Navy or Air Force test pilots must either have “it,” an innate capacity for flying machinery ready to explode at the smallest error, or falling behind into a gruesome and unforgiving death. Tom Wolfe defines this ambiguous “it” as “the right stuff,” an all-encompassing phrase for a pilot’s fearless “ability to look death in the face, and yawn” (Gao, “Foolhardy Heroes”). Finding pilot Chuck Yeager to be “the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff,” Wolfe reenacts Yeager’s flight of the Bell X-1 at Mach 1 — breaking the sound barrier for the first time.

The X-1 had gone through the “sonic wall” without so much as a bump. As the speed topped out at Mach 1.05, Yeager had the sensation of shooting straight through the top of the sky. The sky turned a deep purple and all at once the stars and the moon came out — and the sun shone at the same time . . . He was simply looking out into space . . . He was going faster than any man in history, and it was almost silent up here, since he had exhausted his rocket fuel, and he was so high in such a vast space that there was no sensation of motion. He was master of the sky. His was a king’s solitude, unique and inviolate, above the dome of the world. It would take him seven minutes to glide back down and land at Muroc. He spent the time doing victory rolls and wing-over-wing aerobatics while Rogers Lake and the High Sierras spun around below. [47]

Looking directly at the stars, moon, and sun, Wolfe describes the first supersonic flight as if it were a space mission. The phrases “master of the sky” and “king’s solitude” emphasize Yeager’s control of the situation; rolling and spinning the plane back down to earth, Yeager has complete command over the Bell X-1, dominating the sky by way of “the right stuff.”

Later juxtaposing Yeager’s flight with Al Shepard’s monumental space mission, Wolfe provides a narration that contradicts common conceptions of being in space — removing the view of the earth and the notion of weightlessness.

He was now slightly more than a hundred miles up. The sky was almost navy blue. It was not the much-talked-of “blackness of space.” It was the same dark blue sky that pilots begin to see at 40,000 feet. It looked no different. The capsule was now automatically turning so that its blunt end . . . was aimed toward the target area. He was facing back toward Florida, toward the cape. He could not see the earth out of the high portholes at all, however. He wasn’t even particularly interested in looking. He kept his eyes pinned on the instrument panel. After reaching this point so many times on the procedures trainer, he knew he must be weightless. But he felt nothing . . . He didn’t even experience the tumbling sensation he felt when riding backseat in the F-100s at Edwards. It was all milder! — easier! . . . It was the great unknown in space flight. But he didn’t feel anything at all! [218]

The emphasis on the “instrument panel,” the “automatic turning” of the capsule, the repetition of feeling nothing, and Shepard’s sense of ease during the flight all convey the mechanical nature of America’s first space flight. Unlike Yeager who had a serene experience above the world, admiring the view of space and dominating the atmosphere with a “wing-over-wing” decent back to earth, Shepard’s experience is confined to the glowing buttons of the capsule, to the automated launch into the unknown that yields no view and no feeling. Occurring later in the text, Shepard’s historic mission appears anticlimactic after the energy that surges through Yeager’s supersonic boom. By juxtaposing the experience of manually controlling an aircraft with the automated nature of Project Mercury’s space-flight, Wolfe creates tension between what it means to be a pilot, what it takes to be an astronaut, and what it is to have “the right stuff.”

Questions

1. Whereas the government kept secret Yeager’s historic flight, Shepard became an instant celebrity after becoming the first American in space. Does the contrast in the two passages above detract from Shepard’s flight? Is Wolfe suggesting that astronauts do not need to have “the right stuff?” How does Yeager’s statement, “a monkey’s going to make the first flight,” implicate the duties of an astronaut?

2. Wolfe uses italics throughout The Right Stuff. In the passage describing Shepard’s space flight Wolfe italicizes “It was all milder — easier!” and “But he didn’t feel anything at all!” Use of italics is also present in The Pump House Gang. Referring to the upper-class surf culture, “everyone has been . . . reared well, as they say” (Wolfe, 22) What does Wolfe achieve by use of italics? What is he trying to emphasize?

3. Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and John McPhee’s The Crofter & The Laird both include visual images to support the text. Would pictures benefit or detract from Wolfe’s vivid descriptions in The Right Stuff?

4. Wolfe ends The Right Stuff with another flight of Chuck Yeager’s, an intense and graphic near death depiction of the dangerous nature of being a test pilot. Instead of a parade or a reception, a bleeding and burned Yeager is greeted with a “My God! . . . you look awful” (Wolfe 362). Why does Wolfe end the text with this flight? What does this quote say about America’s perception of “the right stuff?”

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 7 April 2011