It’s possible there exist plenty of places on the internet where you can read about the historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies in The Right Stuff. This is not really that place. I chose to overlook that and focus on one very important thing they got right. It is an inspiring story of the early tribulations of America’s space program, and to this day, it’s still an inspiring watch.
I have not yet read Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff on which the film was based, though it is making its way to the top of my list. And while it moves up the list it isn’t at the top because I already possess a fair amount of knowledge about NASA’s early days, mostly from my non-fiction reading. Within many of those NASA biographies is a yearning for the passion to return to the Moon and space exploration and better government support, like the early days of Mercury, when the race for space was still a competition and before American took the lead in Gemini and never looked back.
But Gemini is getting ahead of this story. The Right Stuff is about Mercury. And it’s a love letter to a time in aviation when we looked up to move forward.
If you’re unfamiliar or need a refresher, The Right Stuff follows two main tracks of history; the breaking of the sound barrier and test pilots mainly focused on Chuck Yeager; and the creation, training, technology, publicity, and eventual flights of the Mercury astronauts.
As I said, it may not be 100% accurate, but it is 110% faithful to the accomplishments. Chuck Yeager was the first man to break the sound barrier, and the men chosen to become what we know now as the Mercury 7, were put through many tests, some never before done to a human, in order to be selected.
Pilots, especially test pilots, always took some issue with engineers’ facts, as a point of contention because they were on the ground, though some did fly. In the film, as in real life, this was also something the early astronauts dealt with. Both are seen on the screen in this film.
The poetry of the demon at Mach 1, is disturbingly beautiful: “There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.”
Then again, there is always poetry when it comes to unknowns. Just like fighter pilots have their superstitions… The best illustration of that in The Right Stuff is the repeated exchange of Yeager and Ridley:
Yeager: Hey, Ridley, ya got any Beeman’s?
Ridley: Yeah, I think I got me a stick.
Yeager: Loan me some, will ya? I’ll pay ya back later.
Ridley: Fair enough.
Additionally, Ridley was played by Levon Helm, the drummer for The Band. Now, before I let you move along, may I state that Deke Slayton gets the very shortest end of this stick in this historical fiction, but also for a long time in real life. The man was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, and yet a heart murmur kept him from his Mercury ride. And yet the entire thing is not mentioned once, was it in the book? I’ll find out soon enough and that’s why it’s moved up my reading list. Still, he did finally get to go up on the Apollo-Soyuz mission.
Despite its inaccuracies, because Hollywood is Hollywood and this is a compelling historical drama based on true events, it does succinctly impress upon the viewer the enormity of the task that was accomplished, and furthermore, while the fictionalized events and the way The Right Stuff as a film is told may be inspiring, the actual events of historical and technological significance are even more inspiring if you take the time to learn more about NASA, test pilots and the Mercury 7.
So, what better to do than to end this with Alan Shepard’s prayer, which is also referenced in Space Cowboys, “Dear Lord, please don’t let me fuck up.”
We could all use Shepard’s Prayer from time to time…