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Grant McIntyre on Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, Slightly Foxed 82

Spaced Out

On 16 July 1969 I was in Florida with three friends, driving along the mile-wide Indian River. We were trying to park our battered Oldsmobile and look over the water to Apollo 11, because on board was the man who was going to be first on the Moon. Of course, nearly a million people had already arrived and every parkable inch was taken, but by marvellous luck a car pulled out from the river’s edge, so we seized the spot and joined the crowd.

It was a patient but excited crowd, like a medieval throng waiting for a miracle. And in due course that’s more or less what we got. There was incandescent flame and a vast sheet of blinding white, explosions crashed staccato one into another, the ground shook, our bodies shook, patterns rippled on our skin, we were briefly struck deaf – and above all this the huge rocket with its tail of flame slowly rose and accelerated into the blue. Like a proper miracle this was extreme, unforgettable and very moving.

We watched the continuing drama from down-at-heel Key West, on a black-and-white TV wired into the car’s cigar-lighter. There was plenty to keep us gripped, and also an extra question: what kind of men would take on a mission like this? Only ten years later, in 1979, did a book appear with an answer. It was The Right Stuff and was about these very men, the pilots from whom the first space crews were chosen. The author was Tom Wolfe – later famous for his white suit and his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Along with Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson, Wolfe advocated a New Journalism where personal engagement was the better part of reportage. In this book he certainly engaged – with the pilots, their demons, their rivalries and their wives. He was interested in humans more than hardware. So for me this was the right book.

Almost all the men were Korean War veterans who’d become

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On 16 July 1969 I was in Florida with three friends, driving along the mile-wide Indian River. We were trying to park our battered Oldsmobile and look over the water to Apollo 11, because on board was the man who was going to be first on the Moon. Of course, nearly a million people had already arrived and every parkable inch was taken, but by marvellous luck a car pulled out from the river’s edge, so we seized the spot and joined the crowd.

It was a patient but excited crowd, like a medieval throng waiting for a miracle. And in due course that’s more or less what we got. There was incandescent flame and a vast sheet of blinding white, explosions crashed staccato one into another, the ground shook, our bodies shook, patterns rippled on our skin, we were briefly struck deaf – and above all this the huge rocket with its tail of flame slowly rose and accelerated into the blue. Like a proper miracle this was extreme, unforgettable and very moving. We watched the continuing drama from down-at-heel Key West, on a black-and-white TV wired into the car’s cigar-lighter. There was plenty to keep us gripped, and also an extra question: what kind of men would take on a mission like this? Only ten years later, in 1979, did a book appear with an answer. It was The Right Stuff and was about these very men, the pilots from whom the first space crews were chosen. The author was Tom Wolfe – later famous for his white suit and his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Along with Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson, Wolfe advocated a New Journalism where personal engagement was the better part of reportage. In this book he certainly engaged – with the pilots, their demons, their rivalries and their wives. He was interested in humans more than hardware. So for me this was the right book. Almost all the men were Korean War veterans who’d become test pilots. They came from small towns, eldest sons of solid WASP families, born into conservative America but too energetic and too talented to stay there. In fact Wolfe was those things too, so he had an excellent sense of these young men, ‘quite common in the United States actually, who would fight you down to the last unbroken bone over an insult to the grey little town they came from . . . while at the same time . . . they prostrated themselves in thanksgiving to the things that had gotten them the hell out’. These men though were not just getting out. They’d chosen risk – insane risk. Their job was to take the newest, hottest jets into the air, or rocket planes to the edge of space, and find the absolute limits of what they could do, or what physics might stop them doing. Plenty of scientists thought a plane would just break up if it hit the sound barrier. And there was the ‘three-dimensional ice rink’ of weightlessness. Without gravity to steady it, wouldn’t a plane be uncontrollable? There was nothing to be done but try it and see. Someone figured that test fliers faced a one-in-four chance of accidental death. The psychological mystery that animated Wolfe was why they ‘were willing – willing? – delighted! – to take on such odds’. He’d decided to contact some and ask. But it turned out that pilots didn’t talk – not about that anyway. For the pilots there was really only flying, and men were divided into those who had it and those who didn’t. It was never discussed. It was clearly a ‘special, ineffable something’ but it wasn’t just readiness to risk your life.
Any fool could do that . . . No, the idea [was] that a man should go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment. And then go up again the next day, and the next.
A man who could face death every day, and always cheat it, was the Right Stuff. And those two words were the closest anyone got to a definition. Again and again as they climbed through their training, up a sort of ziggurat of horror, pilots had had to show they were that stuff, or else fail. Failure was frequent and subtle: a trainee naval pilot might find himself in line to learn how to land a jet fighter at 150 m.p.h. on the 300-foot deck (‘so damned small! . . . a skillet!’) of an aircraft-carrier heaving on the waves, possibly at night. Jet fighters with their razor-like wings couldn’t be controlled at less than headlong speed. Standing on the deck watching a ‘fifteen-ton brick with some poor son-of-a-bitch riding it’ slam screaming on to the deck, needing to catch the restraining wire or else flip off into the deep, any man might develop symptoms – claustrophobia? blurred vision? numb hands? – and have to fall back on some lesser career. But for those who could handle them the extremes were addictive.
To take off [in a rocket plane] at dawn and cut in the afterburner and hurtle twenty-five thousand feet up into the sky in thirty seconds, so suddenly that you felt not like a bird but like a trajectory, yet with full control, full control of four tons of thrust, all of which flowed from your will and through your fingertips . . . until all at once . . . you were utterly free of the earth . . . To describe it, even to wife, child, near ones and dear ones, seemed impossible.
Among all the flight-test stations for Army, Navy or Air Force pilots with their state-of-the-art, million-dollar machinery, the ultimate Right Place was Edwards Air Force Base near Los Angeles, a ‘rat-shack kingdom’ on a dry lake-bed, smooth and level for mile after mile; nothing but tumbleweed, twisted Joshua trees ‘like some arthritic nightmare’, ‘two Quonset-style hangars . . . a couple of gasoline pumps . . . a few tarpaper shacks and some tents’. Top brass did not appear there. But there was Pancho’s Fly Inn. She – Pancho – was ex-big money, ex-pastor’s wife and ex-Mexican gun-runner. She dressed like Barbara Stanwyck and ran a low-rent bar that was not good at all for family life but was fine for egos to arm-wrestle over beers late into the night. Top pilots knew how extraordinary they were. They had infinite self-belief, and not one of them rated any of the others. Or recognized his wife’s endless dread. ‘The only thing bigger than [the pilots’] egos’, said one of them, ‘was their wives’ sense of insecurity.’ So wives had to be the Right Stuff too. ‘Sometimes when [one of them] would have a reunion with the girls she went to school with, an odd fact would dawn on her: they would not have been going to funerals.’ These other wives might talk of dog-eat-dog at the office, but if one of their husbands actually did die on the job he would probably have choked on a chunk of steak. Meanwhile at the airstrips all too often word would get round that ‘something had happened out there’, and no one would know whose husband it had happened to until some senior man – always a man – had located the right wife and brought her the news, ‘on ice, like a fish’. Then the formal clothes would come out, brave children would stand in church with their brave mother, the hymn would be sung for those in peril in the air, and the battle of bravado and grief would continue as before.

*

In October 1957, though, things went wrong for the Right Stuff. Russia coolly transformed the Cold War by using a rocket to put an unmanned craft they called Sputnik (‘fellow traveller’) into actual space orbit round the Earth. There was political panic in America. With this technology scaled up, ‘the Soviets could surely drop nuclear bombs at will, like rocks from a highway overpass’. Outer space was now a battle zone and America had to act quickly. Suddenly the future was not planes flown by ace fliers, but capsules launched on rockets and controlled by computers on the ground. The ‘pilot’ of such a capsule – once an ace flier but now an astronaut, whatever that was – would have no agency at all, possibly not even a window. His task now was not to test the craft but to test the effects of stresses on a human frame, to be a living crash test dummy with electrodes all over his body and a thermometer up his arse to check his state of mind. Flights would end with man and capsule dumped in the sea (‘like a monkey in a bucket’) for a helicopter rescue with no dignity at all. It was all over for heroic dazzle. Naturally, this caused unspeakable grief. Even hard-boiled Wolfe could feel for those pilots. But there was more. Thanks to this new tech, America was no longer in front, and first attempts to catch up were disastrous. American rockets zigzagged off course or just blew up, like some absurdist art form. The press sneered about Kaputnik or Stayputnik. The Soviet Ambassador drily offered aid under the Russian Technical Assistance Program. Was there hope that Americans might still put the first manned flight in deep space? No, Yuri Gagarin pipped them. Worse again, the pipped American flight was arguably not quite in space – it was shot up to near space, like a giant champagne cork. Meanwhile Gagarin had gone round the world in eighty-nine minutes. Happily, soon afterwards John Glenn managed three undeniable, heroic orbits, so at least the arms race was level again, and tickertape parades could go ahead. But the Russians were tougher competition than anyone had thought, and America needed an awesome technical triumph to take back the lead. On 25 May 1961, Kennedy announced the goal ‘before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth’. The very flight I watched with my friends in 1969.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 82 © Grant McIntyre 2024


About the contributor

Grant McIntyre was for a long time a publisher, but now mostly reads, sometimes writes and occasionally paints or sculpts.

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