Although Tom Wolfe refers to primates on numerous occasions throughout The Right Stuff, he does not introduce live chimpanzees until about halfway through the book. Up to that point, monkeys make up more of a hypothetical base case against which he compares the astronauts and assesses their merits as pilots/heroes/people. When actual chimps manage make their way into the story, however, they are used to very similar ends as their rhetorical brethren.

The vets took the chimpanzees by airplane to Wright-Patterson for rides on the centrifuge the Air Force had there. They would strap each ape into the gondola, close the hatch, and pipe in the sound of a Redstone rocket launch and start him spinning, gradually introducing him to higher g-forces. They took them for parabolic rides backseat in fighter planes to familiarize them with the feeling of weightlessness. They put them in the simulator for endless hours and endless days of on-cue manual-task training.

Though the chimpanzees perform all the same tasks as the astronauts, Wolfe spends about a tenth of the time relating their story. What involves a great deal of personal observation and reflection for the astronauts lacks both of these for the chimps. Wolfe adjusts his style accordingly. Instead of presenting the power struggles and inner turmoil and perceptions of prestige that occupy the bulk of the description of the astronauts' training, he describes the events of the chimps'training in a flat tone notable for its normalcy. In the Mercury space program, Wolfe seems to say, the only thing separating man and beast is ego.

Since the chimpanzee would not be wearing a pressure suit in flight, he was put inside a pressurized cubicle which in turn would be placed in the Mercury capsule. The monkey's instrument panel was inside the inner cubicle. Therein, day by day, month by month, the monkey learned to operate certain switches in different sequences when cued by flashing lights. If he did the job incorrectly, he received an electric shock. If he did it correctly, he received banana-flavored pellets, plus some attaboys and nuzzles from the vets. Gradually the beasts were worn down. They were tractable now. The operant conditioning was taking place. A life of avoiding the blue bolts and gratefully accepting the attaboys and pellets had become the better part of valor. Rebellion had proved to be a dead end.

Again, the parallels to the astronauts are beyond question. The chimps do not just ride in the capsule; they do everything the same as the astronauts (though for more concrete rewards and punishments). Though the resistance of men like Pete Conrad toward the training regime seems valiant to the astronauts, they all (including Pete) eventually learn to do what they are told.

Questions

1. How does Wolfe's flat, austere tone in this passage reflect on the actions of the chimps? How does it reflect on the actions of the astronauts?

2. Wolfe treats the chimpanzees like astronauts with limited concepts/concerns of the self. What happens if we take out considerations of the self from the rest of the book?

2. One of the major questions of The Right Stuff regards whether or not the astronauts were “pilots.” Does this passage outweigh Gordo Cooper's manual re-entry at the end of the book to tilt the scales in favor of “not pilots?”

3. Are Wolfe's points philosophically consistent enough for such analysis to have merit?

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 5 April 2011