Wednesday 9 November 2011

The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

Is a book by Tom Wolfe about the early US astronauts and their experiences and the dangers and challenges of being part of a brand new and adventurous endeavour. 

Here is the Foreword
This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity. What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to sit up on top of and enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? I decided on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out. So I asked a few in December 1972 when they gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch the last mission to the moon, Apollo 17. I discovered quickly enough that none of them, no matter how talkative to otherwise, was about to answer the question or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage.

But I did sense that the answer was not to be found in any set of traits specific to the task of flying into space. The great majority of the astronauts who had flown the rockets had come from the ranks of test pilots. All but a few had been military test pilots, and even those few, such as Neil Armstrong, had been trained in the military. And it was this that led me to a rich and fabulous terrain that, in a literary sense, had remained as dark as the far side of the moon for more than a half a century: military flying and the modern American officer corps.
Immediately following the First World War a certain fashion set in among writers in Europe and soon spread to their obedient colonial counterparts in the United States. War was looked upon as inherently monstrous, and those who waged it - namely, military officers - were looked upon as brutes and philistines. The tone was set by some brilliant novels; among them, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Journey on the End of the Night, and The Good Soldier Schweik. The only proper protagonist for a tale of war was an enlisted man, and he was to be presented not as a hero but as Everyman, as much as a victim of war as any civilian. Any officer above the rank of second lieutenant was to be presented as a martinet of a fool, if not an outright villain, no matter whom he fought for. The old-fashioned tale of prowess and heroism was relegated to second- and third-rate forms of literature, ghost-written autobiographies and stories in pulp magazines on the order of Argosy and Bluebook.

Even as late as the 1930s the favorite war stories in the pulps concerned World War I pilots. One of the few scientific treatises ever written on the subject of bravery is The Anatomy of Courage by Charles Moran, who served as a doctor in the trenches for the British in World War I (and who was  better known later as Lord Moran, personal physician to Winston Churchill). Writing in the 1920s, Moran predicted that in the wars of the future adventurous young men who sought glory in the war would tend to seek it as pilots. In the twentieth century, he said, they would regard the military pilot as the quintessence of manly daring that the cavalryman had been in the nineteenth.

Serious treatment of the drama and psychology of this new pursuit, flying high-performance aircraft in battle, was left to the occasional pilot who could write, the most notable of them being Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The literary world remained oblivious. Nevertheless, young men did what Moran predicted. They became military officers so that they could fly, and they flew against astonishingly deadly odds. As late a 1970, I was to discover in an article by a military doctor in a medical journal a career Navy pilot faced a 23 percent likelihood of dying in an accident. This did not even include deaths in combat, which at that time, with the war in Vietnam in progress, were catastrophically high for Navy pilots. The Right Stuff became the the story of why men were willing - willing? - delighted! -to take such odds in this, and era literary people had long since characterized as the age of the anti-hero. Such was the psychological mystery that animated me in the writing of this book. And if there were those readers who were not interested in the exploration of space per se but who were interested in The Right Stuff nonetheless, perhaps it might have been because the mystery caught their imagination as well as mine.

Since this book was first published in 1979 I have enjoyed corresponding with many pilots and with many widows of pilots. Not all have written to pat me on the back, but almost all seemed grateful that someone had tried - and it had to be an outsider - to put into words certain matters that the very code of the pilot rules off-limits in conversation. These...matters...add up to one of the most extraordinary and most secret dramas of the twentieth century.

Tom Wolfe
August 1983