The Right Stuff
Tom Wolfe
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Buy *The Right Stuff* by Tom Wolfe online

The Right Stuff
Tom Wolfe
448 pages
March 2008
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe is the quintessential book on the early American space program. Period. If you are interested in learning more about this era but only want to spend time reading one book on the subject, The Right Stuff is it. While that seems like a broad generalization, it is actually a fairly non-controversial statement. At this point, most people agree that Wolfe’s book covering the beginnings of the Mercury space program is the definitive work on the early development of NASA and American heroism in general.

It is difficult to say what The Right Stuff is actually about. In some ways, it is about test pilots. In others, it is about the space program. The aspect that makes it difficult to say for sure is the fact that the epic is written from several different perspectives. It starts out from the perspective of a test pilot’s wife. It follows the sheer terror of Jane Conrad, wife of astronaut Pete Conrad, Jr., as she struggles with the fear that her husband has been killed in a plane crash. It is eye-opening and utterly poignant; in one short chapter, Wolfe manages to convey the utter horror of a perspective that is not often explored in books such as this.

After Jane Conrad, the book moves to the story of Chuck Yeager as he embarks on the struggle to break the sound barrier and achieve the speed of Mach 1. While that doesn’t seem like much a feat now, back then, some scientists were convinced that Mach 1 was a wall: it couldn’t be broken. Yeager’s exploits add some color to the tale and also give the reader the view of a test pilot, invaluable when the perspective shifts again to the Mercury 7 astronauts: Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, and Gordo Cooper. Wolfe makes it easier to understand why the space program was such an annoyance for these great men at the beginning; after pushing the limits of speed and putting their lives on the line on a daily basis, doing a job a chimpanzee could (and did) do has its frustrations.

The Right Stuff is technically and historically accurate; however, Wolfe does inject some of his personal opinions into the tale, which is difficult at best. For example, there is the dicey case of Gus Grissom and the Liberty Bell 7. Upon splashdown, astronauts were required to proceed through a checklist and wait until they received word that a helicopter had locked onto their capsule before blowing the hatch. This would prevent the capsule from sinking, a loss that would be a huge blow to NASA this early in the game. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened to Gus. The hatch blew early, and the capsule sank. Afterwards, there were countless questions about whether Gus had panicked and blown the hatch early or the hatch had blown by accident, as Gus maintained. Wolfe makes it seem indisputable that Grissom panicked and he blew the hatch early. However, a review board at NASA found that this was not the case. Gus Grissom was cleared of any wrongdoing and was allowed to fly again. (Incidentally, if he had not been cleared, he most likely would not have been allowed to fly again, like Scott Carpenter. As it was, Grissom was the first astronaut asked to fly three times – Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. He would have done so, had it not been for the tragic Apollo One fire that took his life.) Deke Slayton mentions this discrepancy as his only issue with Wolfe’s The Right Stuff in his autobiography.

The Right Stuff is, at its core, a tale of American heroes. It tells the story of seven ordinary men who were asked to become the extraordinary; they became shining beacons of hope in the space race with the Russians, a race in which the Russians always seemed one step ahead. Wolfe’s novel takes the reader on an epic journey to a time when space travel wasn’t a given, and when we saw seven men as heroes for volunteering to be shot into space on rockets that always seemed to blow up.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Swapna Krishna, 2008

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