Monday, December 14, 2020

Book Review: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

I saw the movie of The Right Stuff eons ago and don't remember much about it. But the new show on Disney Plus is awesome! So partway through I remembered that my company publishes the book and I could easily read it, and so I did! 

Now, the Disney Plus show leaves out half of the book. It only focuses on the astronauts. When really the "right stuff" is referring to pilots. And half of the book looks at Chuck Yaeger and his fellow test pilots, some of whom did go on to join the astronauts. But he makes an excellent point that the Mercury astronauts at least weren't really piloting the spacecraft by any loose definition of the word. The first capsules didn't have a window or even controls. They quickly made NASA add those but still--97% of the piloting was done on the ground. Although that became less so with each trip. 

But the test pilots flying the X planes were truly pilots in every sense of the word, and they were doing some seriously scary, experimental stuff, including actually flying as high as space, and of course breaking the sound barrier and eventually flying upwards of Mach 10. The book lays out the question of what makes one an astronaut and one a pilot--if it's going to space, then technically many of the test pilots did that. If it's rather time spent in space, than Alan Shepherd's first Mercury flight probably wouldn't count (clocking in his time in space around 15 minutes. He only ended up in the Caribbean when he landed.) So what is the difference? Where is the line drawn? 

It seems like a shame that the experimental Air Force aircraft were essentially abandoned soon after the Mercury spacecrafts launched. A lot of money, time, expertise, and lives were spent in those experiments. Although I think that recently Virgin Galactic has been going back to some of those earlier designs.

Come for the history, stay for the thrilling excitement as Air Force pilots zap through space so much faster and higher than you ever thought possible. And learn what parts of the TV show are legit (pretty much everything--it's very well researched.)

This book is published by FSG/Picador, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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