Down to Earth


The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979, 436 pp., S12.95.

It has often been trumpeted that the many billions launched into NASA's orbit by the American taxpayers were well spent in terms of their economic fallout. Where would we have come up with Tang instant breakfast fluid or pacemaker technology if not for Mercury, Gemini and Apollo?

Well, just when the economists were chortling over such self-serving hogwash from the aerospace lobbyists, a miracle event has indeed proven an enormous windfall from the government's gold-plated crusade to land a man on the moon. Tom Wolfe has given us The Right Stuff.

It may well be that Wolfe would have chosen the very same moment to produce an equally enchanting piece of journalism even if the taxpayers had been allowed to pocket their space contributions. But this is not the time to argue but to enjoy.

Wolfe's book is a locker-room view of the astronaut fraternity, a 436-page dossier bringing the Mercury project down to earth. Wolfe's abilities with pen and paper have been noted before, of course, but his colorful reportage is not the only weapon he employs in his journalistic assaults. Just as devastating is his unsentimental perspective of America and its ruling class, that spineless group of dilettante idealists always yearning to help the poor and oppressed but never really willing to risk even venturing downtown to actually talk with them.

Wolfe has never been afraid to go downtown. Or to Cape Canaveral. To write about the astronauts, indeed, he must have done everything short of mounting himself upon a Titan II. But it's fine that he stopped there, because Wolfe's actual story is not about space but about earth. And the people who walk upon it.

He's enchanted with them. What must be the terror-stricken thoughts of the wife of an Air Force test pilot, a woman who knows all too well that one-third of her husband's classmates will find a coffin before they find their military pension? What are the unspoken words of the daredevils who take to uncharted altitudes with experimental instruments in aircraft never flown before? What supernatural force could take such hold of a Princeton graduate to make him want to push his flying machine to its very limits, to "outside of the envelope," when a few moments before he had been standing at his best buddy's flag-draped casket?

"The Right Stuff" is what makes these men and women push on, even when chased by supersonic fears. It is the unquenchable human desire to compete, to survive, and "to not be left behind" that propels Wolfe's subjects into the fires of fate, day after grueling day.

It's a delight to hear Tom Wolfe tell the story. Any one of his paragraphs, taken in isolation, shakes no trees. Twain or Poe might even make them look flat. But Wolfe talks about just what we want to know; he allows the story to suck us in and make us pant for more. We always do.

Like when we sit and listen to Wolfe's serenade on NASA's psychological testing of Mercury astronaut Pete Conrad:

In one test the interviewer gave each candidate a blank sheet of paper and asked him to study it and describe what he saw in it. There was no one right response in this sort of test, because it was designed to force the candidate to free-associate in order to see where his mind wandered. The test-wise pilot knew that the main thing was to stay on dry land and not go swimming. As they described with some relish later on in the BOQ, quite a few studied the sheet of paper and then looked the interviewer in the eye and said, "All I see is a blank sheet of paper." This was not a "correct" answer, since the shrinks probably made note of "inhibited imaginative capacity" or some goddamned thing, but neither did it get you in trouble. One man said, "I see a field of snow." Well, you might get away with that, as long as you didn't go any further…as long as you did not thereupon start ruminating about freezing to death or getting lost in the snow and running into bears or something of that sort. But Conrad…well, the man is sitting across the table from Conrad and gives him the sheet of paper and asks him to study it and tell him what he sees. Conrad stares at the piece of paper and then looks up at the man and says in a wary tone, as if he fears a trick: "But it's upside down."

This so startles the man, he actually leans across the table and looks at this absolutely blank sheet of paper to see if it's true—and only after he is draped across the table does he realize that he has been had. He looks at Conrad and smiles a smile of about 33 degrees Fahrenheit.

This was not the way to produce the Halo Effect.

But it is precisely the way in which Mr. Wolfe produces his own halo effect—in the eyes of his readers. The trick is to just tell the damned story and let the reader's own mind jump to the editorial comment. Such is the fabled "new journalism."

So what else do we want to know of the Mercury astronauts? Well, one interesting part is the way they became America's one-on-one Cold Warriors in the struggle with Russia. The Soviet success with Sputnik I plunged the great USA into a panic of self-doubt. While rocket launchings of unmanned American spacecraft televised live had actually shown our rockets "blowing up," the Communist giant was hurling masses of metal beyond the atmosphere at will. This was scary. "Surveys showed that people throughout the world looked upon the competition in launching space vehicles…as a preliminary contest proving final and irresistible power to destroy." How could this alien power, backward in economics and totalitarian in politics, be so far ahead? But ahead they were, the seeming unstoppable Goliath of high technology and modern central planning—a "mighty and mysterious Integral" of superior intellect and effectiveness.

The Mercury astronauts, seven brave men (John Glenn, Pete Conrad, Gus Grissom, Wally Shirra, Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper), became our last hope. America squeezed them. The very morning after being introduced to the nation's press—before a single manned launching—James Reston wrote about the NASA-sponsored press conference as a religious experience:

What made [the astronauts] so exciting was not that they said anything new but that they said all the old things with such fierce convictions.…They spoke of 'duty' and 'faith' and 'country' like Walt Whitman's pioneers.…This is a pretty cynical town, but nobody went away from these young men scoffing at their courage and idealism.

This was reassuring stuff for the space cadets to read in the New York Times, for their previous concern was that, as astronauts in computer-controlled "capsules," they would lose their place as bona fide test pilots. Several of the seven had only grudgingly accepted their NASA assignments out of fear for what it might do to their standing in the fraternity of test pilots, those fellows who really flew their own rockets. (You never saw a chimpanzee make a test flight in an X-1, by God!)

But the press went for broke on the seven from Canaveral. Let Mr. Wolfe explain:

It was as if the press in America, for all its vaunted independence, were a great colonial animal, an animal made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a single nervous system. In the late 1950s [as in the late 1970s] the animal seemed determined that in all matters of national importance the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone should be established and should prevail; and all information that muddied the tone and weakened the feeling should simply be thrown down the memory hole. In a later period this impulse of the animal would take the form of blazing indignation about corruption, abuses of power, and even minor ethical lapses, among public officials; here, in April of 1959, it took the form of a blazing patriotic passion for the seven test pilots who had volunteered to go into space. In either case, the animal's fundamental concern remained the same: the public, the populace, the citizenry, must be provided with the correct feelings! One might regard this animal as the consummate hypocritical Victorian gent. Sentiments that one scarcely gives a second thought to in one's private life are nevertheless insisted upon in all public utterances. (And this grave gent lives on in excellent health.)

It is with swashbuckling aplomb that Wolfe breaks the conventional journalistic straightjacket and brings the values of a civilized man's private life to public questions. Knifing the pretensions of Kennedy's Camelot; tattling John Glenn's directive to his fellow astronauts to cut out the screwing around and toe the Presbyterian line; or revealing the curse of Alan Shepard's bodily functions, which induced him to wet his space suit as tens of millions of his adoring countrymen sat pinned to the TVs wondering what great thoughts must have been pouring through his psyche at the fateful moment of the first lift-off, Wolfe wields a golden blade.

The Right Stuff is the Real Thing.

Tom Hazlett is a graduate student in economics at UCLA, a free-lance writer, and a REASON columnist.