Why Can’t I Watch ‘The Right Stuff’?
An analysis of astronauts, the French revolution, and the future of space exploration
As part of the near-constant onslaught of new things releasing everywhere all the time, Disney+ recently released a new adaptation of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s seminal 1979 saga about the Mercury Seven and the sociopolitical context that buoyed them to greatness. The Right Stuff was originally adapted into a three-hour film epic in 1983 that remains widely regarded as one of the best Space Race-era movies ever made. The folks at Disney+ seem to have felt that, once again, it’s time to revisit an unquestionable American triumph — the beginning of victory in the Space Race. The Right Stuff, and the events it portrays, contains all the values widely touted as quintessentially American; it’s the perfect mix of exceptional individualism and awe-inspiring teamwork brought together by necessity, drive, and an almost predetermined greatness.
And I can’t bring myself to watch it.
Honestly, this is just the latest in a long line of decisions I’ve made to not watch widely appealing television shows, including Stranger Things (too spooky), The Office (too mean-spirited), Breaking Bad (too cynical), and How I Met Your Mother (I would punch Ted in the face if I could). But unlike all those decisions, which were relatively easy to make, I feel immensely guilty for not wanting to watch The Right Stuff.
After all, I’m not just someone the show should slightly appeal to — I am the target market: someone who loves space exploration and the Apollo Program so much that I own From the Earth to the Moon on DVD. I have a whole bookshelf dedicated to space program histories and astronaut memoirs. I even applied to be an astronaut myself, which is both amazing and embarrassing in equal measure. (Isn’t it wild to see an adult chasing a child’s dream?) A new version of The Right Stuff should further raise my enthusiasm for NASA’s recent pivot to human-centered space exploration and the accompanying bombastic hopes for a return to the Moon within the next five years.
Or maybe it would, if I could bring myself to watch it.
This isn’t a thinkpiece about how “these uncertain times” have robbed us of our collective stomach for optimism. The reasons The Right Stuff just doesn’t hit for me right now are much more complex than that. It’s not just coronavirus-driven depression that’s keeping me from enjoying a show I’d be otherwise predestined to love; instead, my relationship to the legacy of American space exploration itself is in a state of flux, and it’s influencing the kind of media about space that I want to see.
I’m a planetary scientist and a lifelong advocate for space exploration, not just for what it can teach us about the universe, but also for the profound sense of wonder it inspires. And yet, many folks in our scientific community are currently rethinking what it means to “do” space exploration. Can space exploration be separated from the military-industrial complex that, in many ways, continues to push it along? Can we explore space ethically? And what exactly does that mean?
As countries and companies alike push to control shrinking chunks of an increasingly busy night sky, people within and outside the space exploration community are beginning to turn a critical eye toward our practices, our policies, and our future. Amidst this time of newly widespread and important critique, it does seem odd to bring back to the forefront a story that uncritically lionizes a very specific space exploration-centered American fantasy.
“Naturally you needed a man with the courage to ride on top of a rocket, and you were grateful that such men existed. Nevertheless, their training was not a very complicated business.” — Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff.
Despite its now multiple film-based incarnations, Tom Wolfe’s original book is incredibly complex and does not necessarily yield itself to adaptation. It’s certainly not the sanitary kind of tale readily suited to family-friendly Disney+. The Right Stuff balances the rise of the first astronauts with the apparatus that built itself up around them, swinging wildly from the world of test pilots to the machinations of higher-level NASA officials to the muddy waters of the Mercury Seven’s home lives.
To be an astronaut, according to Wolfe, is to be a man of immense pride, capable of tolerating the hundreds of petty indignities that come with transitioning from the power and glory of a premier test pilot to a de-facto lab rat in a fledgling space program’s tin can. A man with the “right stuff” has the ego to pull off that transition as a power move. Mixed up in these men’s complex psyche is the question: What really is the “right stuff,” and who decides what that means?
The brilliance of Wolfe’s book is also what leads it to be so difficult to streamline — he never overtly answers the central question he’s posed. Instead, he gives the readers information. Chapters overflow with anecdote upon anecdote of the Mercury Seven and their multivariate responses to their new lives as astronauts. These men were flawed: they drank, they smoked, they had affairs. They ricocheted from debilitating machismo to immeasurable calm in the face of the risks of spaceflight. And the publicity apparatus that sprung up around them began to cannily, quietly repackage their lives into the most appealing versions possible. They became seven heroes with perfect lives and noble dreams. In many ways, The Right Stuff is about these men and the fiction constructed for them and about them that slowly overtook reality.
When The Right Stuff was published, it had immense influence, not just on the general public, whom the book captivated, but also on astronauts themselves. Wolfe’s book transformed future astronaut applicants: Memoir after memoir, from Mike Mullane to Scott Kelly, mentions the book’s influence, both as a direct inspiration on their career paths and as a guide to how they interpreted their role as public figures. Whether they had the “right stuff” was a question that weighed heavily on these newer astronauts’ minds, precisely because it’s a question only the world around them could answer.
Astronaut hopefuls today still discuss Wolfe’s book avidly and at length, trying to find some aspect of themselves in his portraits of the Mercury Seven. If someone begins to seriously consider applying for the program, they’re likely to hear the common question, “Hey, you’ve read The Right Stuff, right?”
Our desire to revisit specific episodes of the past say more about our current environment and cultural preoccupations than about the past itself.
Tom Wolfe’s book remains celebrated, as it should be. My problem with The Right Stuff (2020) is not with the source material — my problem is that, for some reason, we keep returning to this source material, while doing so in ways that don’t drill down to the heart of what makes the book so dang good (ask any Right Stuff nerd about the exclusion of Chuck Yeager from the new miniseries). Our desire to revisit specific episodes of the past, and the ways we go about reconstructing that past, say more about our current environment and cultural preoccupations than about the past itself. And that’s where my frustration comes in.
“The pilots who signed up to crawl into the Mercury capsule — the capsule, everybody noted, not the ship — would be called “astronauts.” But, in fact, they would be lab rabbits with wires up the tail and everywhere else.” — Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff
Why are we revisiting The Right Stuff in 2020? To me, this is an interesting question because it ties into what the arbiters of pop culture, i.e., Disney and its ilk, think people want to see — and this point of view is entirely rooted in current sociopolitical trends. Adaptations of historical dramas like The Right Stuff are particularly interesting because of the choices that must be made in the framing and presentation of real events that happened to real people. It’s telling which parts of that history are made into ellipses in the name of a cleaner narrative. The stories we tell about our history, and when and how we tell them, matter.
Even (especially) among historians, writing about human history is complicated. It’s impossible to write the definitive work, to achieve the third-person omniscience necessary to tell readers: “and that’s exactly what happened.” History might be made of events that can be stacked back-to-back like dominoes, but histories are told by people — and how historians frame their subjects tells us more about their present than our collective past.
Innovative narrative framing is why Georges Lefebvres’ Coming of the French Revolution (1939) rebuilt our understanding of revolutions. Lefebvres’ point, originating in his socialist and Marxist perspective, was simple and profound: In consigning the entire responsibility of revolution to a small, elite fraction of society, we completely miss how the bulk of society — in this case, French peasants during the 1789 revolution — responded to it with their own considerable sociopolitical authority.
While Lefebvres’ characterization of the motivations of French society in the context of class interests is important in terms of historic intent and practice, it was also a direct response to the dire political context in which he was writing. The last section of the book directly addressed the French youth of 1939, calling them to “seek inspiration not in fascism” but “in the glorious heritage of the revolution” and to combat authoritarianism through unity across class lines.
History offers an invaluable lens to understand ourselves, our present, and our current trajectories toward the future. Lefebvres’ work is one of the great examples of the synthesis of past and present, culminating in a call to action for the future that can be found in historical texts.
The transformative power of Lefebvres’ lens on French history is really no different from the potential perspective that we in 2020 can offer to the history of space exploration — to reinterpret and recontextualize it, to see it in new and interesting ways. I’m interested in what dialogue the people behind The Right Stuff (2020) think the 1960s should be having with those of us today. But what if the remake does nothing to lead us to new lessons?
The reviews indicate that the miniseries “never goes looking in dark places for very long” and instead presents the “straight-up comfort food” of a story that U.S. audiences know well. It strives to do the work of humanizing the Mercury Seven while relying on “overly familiar beats” of storytelling and brings a “shininess” to a tale that Wolfe deliberately kept dirty. Of course, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this; it’s okay to have predictable narratives told in expectable ways, letting the story gently wash over you just like sinking into your couch at the end of a long day. But perhaps not with our history.
The powers that be decided we need yet another tale of space exploration that limits women and relegates people of color to the absolute margins.
There is a message in Disney+ turning Tom Wolfe’s book into a thrice-told tale. The message may not be as pointed or as grand as Lefebvres’ call to arms against fascism, but it’s there nonetheless. It is the powers that be deciding that we are in need of yet another tale of space exploration that limits women to suffering prettily in their homes and relegates people of color to the absolute margins. It suggests that we must return again and again to the same white men in a time when more and more people are working to rewrite that narrative or destroy it entirely. And yet, intended or not, this is the unspoken message: This is the American history we have decided is important. This and not anything new.
In persistently revisiting the period of U.S. space exploration that centered white men — and white men alone — we actively reinforce that this limited vision of what space exploration was remains a foundational piece of what space exploration should continue to be. In refusing to turn elsewhere to the introduction of women and people of color into the space program, to the birth of global collaborations in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, we perpetuate a specific fantasy of white male American dominance.
The original book, The Right Stuff (1979), has an important, nuanced story to tell around that topic, but it too is limited by the men it orbits around. It cannot expand its lens to women like Jerrie Cobb and the women of the Mercury 13 — their story was not within the scope of what Tom Wolfe was trying to do. But why limit ourselves to that same landscape? The past of U.S. space exploration, and space exploration as a whole, has so much more to offer our future.
I’m not interested in more ’50s- and ’60s-era American exceptionalism designed to restore my faith in the inevitable upward trajectory of U.S. socioeconomic power via the “non-problematic” vehicle of space exploration. Tom Wolfe’s book did not do this, but the recent fleet of space-themed programming of today (For All Mankind, The Right Stuff) certainly seems to interpret these eras of spaceflight this way.
I want to see more projects that tackle space exploration because I think space exploration is the kind of project that produces extraordinary results with incredible people. Succeed or fail, space exploration happens loudly. And the kinds of stories it produces, the kind of people who commit to making it work, truly are exceptional. There’s a lot of untapped content out there! Here are four potential candidates:
The Soviet space program
The jaw-dropping success of HBO’s Chernobyl illustrates that Western screenwriters, actors, and directors can capture the nuances of Soviet political and cultural life, and I would love to see that dedicated focus turned toward the Soviet side of the Space Race. There’s so many facets worth exploring, particularly since most U.S. media to date has been light on the details beyond Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. From the rise of Sergei Korolev, the enigmatic chief designer, to the early successes of the 1950s and ’60s, to the trials and tribulations of the numerous attempts at a Soviet moonshot, the nuances of the rich history of Soviet space exploration have remained largely untapped. The structure of the space program within the Soviet government compared to NASA contrasts with the USSR’s paralleled use of cosmonauts as the “ideal Soviet men” (with their own socialist version of the ‘Right Stuff’), which is absolutely fascinating.
The class of 1978
The 35 new guys, aka “the astronaut class where NASA finally followed through on diversifying the astronaut corps,” presents a perfect venue for storytelling and reflection on the U.S. side of things. The life and times of the 1978 astronaut class, made up of 29 men and six women, really contains all the story material necessary for a miniseries and more. It has everything: romance, in the form of astronauts Robert ‘Hoot’ Gibson and Rhea Seddon; the big and small issues that resulted from the introduction of women and people of color to what was previously a space completely dominated by white men; and of course, tragedy. The Challenger disaster that took the lives of four of the 35 reflects the hubris of NASA from the top-down, the ego of the early Mercury days that had ossified into arrogance. These astronauts’ stories, and their complicated relationships to a rapidly changing U.S. space program, are compelling in every way.
Little-known and rarely discussed, the Skylab program represents a fascinating evolution within U.S. space exploration, as NASA tried to look beyond the Apollo program toward more sustained missions that would remain in low-Earth orbit. The result, Skylab, was the only space station operated exclusively by the United States. Everything about Skylab was new, tentative, and rarely worked, from the living quarters built out of unused rocket stages to the difficulties in managing the crew on long-duration missions. These issues culminated in the pseudo-mutiny by the Skylab 4 crew in 1973, in response to relentless pressure by mission control to complete their workloads. Everything we currently consider fundamental for long-duration spaceflight — from crew psychology to habitat maintenance and relationships with ground teams — is derived from issues encountered during Skylab.
As part of the U.S.-Russian Shuttle-Mir program, seven astronauts were selected to stay aboard the Russians’ increasingly troubled Mir spacecraft from 1994–1998, in a large-scale collaborative effort that laid the groundwork for the International Space Station that followed. The astronauts and cosmonauts living on the station were subject to life-threatening fires and collisions with space debris as well as frustratingly tense conversations with the joint U.S. and Russian ground teams, who themselves were struggling with a serious clash of management styles. This little-discussed period in space exploration history is a critical opportunity to illustrate how the transition from Cold War enemies to tentative space exploration allies impacted the lives of civil servants and astronauts alike.
These suggestions are just a few of many rarely covered (or rarely covered in-depth) aspects of space exploration history that can deepen an audience’s understanding of how we got from the Mercury Seven to the International Space Station. These kinds of stories also introduce the rich sociopolitical nuances that developed over time as NASA became a more permanent part of the U.S. government, while space exploration became a regular fact of life. International collaboration, long-duration space missions, and a steadily diversifying workforce are all critical aspects of the field today with deep and complex roots. Looking back at these areas might offer us some new ways to approach space exploration’s legacy and its future.
“After all, the right stuff was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life (by riding on top of a Redstone or Atlas rocket). Any fool could do that (and many fools would no doubt volunteer, given the opportunity), just as any fool could throw his life away in the process. No, the idea (as all pilots understood) was that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back at the last yawning moment …” — Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff