Book Review: Tom Wolfe – The Right Stuff

Tom Wolfe – The Right Stuff

I saw the movie years ago without knowing it was based on a Tom Wolfe book. I’d never previously read any Wolfe, mainly owing to a lack of interest in 1960s counterculture beyond some of the music. This turns out to have been a mistake, at least regarding Wolfe. He was a fantastic writer, if a bit earthy. Much as I love the science and the spirit of discovery that many other writers have emphasized, Wolfe showed that it had a more visceral side. For the test pilots and astronauts, it was a thrill and an adrenaline rush. It took a certain kind of personality to want to fly to the moon and back. That, as much as the mission itself, is Wolfe’s topic, and he explores it about as compellingly as a writer can.

That said, Wolfe spends an inordinate amount of time writing about NASA’s bizarre anal fixation. They put the early astronauts through some bizarre probing tests that didn’t always have much to do with space or gravity, and Wolfe describes them in great detail.

Wolfe also does not shy away from the danger of test pilot culture, and how it influenced the early space program. It was thrilling and it was risky. But there were also funerals, and families. They were part of the story, too. The deaths of Gus Grissom and two other astronauts on the Apollo 1 launch pad were particularly jarring. Their capsule on top of a rocket caught fire, and a poor design to the hatch door left them unable to escape.

In the earlier days of test-piloting experimental aircrafts, pilots’ wives knew what happened every time they heard emergency sirens making their way towards the local Air Force base, which was often. It was a roll of the dice which one of them would receive a phone call, and another roll of the dice whether the news was a close call, or something much worse.

The book and the movie are both excellent. Wolfe especially excels at combining thrill, danger, and risk with levity and tragedy. The space race was multifaceted, and so should be the histories by which we remember it.

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