The Right Stuff

Cover of The Right Stuff.

The Right Stuff is what you need to be an absolutely bonkers guy, who thinks that a 23% likelihood of dying in an accident on the job (as a soldier, so excluding any combat deaths) sounds great and fun. It’s the story of fighter pilots, and how they became astronauts. Very journalistic in style, which meant both that it’s very entertaining, and feels mildly untrustworthy whenever the author likes or dislikes one of the protagonists overly much.


Even in 1970, pilots had that 23% chance of dying in a non-combat accident (and combat deaths were at a catastrophic high during that time, in Vietnam). The resulting culture glorified unflinching certainty in the face of death, bravery, but also: alcohol, fast cars, avoiding or tricking doctors (who could ground you, possibly permanently, even for a thing like fallen arches), all kinds of idiocy. If a doctor told the group that pilots should never fly without a solid breakfast to keep their blood sugar up, the next day everybody would drink just a black coffee before their flight. Yup.

Everybody who didn’t stick around, who either flunked out, or decided to fly slower transport planes instead of fighter jets, was implicitly less worthy. Implicit rank was everything, and was established with the traditional means of big talk, hassling and racing, and idiotic stunts (like never, ever, calling in an emergency). Twelve hour drinking tours with dangerous flights the next morning, drunk driving – Wolfe paints a perfect picture of the idiocy of the young and immortal.

All this is established tradition at the point the story really starts, and we get to see a bit of where the tradition comes from – the old guard, like Chuck Yeager. Mostly him, actually. Breaking speed records with two broken ribs out of sheer ego? Check. Lots of rivalry between the selected astronauts and the test pilots they used to be, with plenty of internal and external backstabbing (via the press): are astronauts national heroes or test subjects? The fight included wordings like “capsule” (passive, bad) vs “spacecraft” (active, heroic), and the redesign of the capsule so that it included real windows instead of just tiny portholes and periscopes. Or manual control, even, which wasn’t initially meant to be included. Even more outrageously, they demanded to be able to open the hatch themselves from the inside! (All this with time pressure, political pressure, budget pressure.)

We also get to see the realities of the press campaigns, of the individuals involved and their backstabbing and maneuvering, their home finances, their sudden fame, and so on. To be honest, of the seven, I lost track of the ones Wolfe clearly thought less important. He draws a beautiful background for everyone: family, faith, youth, and so on: but some are too similar, too eh. But the angling for the spot on the first flight and the handling of mistakes and tensions definitely triggered my gossip nerve, so I read it all. Presidents pressuring house wives for joint press appearances to make themselves look good? Yeah, that’s the Right Stuff.

I’d love to read a similar book for the early Soviet space program.