I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. The phrase “The Right Stuff” is an established part of pop culture, but I hadn’t seen the film and didn’t realise this was a book based on true stories as told by the original Mercury 7 astronauts. Conversely, The Bonfire of the Vanities by the same author was fictional – yet made a similar impact on pop culture with Tom Wolfe’s portrayal of bond traders as “Masters of the Universe”.
Wolfe is brilliant at telling a story with such vivid description that you can picture yourself in the scene with the characters. He relates the horrors of plane crashes and the impact on the loved ones of the pilot, the endless waiting among the community of test pilot wives who are frantically guessing whose husband died today. And yet he does it with an upbeat style, because the survivors have to believe that it wouldn’t happen to them, and the reader needs to experience the incredible risks taken by the pilots from their point of view. The remaining cohort, by their continuing existence, prove to themselves every day that they would have found a way to avoid the crash – because they have The Right Stuff.
Suffice to say, this historical account changed my perception of the history of manned American space flight. It was fascinating to look back to a time when the astronauts were seen as mere monkeys dispatched into space on top of a rocket, and not as pilots at all. Initially, it was questioned whether the best test pilots would wish to give up their highly skilled and respected military careers. Yet by the end of the book, being an astronaut is to be a national hero, unquestioningly seen as the top of the pyramid, the highest achievement a flyer could reach.