As Marisa Calleja's “Telling Themselves Stories of the Right Stuff in Order to Live” points out, in space as in air, pilots shape an unspoken credo and fraternal hierarchy around measures of bravery, defined by the washouts and the deaths, granting them the confidence to survive against each day’s dire odds. After all, in Tom Wolfe’s, The Right Stuff , “a man either had it or he didn’t! There was no such thing as having most of it” (22-23). Test pilots told themselves stories to live.

Sometimes at Edwards they used to play the tapes of pilots going into the final dive, the one that killed them, and the man would be tumbling, going end over end in a fifteen-ton length of pipe, and he knew it, and he would be screaming into the microphone, but not for Mother or for God or the nameless spirit of Ahor, but for one last hopeless crumb of information about the loop: "I've tried A! I've tried B! I've tried C! I've tried D! Tell me what else I can try!" And then that truly spooky click on the machine. What do I do next? (In this moment when the Halusian Gulp is opening?) And everybody around the table would look at one another and nod ever so slightly, and the unspoken message was: Too bad! There was a man with the right stuff. [52]

However, the change towards space travel shifts the narratives. Astronauts tell themselves stories to live, with dignity and acclaim, fame, and suburban homes.

Carpenter had not merely wasted fuel while up there playing with the Capsule’s attitude controls, doing his beloved “experiments.” NO, he had also become. . . rattled. . . when he finally realized he was getting low on fuel. The evidence for this was that he forgot to turn off the manual system when he switched to fly-by-wire and therby really blew his fuel supply. And then he. . . panicked!. . . That was why he couldn’t line the capsule up at the right angle and that was why he coulnd’t fire the retro-rockets right on the button. . . and that was why he hit the atmosphere at such a shallow angle. He nearly skipped off it instead of going through it. . . he nearly skipped into eternity. . . because. . . he panicked! There! We’ve said it!. . .Did you hear his voice on the tape before the blackout? You could hearthe panic! In fact, they could hear no such thing. [314]

Whereas military test pilots justify failed missions upon unfounded conjectures in order to reassure themselves of their own ability to survive, Wolfe exposes that the original seven, the founding astronauts, derive illogical conclusions and shape Carpenter as “the washout,” to justify that in space as in air, a man either has it or he doesn’t (315). Wolfe often parallels the experiences and events of the new generation of astronauts against those of the military test pilots, revealing that the astronaut’s ability to sit atop a fusing rocket builds upon their predecessors’ unacknowledged courage and skill. However, this parallelism also allows for juxtaposition, pitting the astronaut against the test pilot and suggesting that there’s no such thing as having most of it.

Questions

1. In the passages above, as in the rest of his work, Wolfe contrasts the highly publicized astronaut against the disregarded, yet true hero, the military test pilot. By doing so, what is Wolfe saying about society and the press? How does this compare to what Carlyle expresses in “Hudson’s Statue:”

Show me the man you honour; I know by that symptom, better than by any other, what kind of man you yourself are. For you show me there what your ideal of manhood is; what kind of man you long inexpressibly to be, and would thank the gods, with your whole soul, for being if you could.

2. Without society’s desperate need for heroes and the opportunism of the astronauts, would Wolfe’s portrayal of the military pilot as hero be as convincing? Do the astronauts serve as Wolfe’s washouts and make his arguments, his own righteous stuff, stand out? Or, is Wolfe’s actual attack or analysis focused on the astronauts and pilots, or on society’s perceptions and desires?

3. In “The Pump House Gang,” Wolfe introduces his idea of “status spheres” with terms such as black panther and segregation, normally associated with the civil rights movement. Similarly, in The Right Stuff, Wolfe gradually proves the military test pilot as possessors of true courage and heroism, by exposing the beginnings of the space program in Project Mercury. In each case, what purpose does Wolfe’s contextualization serve?

4. “If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas,” says John Cleese, well known for his work in Monty Python. “And if I can persuade you to laugh at the particular point I make, by laughing at it you acknowledge its truth.” Does Wolfe’s use of satire convince you towards taking his view and excusing his glancing or partial takes on issues such as the Ed Dwight case?

References

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 8 April 2011