The Right Stuff

Posted in books, reviews at 10:00 pm by danvk

The Right StuffI found this review of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff from the start of this summer. It’s interesting for me to read this, because my attitudes toward manned space travel have evidently changed dramatically in the past six months. More on that in the review of my next book.

I finished reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff this afternoon, and I was completely blown away. I may very well be a sucker for anything space-related (I did read every book on it at the local library), but this book was different. It made me feel as though every other book I’d read on the space program was an historical artifact, something that reflected the opinions and attitudes of its time towards the space program. But Tom Wolfe was cutting right to the quick. He was exposing the rest of the press for what they were.. the “Victorian gent,” as he likes to call them, throwing the astronauts softballs in order to portray them as national heroes.

The really shocking things that came out of this book is just how easily the whole space program could have been different, and just how much power the media had over it all. It wasn’t clear at all in 1959/1960 whether the Mercury program was the place to be. The test pilots weren’t sure if the space program was just a path to glory, or a complete dead end. The X-15 program looked much more promising at first. But what really shifted things was the first three successful Mercury flights.. Shepherd, Grissom, Glenn. When the press turned the astronauts into national heros, there was no backing down from this route to space exploration. And the X-20 program, which would have sent piloted craft into orbit, was scratched. Scratched to the point that I’d never even HEARD of it.

The bits of the book where he talked about the chimps were absolutely fantastic. A very Tom Wolfe tone.

I wished that the book had continued past the Mercury program. It would have been completely appropriate for it to go until the end of the Apollo program, when the infamous budget cuts came around. I would have loved to hear Tom Wolfe’s take on that part of the whole space story. A little followup on what happened to the characters, too. I checked them all out on Wikipedia… most satisfying: Deke Slayton finally got to fly in space in 1975, Pete Conrad walked on the moon (Apollo 12), and so did Alan Shepherd (Apollo 14).

I’ve had about as much Tom Wolfe as I can take for at least the next month, but I’d love to read something else by him in the future.

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