This week’s book review is inspired by the anniversary of the incredible 1969 moon landing.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to review Tom Wolfe’s fantastic non-fiction book, “The Right Stuff”.
Rather than focusing on the Apollo space programme, however, Wolfe decided focus instead on its predecessor: Project Mercury.
This project was the US government’s attempt to put a man into orbit around the Earth for the first time. It ran from 1958-1963, years before the Moon would become a viable destination.
Obviously the project, and the “Space Race” with the USSR, is an important part of the book. But Wolfe spends more time looking into the personal lives of those astronauts chosen to participate. And it’s this that makes “The Right Stuff” a truly gripping read.
The Inner Life
The “Mercury Seven”, as they were known, were a group of college-educated US Airforce test pilots: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, Walter Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter.
Wolfe follows the men through the selection process, and their transition from test pilots to astronauts. He documents not only the unique professional stresses they experienced, but also the stresses felt their families, too.
This book appealed to me because of its focus on the “inner life” of the astronauts, rather than a simple (if dramatic) recounting of space missions. Though there’s still plenty of that drama, too!
It’s strange to think anyone would look down on those who volunteered to travel into space. But this is another of the fascinating central struggles depicted in the book. At the same time as becoming heroes to the public, these hyper-masculine figures were struggling to gain the respect of their pilot peers.
For Wolfe, however, they had “The Right Stuff”. This almost unidentifiable quality is what made them the perfect pilots for man’s first journeys into space.
I don’t quite believe that machismo alone qualified one for a seat on the rocket — and at times, that’s exactly how it comes across here. But one thing is undeniable: those who choose to climb into a spacesuit are made of harder stuff than I.
Anyone obsessed with explorers and pioneers, like I am, will love this book. As will anyone with an interest in the space programme.
And if you don’t fancy the book, it was adapted for the big screen in 1983. I haven’t seen the film yet, so watch this space for a follow-up review(!)