The Right Stuff
In the book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe explores the lives of several test pilots and astronauts of Project Mercury that was the first of American manned rockets. Wolfe writes the book from different perspectives starting with that of Jane Conrad, a wife to a test pilot as she grapples with the possibility that her husband might be dead followed by the legendary Chuck Yeager who was the first man to break the sound barrier. In the third and main perspective, Wolfe explores what drove these test pilots to volunteer for the life-risking task and what it took to become an astronaut. To be chosen, there were a series of tests doctors thought of as necessary to prove a man had what it takes as explained in the quote, “a career in flying was like climbing one of those old Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, … and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones,” (Wolfe 19).
The idea of having the right stuff meant that a man should have what it takes to go up in a hurtling piece of flying machinery and risk his life, have the courage, inventiveness and experience to take it back in the final breath, as well as be in the condition to do it the next day. This is what it meant by ‘have the right stuff’ to become an astronaut. Additionally, it meant having the calmness that is admired by the public. Considering this meaning of the title, of the seven astronauts that included Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton, John Glenn displayed thorough mastery of the characteristics of having the right stuff. Being chosen meant, “… that elite who had the capacity to bring fears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself” (Wolfe 19).
The first requirement of having the right stuff was being a test pilot from the army with vast experience. This was the general requirement meant to eliminate some of the pilots that had volunteered. John Glenn was a test pilot with a lot of experience in the marine core. By the time he was going for the tests, he was already a public figure known to many people for his skills. He had won five awards in distinguished flying classes and held the cross-country coast-to-coast nonstop supersonic speed record. He had been in the marines, which meant he had been trained for combat, as well as harsh conditions. Flying from coast to coast at supersonic speed required stamina, ability to withstand strenuous conditions especially difficult breathing, intelligence and inventiveness to maneuver the aircrafts and land successfully. Most of the tests considered to determine that a man had the right stuff tested on such abilities, which Glenn possessed from the start. This is proven when the test pilots are in the lab, taking a breathing test and one of them comments that they were competing with the best there is. Saying this, he was referring to Glenn, who has surpassed him by far in the test.
Being the oldest among those tested, he had extra experience than the rest. With such experience and skill, he stood a better chance of passing the tests that proved a man had the right stuff to go to space. Although other pilots had a similar experience, he held the coast-to-coast cross-country record, making him a favorite to the people. When it came to the first tests, the pilots were required to land fighter jets on an aircraft carrier. Although many passed this test, many found it hard since the carrier deck would not be stable like a runway. Surging up and down with every wave from the sea, it was not an easy test for the pilots. However, Glenn passed this without a problem because of his vast experience as a test pilot. This was one of the areas the man with the right stuff was supposed to master thoroughly, which Glenn did with outstanding prowess.
The next requirement was to have the capability to attract sizeable crowds. Project Mercury required a lot of public support in order to gain the funding that was necessary. Considering it was a race to beat the Russians to the space, a lot of funding was necessary for achieving the project within the required time. Therefore, any public show was meant to win the trust of the public. Several interviews were held to test the pilots’ intelligence, as well as the ability to engage with the crowds for support. Without public support, it could have been quite hard to proceed. Many of the pilots were interviewed, but few were able to pull the crowds in their favor. Some made the pilots seem to have little intelligence, which would lose the confidence of the public. As such, only the best were to be selected. John Glenn portrayed mastery in the interviews and consequently won the public confidence.
Further, he won the confidence by being an honest and upright man. During the interviews, questions from the public focused on the personal lives of the astronauts. Glenn was by far the most honest and morally upright person compared to the rest. He was against going out with other women when away from his family while the rest took advantage of their newly gained fortune, as well as status considering that, “henceforth, they would be served up the biggest slice of Mom’s Pie you could imagine” (Wolfe 99). When it came to following the rules laid out by the doctors to keep them fit for space travel, Glenn was increasingly obedient. He exercised more regularly than the rest and remained the most upright. As such, for public personality, honesty and uprightness, he scored highest, proving that he had perfect mastery of the right stuff required to become an astronaut.
In his interview with the press just before they went for the tests, John Glenn pulled a large crowd owing to his influence as a test pilot. He portrayed the qualities Americans wanted that included intelligence during this interview on television. He was among the characters that the public were interested in knowing. In the subsequent interviews after being selected as one of the astronauts, he still remained among the most religious and disciplined among the seven astronauts. Additionally, he pulled a larger crowd through his speeches more than the other astronauts did. Mastering how to draw the crowd ensured support for the project. Considering that the astronauts were the main center of attraction in the whole project, they were required to win the trust of the people in order to have their support. Further, the other astronauts looked at him while he talked, showing they regarded him with a high esteem. Such respect proved Glenn’s mastery of the characteristics required. With his influence in the past as a test pilot and the use of his gained status upon being selected one of the astronauts, Glenn proved he could win the trust of the public more than any other astronaut could.
The other requirements considered most important involved withstanding all kinds of strains that are likely to happen in space. Considering it was a new area, most of the engineers and doctors conducting the tests were not sure what was likely to happen in space. It was thought that the flight would be quite strenuous and required a man who could withstand immense tension, pressure among other. The tests involved vibrations, loud noise, limited air and falling off from a calculated height on a seat in order to test their strength in withstanding such stress. Throughout the tests, Glenn performed extremely well despite his age. This showed that he had the stamina or the right stuff. In one example, he was among the three that broke the record in the breathing tests by holding their breath for about 2 minutes while the record had been 91 seconds. This further proved that he could withstand to hold his breath for quite long. While many of the test pilots failed to pass in most of these tests, Glenn did quite well.
At every test that the doctors threw at the test pilots, Glenn passed with outstanding performance in comparison to the rest. His age meant that he would have more health risks than the rest especially when it came to strenuous tests. However, he persisted with great courage as well as mastery of the required skills. The tests were in not only physical strength and stamina, but also included intelligence and mastery of flying skills. By the time he was coming for the test, he had most of the skills required, especially in flying. Moreover, he had confidence, and that demonstrated his courage. His charisma was also commendable and showed his brilliance and readiness for whatever it took to become an astronaut.
During the selection of the first person into space, it was thought that Glenn would win. However, all seven astronauts had raised their hands when asked who would be the first to go to space. Glenn thought the selection would be based on merit. This way, he could have won based on his performance in the tests, as well as experience in flying, which showed that he had mastery of most of the equipment. However, it was based on peer selection where each of the astronauts was supposed to write the name of another person they would choose to go first before. It turned out that Alan Shepard was chosen by the majority based on peer selection. Glenn lacked the support since he had a few different views from the rest. He wanted the other astronauts to ensure they exercised as regularly as he did. Additionally, he was against the rest on the issue of having other women when their wives were away. This put him at a disadvantage with the rest. However, the fact that he could have been the first to go to space had the selection been on merit proved that he was better suited that the rest.
all the experience, intelligence and winning crowd support, as well as passing
through all the tests provided by the
doctors, Glenn displays the most thorough mastery of the characteristics
of ‘the right stuff’. He has all the skills that a fighter pilot requires,
pulls the crowd more, is the most honest and upright among them and above all,
he goes through the tests without any difficulty. His charisma and coolness
earned him respect considering others such as Pete Conrad did well in the tests
but failed because of their imitation of comic characters. Therefore, it
requires vast skills to become an astronaut, of which Glenn proved to have a
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York, N.Y: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Print.