The Right Stuff: Illustrated, by Tom Wolfe
No month stated, 2004 Black Dog & Leventhal
Many years ago I was obsessed with “New Journalism,” ie that genre of journalism that brought elements of fiction to nonfiction. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was my introduction; I picked up a paperback edition of it in 1998 and read it at work, and really enjoyed it. From there I picked up more of Wolfe’s books, including his The New Journalism anthology of other writers. And of course Hunter Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was another of my favorites; I even sought out obscure stuff like Joe Ezsterhas’s Nark, culled like Thompson’s book from the pages of Rolling Stone, but not nearly as frenetic.
Well anyway, despite my obsession I still never picked up The Right Stuff, which arguably was Wolfe’s most famous piece of New Journalism. Hell, I’d never even seen the movie. I was certainly aware of both the book and the film, though, but neither captured my interest because I knew the story concerned the earliest days of the Space Race. In fact, I was under the impression that the majority of The Right Stuff wasn’t even about space, but about the fighter jocks who preceded the entire space program. I’ve always been interested in space subjects, but I preferred something later, at least the Gemini era, so I just never sought out The Right Stuff.
This of course has turned out to be my mistake, as the book is just as great as its legend would have you believe. And also, while it does focus on the early years of the Space Race, The Right Stuff only slightly focuses on the fighter jocks of the ‘40s and ‘50s. I finally got around to watching the film before I read the book, and the film is misleading in this regard; the film puts a lot more focus on Chuck Yeager and the test pilot program than the book itself does. As it turns out, the test pilot material is only at the beginning of the book, after which we get into the meat of the story: the training and eventual missions of the Mercury Seven, ie the seven military pilots who were ultimately chosen to be the first Americans in space. Yeager disappears throughout the majority of this, only to return in a gripping final chapter.
Speaking of Rolling Stone, The Right Stuff started as an assignment Wolfe wrote for the magazine, which was published as “Post-Orbital Remorse.” You’ll often read that this piece was transformed into The Right Stuff, but now that I’ve read both I can tell you that hardly any of “Post-Orbital Remorse” is in The Right Stuff. For one, that earlier piece is written in an entirely different tone, with Wolfe himself the audience of the “collective voice of the astronauts,” and many of the stories concern Apollo missions. None of this is in The Right Stuff; Wolfe does not appear, and there is no collective astronaut voice. In fact it is told very much like a novel, only one with the typically hyperkinetic Tom Wolfe narrative style. And also there is absolutely no foreshadowing to the Apollo era; it is almost a real-time documentation of the period in which it is set, namely the late 1950s through the early 1960s.
It's kind of suprising that The Right Stuff was such a hit. Maybe it’s because the book isn’t like your typical dry piece of nonfiction. Wolfe has clearly done his research, and met with many of the astronauts and their wives, but his usual tendency for exaggeration is in place, and there are no footnotes or anything to provide further details. But then those dry nonfiction books don’t feature grand setpieces like Wolfe delivers throughout the novel, many of which are courtesy his own gifted imagination. Take for example the flight of Ham, a chimp who was trained rigorously to handle a sub-orbital flight before an actual human (Alan Shepard) was sent up. This entire sequence of Ham being sent up is gripping and hilarious – and it’s entirely from the perspective of Ham himself. His thoughts and feelings and fears, up to the laugh out loud moment at the end where he’s taken out to the press pool to be photographed and thinks these photographers are more humans who are going to strap him up and put him through more grueling tests (“Fuck this!”). It’s some incredbile writing for sure, but obviously there’s no way anyone could know what Ham was thinking during the mission; it’s all Wolfe’s imagination, and it’s a lot of fun. Just one wonderful sequence in a book chock full of them.
It’s my understanding that most of the astronauts themselves appreciated The Right Stuff (though hardly any of them liked the movie), save for one thing: Wolfe’s character assassination of Virgil “Gus” Grissom. In a sequence that still sets the purists off, Wolfe has it that Grissom “screwed the pooch” upon the return from his own suborbital flight, accidentally hitting the escape button and ultimately losing his own capsule, which sunk in the ocean. Wolfe builds up several charges in his case: Grissom was loaded down with coins and such that he wanted to take on his ride and sell later, and also he likely stood up to take the survival knife mounted inside the capsule as another souvenier – and it was mounted right beside the escape switch. Grissom died in the Apollo 1 disaster of 1967, so wasn’t around to defend his case when this book was published years later. However even in his own day he was exonerated: fellow Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra did in fact hit the escape switch, and it hurt like hell, leaving a bruise on his hand. There was no such bruising on Grissom. Wolfe doesn’t mention any of this; reading the book you get the impression that Gus Grissom was a screwup.
I thought about this for a while, and finally I think I figured out what was going on. There was a reason, I felt, that Wolfe was overlooking all this and making Gus Grissom look like a bad guy. And that reason, I’m sure, is that Wolfe himself just didn’t like Gus. In the book Wolfe skillfully paints a portrait of each of the astronauts, and Grissom’s isn’t very flattering: he’s never home, he’s always ditching his wife and kids (even when they’re just a few miles away), and he’s kind of slow-witted. Wolfe also develops the theme that there is a rivalry within the Mercury Seven: on the one side there’s Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, and Gordon Cooper, and on the other side there’s John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. The rivalry mostly begins over “cookies,” ie the groupies who would flock around the astronauts. While the other astronauts thought this was just a fun perk, Glenn and Carpenter were sort of against the idea.
Now, a curious thing about The Right Stuff is that the tone in it is very pro-American, very much what one might today deem “reactionary.” This is very surprising, given that it’s courtesy a Rolling Stone contributor. It becomes clear that Wolfe himself is on the side of Glenn and Carpenter. This is most obviously demonstrated because he keeps referring to Carpenter as “Scott” in the narrative. Whereas the other astronauts are generally referred to by their last names – and Wolfe lacks consistency in this, which is kind of messy and should have been caught in the editing stage – Wolfe will usually just refer to Carpenter by his first name. This actually took me out of the narrative the first few times; I’d be reading about “Shepard” and “Glenn” and then I’d see “Scott,” and I’d have to pause and wonder, “Wait, which one was named Scott? Oh – Scott Carpenter!”
One of the people Wolfe talked to during his research was Rene Carpenter, Scott Carpenter’s wife; I know this because you hear a bit of their 1973 interview in the 2020 documentary The Real Right Stuff. Rene and Scott were divorced at the time of the interview, but I’m under the impression that Wolfe also talked to Scott Carpenter, and found himself liking the former couple. Thus, both Scott and Rene come off very well in The Right Stuff. Scott Carpenter in particular is presented as the “explorer of the new frontier” that none of the other Mercury astronauts were, using his mission to investigate and relate back on his findings, often ignoring his real objectives – even up to the point that he ran out of fuel and was nearly lost in the return to Earth. Due to this he so pissed off the higher ups at NASA that Scott Carpenter never went into space again. And, Wolfe implies, this “ban from space” was also courtesy the rival click of astronauts, who went out of their way to imply that Grissom’s mission, despite the loss of the friggin’ capsule, was a success and Carpenter’s was a failure.
But Wolfe builds up the case that Scott Carpenter was actually a superior astronaut to Gus Grissom: his heart rate and blood pressure never skyrocketed, even during the shaky return to Earth. Meanwhile, Grissom’s was soaring in all the tense spots. But the Shepard-Grissom-Slayton-Schirra-Cooper click was against Carpenter and Glenn. They couldn’t do anything about Glenn, who’d driven them nuts with his goody-goody nature during training; his orbital flight made him a hero, second only to the President in the unofficial power structure. But Carpenter wasn’t as famous, and Wolfe makes it clear that he was the sacrificial lamb that made Grissom look good; while Carpenter was drummed out of the program, despite having all the “right stuff,” Grissom was allowed to stay on, despite losing his capsule and not displaying the right stuff (ie the racing heart rate and soaring blood pressure). All this of course might not be a reflection of reality; I’m just going into it all to offer an explanation on why Tom Wolfe made Gus Grissom look so bad in The Right Stuff. It’s because he liked Scott Carpenter, and resented that Carpenter suffered for a “failure” while Grissom didn’t.
Regardless, this is a great book. It’s history made exciting. There are so many memorable moments, from the bizarre and hilarious training the pilots go through as part of the astronaut selection to the indidivual trips each takes into space. Alan Shepard, the first American in space, features in a bravura sequence where Wolfe, again in Shepard’s thoughts and feelings more so than “standard” nonfiction would dare to go, relates that it’s all sort of underwhelming…at least when compared to the training sequences! The John Glenn launch, orbit, and ensuing fanfare is also great, and the patriotism here, the love for the “single-combat warrior,” was so palpable that I felt myself almost getting as misty-eyed as the tough New York cops who wept openly during Glenn’s parade through the city. What’s interesting about the book is that it’s not hero-worship of the type Life doled out during the era itself…and yet it’s clear that Wolfe himself has immense respect for these men, and there’s none of the sting or satire he’d bring to previous subjects. Even Gus Grissom, all told, is presented in a fairly heroic lot, despite Wolfe’s clear intimation that he screwed the pooch.
The story goes that Wolfe spent some years working on The Right Stuff; actually per an interview he did with Rolling Stone in 1980, Wolfe spent six years researching but only a few months writing, with more time taken to edit. His original goal was to cover the entire Space Race, from the era documented here in The Right Stuff all the way through the mid-‘70s Skylab missions. But, again so the story goes, by the time Wolfe finally finished The Right Stuff, his wife told him, “Congratulations, you’ve finished the book,” and Wolfe decided that he’d just let this be it and not spend more time on the rest of the program. You’d have to think, though, that at least at some point over the years Wolfe must’ve thought about returning to this topic. I mean The Right Stuff was published in 1979 and Wolfe died in 2018; that’s nearly 40 years in which he had the opportunity to revisit the subject and give us a sequel to The Right Stuff.
Perhaps the book’s fame gave him pause; maybe he felt that whatever he wrote would always be considered in the shadow of The Right Stuff. Or maybe he just lost interest. Whatever the reason, it’s literature’s loss that Tom Wolfe never wrote the epic he originally envisioned. Who knows how great some multi-volume work might have been, with The Right Stuff merely the first installment. There are bits and pieces throughout that indicate Wolfe originally planned the book as just the first part of his chronicle; for example, the first lead character we meet is Pete Conrad, a test pilot with an awesome sense of humor who tries out for the program but ultimately isn’t chosen – no doubt due to that time he took his colostomy bag into the general’s office and complained about all the intrusive tests that were part of the selection process. Conrad then disappears from the book, only to appear again toward the very end, as one of the “New Nine” astronauts who have been chosen for the Gemini program. Conrad would’ve been a bigger character in ensuing volumes, as he commanded the Apollo 12 mission to the moon. None of this is even intimated in The Right Stuff, and it seems clear that it’s because Wolfe figured he’d document it in the next volume.
Then there’s Alan Shepard, one of the main figures in The Right Stuff. We only learn toward the end that an ear issue takes him out of the program, but again there’s no intimation that within a few years he would return to the fold, and ultimately go to the moon himself. For that matter, Neil Armstrong is barely a presence in the book; first we have a random mention of a pilot seat at Edwards Air Force Base with “N. Amrstrong” on it, and then much later in the book he too is casually mentioned as one of the New Nine. And while Wolfe never states that Amrstrong will be the first on the moon, he does try to compare him unfavorably to Chuck Yeager. Personally I’d say Armstrong, with his war record and test pilot skills, had more of “the right stuff” than any of the other pilots in the book. But Wolfe details a sequence where Armstrong, who has a tendency to rely on data and thus represents “the new breed” of test pilot, comes off poorly compared to flying vet Yeager: Armstrong wants to do a trial run on a certain river bed, which per the reports should be dry enough to land on, but Yeager insists, through nothing more than his own experience, that the river bed won’t be dry enough. And sure enough he’s proven correct, with the two of them stuck in the mud. One can almost hear the goofy “wah-wah-waaaah” on the soundtrack.
So then “Post-Orbital Remorse” is the sequel to The Right Stuff that we never got. It’s a heck of a lot shorter, and some of it is a retread of material mentioned in The Right Stuff, but it also features a lot of stuff on later Apollo missions, up to and even including Edgar Mitchell’s ESP experiments on Apollo 14. Mitchell isn’t even mentioned in The Right Stuff, yet in “Post-Orbital Remorse” we’re informed he has “the Rightest Stuff of all,” with a war and test pilot record that outdid anyone’s…despite which he turned out to be the most “unusual” of all the astronauts, performing ESP tests with collagues back on Earth. Mitchell isn’t in The Right Stuff, but given the focus on him in “Post-Orbital Remorse” one can only assume he would’ve had a bigger role in the sequel(s) Wolfe unfortunately never wrote.
What’s curious is that “Post-Orbital Remorse” has never been reprinted. You’d think at least one of the innumerable editions of The Right Stuff would feature it as an appendix, but as far as I know none of them have. It hasn’t even appeared in a Wolfe anthology to my knowledge. But as I mentioned in the link above, you can actually download a PDF of the entire article here, and it’s highly recommended reading for anyone who enjoyed The Right Stuff. It covers some of the same Mercury Seven material (though not as elaborate or comprehensive), but it also dwells on the actual flights to the moon and the experiences the astronauts went through on the lunar surface and upon their return home. I’m of the opinion that Wolfe would’ve titled his sequel (or at least the Apollo volume, if he was indeed going to do a separate volume on Gemini) “Post-Orbital Remorse,” but that’s just my suspicion. Wolfe talked to several of the astronauts and other NASA people for his research, so who knows what other stories he had set aside for future volumes; given that Pete Conrad supplied him with so much of the early section of The Right Stuff, I can only imagine what other similarly-ribald stuff Conrad might’ve divulged about the Gemini and Apollo eras.
Given the fame of The Right Stuff, I’ll end my usual overly-comprehensive rundown and focus instead on this particular edition. This summer I picked up Moonfire, a Taschen Books abridgement of Norman Mailer’s Of A Fire On The Moon that was, in typical Taschen style, stuffed to the gills with photography. I went on the hunt for something similar, and discovered this obscure “illustrated” edition of The Right Stuff. I say obscure because I could hardly find anything out about it; there are about a zillion reviews of The Right Stuff online, but none for this particular edition. I wanted something that would be a feast for the eyes as Moonfire had been, and thus finally decided to give The Right Stuff a read. Luckily this illustrated edition can be found relatively inexpensive online.
In a nutshell, The Right Stuff: Illustrated is the reverse of Taschen’s Moonfire: the narrative is incredible but the photos are subpar. No disrespect to those at Black Dog & Leventhal who put this book together, but this illustrated edition is somewhat of a missed opportunity. Whreas Moonfire contains dazzling full-color photos, mostly taken from Life Magazine, The Right Stuff: Illustrated is mainly comrpised of black and white shots, hardly any of them displaying the artistic finesse of those Life shots. And for that matter, Life featured a ton of photos of the Mercury Seven astronauts and their training, the majority of them taken by gifted photographer Ralph Morse, and any number of them would’ve been perfect for this book. And yet, hardly any of them are here. Indeed, you will find better full-color photos of the Mercury Seven era in Moonfire, even though the Mercury Seven astronauts are not the focus of that book. On the other hand, the shots here do the job and provide photographic documentation of the people, places, and things discussed in the book. And also, at least the publishers didn’t put photos over two pages so that the spine would jack up the image, as Taschen did.
So far as other production issues go with The Right Stuff: Illustrated, it’s worth mentioning that there are occasional typos in the book. Otherwise, the narrative is printed on double-columned pages; The Right Stuff is longer than I thought it would be, coming in at 304 pages of dense, double-columned print. I took my time reading the book; each morning I’d get up with my kid, give him his breakfast, and sit on the couch and read a few pages while he played. He’d come over and look at the book occasionally; he got a big kick out of the photo of Ham the astrochimp (below). That picture really cracked him up for some reason. I was sorry to see The Right Stuff come to an end, and wished someone out there had done a similar approach to the Gemini and/or Apollo eras, but it doesn’t look like anyone has. So in the end I decided on Andrew Chaikin’s well-regarded A Man On The Moon (1994) as my next Space Race book; it doesn’t appear to have the literary verve of The Right Stuff, but makes up for it by being a very comprehensive study of the Apollo missions. And, like Wolfe, Chaikin met with many (if not all) of the surviving Apollo astronauts as part of his research.
Now, on to some photos – these are just random examples of what you’ll find in The Right Stuff: Illustrated. While the photos themselves are somewhat lacking, at least when compared to the ones in Moonfire, the book itself is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read.