"The Right Stuff"
by Tom Wolfe
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 27th September 2011Tom Wolfe’s book about the US navy test pilots and the part they played in the Mercury space missions - which launched the first Americans into space as part of the cold war "space race" against the Soviet Union - is arguably a modern classic.
Focusing less on the technical details (though there are plenty of those) and more on the personalities and motivations of the first US astronauts (the so-called "Mercury Seven"), it sets these against broader political and social contexts (in which "winning" the race against the Russians - who had already successfully launched satellites like Sputnik - became a matter not just of national pride but of national survival) and the astronauts’ own peers - the hidden world of the test pilots who prided themselves on having the eponymous "right stuff": a mixture of talent, skill, cool-headedness and luck which separated the best pilots from the also-rans. Wolfe contrasts the seat-of-their-pants heroics of men like Chuck Yeager who piloted jets to the edge of space, with the struggles of the Mercury astronauts to be recognised as pilots at all within a space program run by scientists and engineers: while the press, politicians and the public laud them as heroes, their test pilot peers see them as little more than "spam in a can".
The book is written with a wry sense of humour, and the way that he frames certain aspects of the story often made me laugh out loud. Wolfe’s telling of the story often seems to show the astronauts in a rather unflattering light (it surprised me to learn that they’d co-operated extensively in helping him write the book), though their motivations seem plausible and human and ultimately Wolfe makes them sympathetic in spite of their failings. In fact, reading this time the test pilots reminded me in many ways of a particular type of computer geek (another subculture in which a self-proclaimed elite see their skills as setting them apart from "civilians" who "don’t get it", as well as providing a way to measure themselves against their peers to see who has the most "right stuff").
I know people who didn’t enjoy this at all, finding the detail at times overwhelming. But to me on this third reading it was still as hugely entertaining, insightful and interesting as before.