Tom Wolfe

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6 Tom Wolfe

Excerpts from The Right Stuff

Published in 1979; reprinted in 1980

On July 29, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, officially creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). By October 1 NASA had set up its offices and begun plans to achieve its goal of sending astronauts into outer space; this endeavor was called Project Mercury. After an exhaustive search, seven men became America's first astronauts, known to the world as the Mercury 7. Beginning in January 1961 and ending in May 1963, Project Mercury resulted in six successful space missions that allowed NASA to begin work on sending a man to the Moon.

On October 4, 1957, the former Soviet Union became the first nation to send a craft into space when it launched the satellite Sputnik 1 (see First Satellite entry). The United States responded in the summer of 1958 by replacing the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) with NASA, an agency committed to achieving the goal of manned space-flight. On December 17, 1958, exactly fifty-five years after Orville (1871–1948) and Wilbur (1867–1912) Wright became the first men to build and fly an airplane, Project Mercury was

announced to the public. An immediate search for astronauts began.

NASA established strict guidelines for astronaut candidates. Applicants had to be under the age of forty, in excellent physical shape, and less than 5 feet 11 inches tall (1.5 meters 27.9 centimeters). They were also required to have logged over 1,500 flight hours as a test pilot. More than five hundred people applied. Through vigorous testing, NASA reduced the pool of applicants to thirty-two. After subjecting the men to a battery of difficult and exhausting tests, on April 9, 1959, NASA announced its selection of the Mercury 7: M. Scott Carpenter (1925–), L. Gordon Cooper Jr. (1927–), John Glenn Jr. (1921–), Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom (1926–1967); Walter Schirra Jr. (1923–), Alan Shepard Jr. (1923–1998), and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton (1924–1993). The men became instant heroes.

For the engineers working on Project Mercury, their challenge was designing and building a craft that could protect a human being from the extreme hot and cold temperatures that would be experienced during space travel. They needed a craft that could both handle the pressures of vacuum (emptiness of space) and radiation and protect the astronaut from the temperature change upon reentry. It was an awesome task. The engineers responded by building a cone-shaped craft 6.8 feet (2.07 meters) long and 6.2 feet (1.89 meters) in diameter that had a 19.2-foot (5.85 meter) escape tower attached on top; the escape tower was equipped with a solid-propellant engine that would be engaged in case of an emergency. The entire craft was approximately 26 feet (7.92 meters) tall and weighed about 17,500 pounds (7,945 kilograms). Depending on the mission, the craft was launched using different rocket technology. For the suborbital flights (flights that did not involve the craft orbiting the entire globe), the capsule was launched using Redstone rockets. In the orbital flights, Atlas-D launch vehicles were used. There were eighteen thrusters (engines that develop thrust, or driving force, by releasing a jet of fluid or stream of particles) on the craft, all of which were operated by the astronaut to control the ship's attitude (the way the ship points). To exit the orbit, three retro-rockets (back up rocket engines used in slowing down) fired to send the craft back to Earth.

Astronaut safety was the engineers' primary concern. Their design ensured that, in the event of a mishap, the solid-propellant engine would fire the capsule away from the rocket and out of harm's way. A parachute would then engage and the capsule would fall safely into the ocean. The craft contained extremely tight quarters, with only enough room for the pilot, who sat in a specially designed couch that faced a control panel with 55 switches, 120 controls, 30 fuses, and 35 mechanical levers. The capsule that contained the astronaut had a blunt (not pointed) end, allowing it to enter the atmosphere at the proper angle. It was covered with a special shield that would protect it from the over 3,000°F (1,648.9°C) heat that would be generated upon reentry. Once the capsule was back in Earth's atmosphere, the shield would detach and a balloon would inflate to help soften the landing. Parachutes would open at the proper altitude to assist in slowing the craft down.

Before a human being was put in the capsule, seven sub-orbital and four orbital flights were conducted. In January 1961, a chimpanzee named Ham (1956–1983) was placed into a suborbital flight that reached nearly 157 miles (253 kilometers) in altitude. There were unexpected events during the flight; a leaky valve greatly reduced the cabin pressure, and when Ham splashed down in the ocean—130 miles (209 kilometers) off target—the capsule began to take on water. Ham was rescued and the mission was considered a success. NASA decided a human being could survive space flight.

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard Jr. became the first American in space. He piloted the Friendship 7 to an altitude of 116 miles (186.6 kilometers) and a speed of 5,146 miles (8,280 kilometers) per hour as an American public glued to their television sets watched his launch and successful landing. The flight lasted only 15 minutes and 22 seconds but proved that a human being could survive in space with relative comfort. A similar flight piloted by Gus Grissom was launched in July 1961. Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 flight mirrored Shepard's until splashdown, when the emergency escape hatch blew off unexpectedly. Grissom was rescued by a helicopter, though not before his spacesuit was completely waterlogged. The capsule took on water and sunk to the bottom of the sea, where it remained until it was located and retrieved in 1999.

Project Mercury's greatest moment came on February 20, 1962, when John Glenn (see entry) piloted Friendship 7 into a successful orbit of Earth. Three times Glenn circumnavigated (went around) the globe, becoming the first astronaut to do so. Although there was fear that the capsule's heat shield was faulty, Glenn returned safely to Earth, where he was praised as a national hero. The American people saw the importance of spaceflight and rallied around NASA's efforts to continue their important work. Two more flights followed. In May Scott Carpenter flew the Aurora 7 without incident. In October Walter Schirra piloted Sigma 7 to a record six orbits in a mission lasting 9 hours and 13 minutes. Project Mercury was an unqualified success.

The final flight took place in May 1963. It was the longest flight ever attempted by NASA. Lasting 34 hours and 19 minutes, pilot Gordon Cooper flew the Faith 7 around Earth twenty-two and one-half times. NASA was so pleased with the results from the Faith 7 mission that the final flight was canceled. Encouraged by the success of Project Mercury, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) announced the government's plan to send a man to the Moon. Had it not been for Project Mercury, the Apollo and Gemini programs would never have been possible.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from The Right Stuff:

  • Author Tom Wolfe (1931–) has always been fascinated by astronauts. It takes a great deal of skill, intelligence, courage, and fearlessness to go into space. For the men known as the Mercury 7, it took a great deal of trust on their part that humans were capable of building a craft they could pilot safely. Wolfe's book The Right Stuff discusses the lives and accomplishments of the men who pioneered space travel.
  • In the beginning stages of Project Mercury, the astronauts had no manual control over flying the space capsule. All the candidates were trained test pilots, with thousands of miles of flight experience. Many of the men who were being approached by NASA, however, did not want to be part of the mission because their piloting skills were not required.
  • Although the following excerpts focus on the astronauts, it took the combined efforts of thousands of scientists, medical doctors, and military personnel to make Project Mercury successful.

Excerpts from The Right Stuff

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What happened next …

NASA began work in earnest to send a man to the Moon. In 1964 the agency initiated Project Gemini, which provided astronauts with experience in returning to Earth from space as well as practice in successfully linking space vehicles and "walking" in space. Gemini also involved the launching of a series of unmanned satellites, which would gain information about the Moon and its surface to determine whether humans could survive there. Gemini was the transition between Mercury's short flights and Project Apollo, a program to train astronauts for landing and survival on the surface of the Moon. The program's first mission, Apollo 1, ended tragically on January 27, 1967, when three astronauts died in a launchpad fire in their module. The Apollo 1 commander was Gus Grissom, one of the Mercury 7, and his crew members were Edward White (1930–1967) and Roger Chaffee (1935–1967). The cause of the fire was determined to be an electrical short circuit near Grissom's seat. As a result of the accident the program was temporarily delayed while safety precautions were reviewed. The next five Apollo missions were unmanned flights that tested the safety of the equipment. The first manned flight, Apollo 7, was launched in October 1968. Ten months later, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 successfully took astronauts Neil Armstrong (1930–), Buzz Aldrin (1930–), and Michael Collins (1930–) to the Moon. During the mission Armstrong became the first human to walk on the Moon, followed fifteen minutes later by Aldrin (see Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins entry). The last Apollo mission was Apollo 17, which visited the Moon in December 1972.

After Apollo 17 the United States did not undertake any other moon flights. Interest in further moon exploration steadily decreased in the early 1970s, so NASA concentrated its efforts on the Large Space Telescope (LST) project. Initiated in 1969, the LST was an observatory (a structure housing a telescope, a device that observes celestial objects) that would continuously orbit Earth. An immediate result of the LST project was a plan for a space shuttle, a reusable vehicle that would launch the LST into orbit. The U.S. space shuttle program officially began in 1972 (see Space Shuttle entry).

Did you know …

  • Wolfe's book The Right Stuff was made into a successful movie with the same title in 1983.
  • John Glenn returned to space thirty-six years later, aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
  • Gordon Cooper was the first astronaut to release a satellite into space. He released a six-inch sphere with a beacon attached to test his visual ability to track objects in space.
  • Donald K. "Deke" Slayton was the only member of the Mercury 7 who did not get to fly under Project Mercury. Scheduled to be on the last flight, his turn was canceled due to the success of Cooper's mission.
  • Women also wanted to be astronauts. A group of thirteen women went through various phases of astronaut training before being denied the right to train for Project Mercury. The women, who called themselves the "Mercury 13," (see Martha Ackmann entry) fought for their right to go to space by appealing to both President Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) and the U.S. Congress. Their pleas fell on deaf ears, and none of them were allowed to fly.

Consider the following …

  • The Mercury 7 astronauts were space pioneers. Do you think that you would have been brave enough to go into space in 1962? How about now? Do you think it is safer to go to space now than it was in 1962? Why or why not?
  • NASA now has an ultimate goal of sending a manned mission to Mars. Do you think this is an important mission, or have we learned all we need to know from space exploration? Why or why not?

For More Information


Carpenter, Scott, and Kris Stoever. For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Glenn, John H. Letters to John Glenn: With Comments by J. H. Glenn, Jr. New York: World Book Encyclopedia Science Service, 1964.

Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option: Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Spangenburg, Ray, Diane Moser, and Kit Moser. Project Mercury. New York: Scholastic, 2000.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979; Reprinted, New York: Bantam, 1980.

Web Sites

"Mercury." Kennedy Space Center, (accessed on August 4, 2004).

"Space History: Project Mercury." The Ultimate Space (accessed on August 4, 2004).

Other Sources

The Right Stuff. Warner Home Video, 1983 (DVD).

Fraternity: A group of people, usually men, associated or formally organized for a common purpose, interest, or pleasure.

Ineffable: Indescribable.

Hurtling: Rapidly moving.

Moxie: Courage, determination.

Infinite: Never-ending.

Babylonian: Referring to the ancient city of Babylon, now in ruins, on the Euphrates River, about 55 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq.

Diligent: Hard-working, industrious.

Motif: Repeated theme or idea.

Consternation: Amazement or dismay that hinders or throws into confusion.

Imperative: Command, order.

Scott Crossfield: Test pilot A. Scott Crossfield (1921–).

Pancho's: A hangout for the test pilots, owned by female stunt pilot and civilian test pilot Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes (1901–1975).

Brethren: Group of unconventional test pilots, including Scott Crossfield.

Bedlam: Extreme confusion or noisy uproar.

Lunatic: Insane person.

Dingaling: Scatterbrained or stupid person.

Touting: Publicizing or promoting.

Larry Lightbulb scheme: Offensive term used to refer to experiments thought up by scientists without regard to the effect on human test subjects.

Funk: Atmosphere.

Wire up the kazoo: A medical sensor inserted rectally.

Spam in a can: Slang phrase meaning useless. (Spam was an unpopular canned meat product.)