The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe is a true account of the U.S.'s military flight programs and NASA's space programs of the 1950s and 60s. It follows several pilots on their rise up the ziggurat of their careers and what it takes to have the "right stuff." A large part of the "right stuff" is to be calm and clear-headed under pressure, whether it is in the cockpit of an X-1 going super sonic or at the funeral of one of your fellow peers.
At the funeral the nineteen little Indians who were left -- Navy boys! -- lined up manfully in their bridge coats. They looked so young. Their pink lineless faces with their absolutely clear, lean jawlines popped up bravely, correctly, out the enormous belly-cut collars of the bridge coats. They sang an old Navy hymn, which slipped in a strange and lugubrious minor key here and there, and included a stanza added especially for aviators. It ended with: "O hear us when we lift our prayer for those in peril in the air." [p. 7]
1. In this passage, the youth and innocence of these test pilots is emphasized. What does the interjection "Navy boys!" do for the passage?
2. Why do their jaws pop up "correctly?" What would be the American public's reaction if this aspect of the pilot's careers had been televised?
In this next passage, the seven men chosen for the first NASA space program are presented at a press conference.
There was such frantic excitement -- and their names had not even been mentioned! Yet it didn't matter in the slightest! They didn't car whether he was Gus Grissom or Joe Blow! They were ravenous for his picture all the same! They were crawling all over him and the other six as if they were creatures of tremendous value and excitement, real prizes. [p. 87]
3. How do these 7 pilots compare to the 19 little Indians? Is anonymity only appropriate in death, or is the frenzy what truly disturbs him?
4. How would the pilots react to the final line of the funereal song, "O hear us when we lift our prayer for those in peril in the air?"
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
Last modified 26 April 2004