May 24, 1962.
If these mistakes made the NASA engineers seethe, they seethed in private. The astronauts had won their battle for pilot status within NASA, but they still had their test pilot peers to contend with. It wasn't until the sixth and final shot of the Mercury series, Gordon Cooper's 22-orbit flight on May 15, 1963, that an astronaut showed his fellow pyramid-climbers that he too had "the pure and righteous stuff." The automatic control system shorted out, an oxygen imbalance arose both in Cooper's suit and in the capsule itself, and everyone in ground control was in a panic because Cooper would have to bring it down by hand and eye. He brought the damaged capsule down to a pinpoint landing less than four miles from his recovery ship.
On September 28, 1963, the seven Mercury Astronauts traveled to Los Angeles to attend the awards banquet of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. There Dorothy Kincheloe presented them with the Ivan C. Kincheloe Award named after her late husband. The Kincheloe Award "for outstanding professional performance in the conduct of flight testing" was the Big One within the fraternity. The Mercury seven "now had the one thing that had been denied them for years while the rest of the nation worshipped them so unquestioningly: the acceptance by their peers, their true brethren, as test pilots of the space age, deserving occupants of the top of the pyramid of the right stuff."
In Wolfe's previous books his posture was that of the skeptical outsider, the suave, somewhat distant and critical observer, content to move among his subjects with a slightly mocking smile. In "The Right Stuff" this pose has all but disappeared because Wolfe so obviously admires the test pilots and astronauts he encountered. For once he has taken a positive stance. But unlike the airbrushed portraits in the Life magazine articles and in the astronauts' own self-serving autobiographies, Wolfe's depiction of these intensely competitive men--who worried more about making a pilot error than that their rockets might explode, and who were more concerned about the respect of their peers than the adulation of the public--makes the Mercury seven more human, while in no way diminishing our admiration for their courage. Furthermore, Wolfe's voice, his mÈlange of technical jargon, test pilot shop-talk and whiz-bang hyperbole, is the perfect foil for the cool, laconic West Virginia drawl of those True Brothers in the cockpit.
Off and on during the last few years I would hear that Tom Wolfe was having difficulties with this book, that he had finished three others since beginning work on this one. But he had the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness to keep going back. He had the right stuff.