The Hardy Boys in Outer Space
The astronauts of Project Mercury were brave laconic
THEIR NAMES BLUR in the memory now. Shepard, Glenn, Grissom, Slayton, Carpenter, Schirra, and Cooper - the chosen seven. But nearly everyone recalls those early flights, glimpsed in the grainy eye of television: the sudden great glowing blossom of flame that first separated the rocket from earth; the awful pause when it seemed to hang there, about to settle back down again; and then the final majestic lift straight skyward, often accompanied in the spectator by an embarrassing impulse to weep.
Led by Life magazine, which bought exclusive rights to Project Mercury's personal stories, and encouraged by the astronauts, who retained censorship power over the copy, America and the press soon turned the seven into something like "The Hardy Boys in Outer Space." Tom Wolfe has done far better. This is a book about heroes and hero worship and the need that Americans seem to have - Dickens remarked it with fear and loathing more than 100 years ago - to lionize (as well as paw at) famous people. It is also the best book yet, and probably the classiest one that could be written, about the choosing and training and launching and lionizing of the astronauts of the early 1960s. Wolfe's astronauts are human. They show flashes of satiric humor. Playing catch-up-to-the-Russians, they became the first Americans to slip the surly bonds of earth in intricate capsules. They returned, in Wolfe's words, as "Cold Warriors of the Heavens," surprised to find themselves objects of almost hysterical adulation. Most of all, they were driven by courage and raw ambition toward high achievement in an unofficial, ill-defined hierarchy that Wolfe calls "the Brotherhood of the Right Stuff."
Until Project Mercury came along, the Brotherhood consisted mainly of air force and navy jet fighter pilots, notably the "fighter jocks" chosen to test experimental aircraft. For such men and their wives, the phrase "burnt beyond recognition" denoted an all-but-weekly fate of some friend or fellow pilot. The Brothers will not speak of courage, or risk. The most they will do is admit to "pushing the outside of the envelope," Right Stuffese for forcing an aircraft to the extreme limits of its design. In a mouthy age, they cling to a military officer's "uncritical willingness to face danger" at very low pay. In The Right Stuff astronauts and test pilots are appalled by what Wolfe, on their behalf, describes as the "ravenous reporters and other fruitflies" of the press, all bent on chattering away about bravery and patriotism and how a man feels at moments of extreme peril in the air.
The ace of aces in the Brotherhood was air force pilot Chuck Yeager, who faced death regularly with the highest skill and the lowest-of-low downhome drawls. Yeager had already become the first man to break the sound barrier, flying with two broken ribs and an arm so bruised that he needed a nine-inch length of broom handle to help him close the canopy of a rocketpowered X-I. Yeager was at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert, where the next rocket models, the X-2 and X-15, were eventually manflown out of the earth's gravitational pull and back. To the boys at Edwards, Wolfe makes clear, the Mercury Project at first sounded like nothing much. The key word at Edwards was "piloted." By contrast, the astronauts were clearly intended to be mere passengers and biosensored human guinea pigs. At Edwards, the whispered word went out: "A monkey will take the first flight." That proved true. And if men took over, the fighter jocks felt, they would just be "Spam in a can," strapped into those capsules and controlled by computers miles away.
Even so, members of the Brotherhood volunteered for Mercury. The sheer challenge of it got to them. All through the build-up to the first rocket-launched U.S. space flight, the hottest pilots among the chosen seven, Slayton, Grissom, and Cooper, fought with NASA engineers to modify the capsule so the pilot could see more and have at least a semblance of control. Their success was considerable. By the end of Project Mercury in 1963, astronauts had replaced the X-series pilots at Edwards at the very pinnacle of the Right Stuff.
The U.S. public would have it no other way. With a little help from John Glenn (now Senator Glenn of Ohio), who seemed to like talking about love of country and courage, the astronauts' individual personalities were soon subsumed into a single public image. The composite astronaut was a hot pilot and an avowed patriot. He was a man who drew strength from a simple Protestant hometown boyhood, had deep religious faith and a perfect marriage. Asked any personal questions, most Right Stuff Brothers, and their wives, would try to say something "brief, obvious, abstract, safe, and impersonal." Not many of them resembled the press stereotype. But Glenn was a confirmed and outgoing patriot, a Presbyterian who believed that achieving worldly success was a sign of spiritual election, and Glenn did most of the talking.
Wolfe deftly etches in the lost contrasting personalities as he goes along. Commander Alan Shephard, the first American to enter space, appears as a brilliant pilot and technician who alternated between being "the icy Commander" and what Wolfe calls "Smilin' Al of the Cape" (Canaveral), a jokester who wanted to be loved more than admired. Gordon Cooper, an apparent flake with a failed marriage whose presence in the group puzzled the others, turns in the most skillful orbiting flight of the lot.
Once they got into orbit, the sky looked navy blue to the astronauts, just as it had when they were fighter pilots at 40,000 feet. They were also afflicted with other feelings of déjà vu, trapped, as Wolfe puts it, in the new age of "Precreated Experience." They had put in so many hundreds of hours perfecting their reflexes in cleverly simulated flight that nothing seemed new. There were some jokes - about globules of free-floating urine in the capsule, for instance - and mishaps. Gus Grissom blew the hatch off his space capsule five minutes too early after landing, and it sank in choppy seas. Scott Carpenter exhausted his supply of hydrogen peroxide - used for jet power to control the capsules in flight position. When he started to reenter the earth's atmosphere under manual control and at a wrong angle, the engineers thought he would bounce off and stay in space forever. Project Mercury administrators were deeply worried that this might give the whole program a bad name, but Carpenter came through safely.
Tom Wolfe's funniest and most savage scenes record the horrors of publicity. Dickens at his best could hardly match Wolfe's description of a barbecue for 5,000 people that was cooked inside the new Houston Coliseum, with the astronaut families penned in the center by a protective circle of Texas Rangers while the bourbon flowed and "the cows burned on" and Sally Rand, "the World's Oldest Stripper," "shook her ancient haunches" in a dance of welcome.
While the astronauts were aloft, most of the wives, whose husbands had often been in more immediate peril as test pilots, girded themselves for another ordeal - confronting the press. Sample questions: What is in your heart? What's the first meal you plan to cook for [AI, Gus, John, Scott, Wally, Gordon]? Did you feel you were with him while he was in orbit? "Pick one out!" writes Wolfe. "Try answering it."
To ease the tension, the wives sometimes put on impromptu skits among themselves. One would take the role of "Nancy Whoever, TV correspondent," and hold her fist up to her mouth as if it were a mike: "We're here in the front of the trim, modest suburban home of Squarely Stable, the famous astronaut who has just completed his historic mission, and we have with us his attractive wife, Primly Stable .... Tell us, Primly, tell us what you felt ... at the very moment when your husband's rocket began to rise from the earth ... "
"To tell the truth, Nancy, I missed that part of it. I'd sort of dozed off ... "
The one great victory for astronaut wives is scored by Annie Glenn. After husband John has been waiting atop a smoking Atlas rocket for five hours of nerve-racking countdown delays, Annie is suddenly informed that VicePresident Johnson, then suffering from a temporary publicity shortage, is about to invade her beleaguered house in Arlington, Virginia, bringing ABC, NBC, and CBS crews with him, as Wolfe puts it, "to pour 10 minutes of hideous Texas soul all over her on nationwide TV." She refuses, on grounds of both privacy and the exclusive Life contract. Johnson fumes in his limousine. Aides finally call NASA chief James Webb, who in turn gets Glenn down from the smoking rocket to talk to her on the phone. Says Glenn: "Look: if you don't want the Vice-President or the TV networks or anybody else to come into the house, then that's it as far as I'm concerned, they're not coming in." And they didn't. The angry Webb briefly contemplated yanking Glenn abruptly from his mission - the first American actually to try orbiting the earth - to replace him with a man who "could comprehend the broader aspects of the program better."
Which proves, perhaps better than his subsequent space flight, that John Glenn had the Right Stuff.