The Folio Society has released a special edition of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s famous book about the Mercury Seven astronauts. Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon provided a new introduction and also worked
… closely with Folio and illustrator Tavis Coburn on the visual look and feel of the book, which takes its cue from 1940s comic art and Soviet posters of the time. The illustrations portray the astronauts as Cold War heroes, and Coburn’s beautiful retro-futurist cover design perfectly captures the aesthetic and spirit of the early Space Age.
When The Right Stuff hit the bookstore shelves in 1979, two decades had passed since the famous press conference that introduced the Mercury Seven astronauts to the nation. Long gone was that Space Race era of the late 1950s and 1960s when astronauts and rocket launches were spotlighted in a never ending parade of front page newspapers articles and magazine cover stories. The 1970s certainly saw major space developments including the Apollo-Soyuz linkups in orbit, the construction of the Space Shuttles, deep space science missions, and a revolution in communications, especially the distribution of TV programming, by commercial satellites. For most of the public, though, space began to fade quickly from view after Apollo 11 and was almost completely out of sight by the late 70s. The press considered space passé and relegated most space news to back-page science and aerospace niche categories.
So it was quite a surprise to many, especially cognoscenti of American culture, that a writer of Wolfe‘s stature and hipness would do something as odd as write a book about astronauts. Those Space Race era articles had consistently portrayed astronauts as rugged paragons of courage and patriotism at work and faithful husbands and steadfast fathers at home. Such trite eulogies left the astros looking like dull NASA figureheads rather than full-blooded frontiersmen. And worse, at least from the astronauts’ perspective, many people believed the astronauts did not actually pilot their spaceships but rode passively in capsules directed by bow-tied, white-shirted, chain-smoking nerds in Mission Control.
Readers of The Right Stuff discovered that the astronauts were, in fact, complex 3-dimensional individuals with diverse personalities and backgrounds, often with private lives that crossed rather than toed lines of strict decorum and restraint. Most of the 60s astronaut corps came from the military test pilot world where death defying feats were daily duties and bar binges nightly rites.
Wolfe framed the Mercury Seven within that test pilot culture and its ethos of courage, deep technical know-how, and precise decision-making while under intense physical and mental stress. Proving you had the proverbial right stuff to handle any and every thing a fire-spewing capricious metal beast could hurl at you while far above the ground was the test pilot’s central goal in life.
Wolfe held up Chuck Yeager as the iconic aviator with the most righteous right stuff of all. Yeager had flown the first vehicle to break the sound barrier and was revered by his peers as one of the greatest pilots ever. The lack of a college degree disqualified him from the astronaut corps and he initially dismissed the astronaut’s role in space missions as nothing more than spam in a can. The Mercury Seven, however, proved him wrong when they successfully fought to expand their role in the operation of their space vehicles far beyond what the hardware designers had envisioned.
The Right Stuff is thus primarily a book about that test pilot world and not about conquering space. As someone who was a space cadet from his earliest years, the book highlighted for me the fact that most of the astronauts were not born and bred space enthusiasts. From their earliest years, they wanted to pilot the fastest and highest-flying planes, not settle Mars. Regardless of their lack of keen interest in humanity’s expansion into space, they were clearly the best-qualified candidates to take the first vehicles there. And, of course, many of the astronauts did eventually become strong public advocates for space exploration and development.
It’s great to see the Folio Society honor a great book like The Right Stuff. It’s an important book that should be read by anyone who wants to learn more about the beginnings of the Space Age and the magnificent men who flew the first space machines.