46 pages 1 hour read

Tom Wolfe

The Right Stuff

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1979

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Summary and Study Guide


The Right Stuff is a lively account of the early American space program and its roots in the subculture of military test pilots that developed after World War II. Wolfe’s eclectic, wide-ranging narrative combines numerous elements: technological advancements in mid-20th-century flight; the generation of daring pilots who pushed innovations to their limits; and reflections on the moral, cultural, and political significance of the first astronauts at the height of the Cold War. Taken together, these components provide a unique, richly textured portrait of a major episode in modern American history.

The central protagonists of Wolfe’s narrative are the so-called Mercury Seven, the first astronauts NASA chose with the aim of sending a human being into space. The successes and setbacks of Project Mercury, from its inauguration in 1959 to its six missions in space from 1961 to 1963, form the core of The Right Stuff. The narrative closely acquaints the reader with each of the seven astronauts—their personalities, families, ambitions—as well as the disagreements among them as the space program becomes one of the focal points of American public life. For Wolfe, the Seven (briefly) achieve secular canonization through the public eye that is almost without parallel in American history. The benefits and challenges of this elevated status for the astronauts and their families (particularly their wives) provides the overarching narrative trajectory of Wolfe’s book.

Despite this clear emphasis on Project Mercury, Wolfe begins The Right Stuff with a look at the tradition of military test flight that preceded it. The key figure here is Chuck Yeager, the first pilot in the world to break the sound barrier of Mach 1 in 1947. Yeager, a World War II veteran, embodies what Wolfe calls “the right stuff”: the unspeakable, almost magical mixture of masculine courage and self-assurance in dangerous situations that makes for an ideal pilot. Situated mainly at Edwards Air Force Base (formerly Muroc Field) in the Mojave Desert of California, the novel vividly describes a singular milieu defined by young, heavy-drinking daredevils like Yeager.

While some of the Mercury Seven started their careers at Edwards, an abiding theme of The Right Stuff is the perception among true pilots like Yeager that an astronaut is little better than a “college-trained chimpanzee” who does not actually fly his spacecraft (154). Overcoming the skepticism of the test pilot community and propagating the image of an astronaut as a pilot with “the right stuff” is one of the major struggles experienced by the Seven. By the end of Project Mercury in 1963, Wolfe argues that the astronauts’ desire to be taken seriously by not just politicians and the public, but also by pilots such as Yeager, has come to fruition. The astronaut now represents the model of piloting; Yeager’s era has ended.

Wolfe concludes The Right Stuff with the claim that the Mercury Seven’s bright star was fueled by temporary Cold War tensions that erupted upon the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into space by the Soviets in 1957. He therefore does not focus on the subsequent NASA projects (Gemini and Apollo) that would make Neil Armstrong the first person to reach the moon in 1969. The Right Stuff is thus a snapshot of a short but intense period of American history and the few people who made it.