The Right StuffTom WolfeContentsForewordThe AngelsThe Right StuffYeagerThe Lab RatIn Single CombatOn the BalconyThe CapeThe ThronesThe VoteRighteous PrayerThe Unscrewable PoochThe TearsThe Operational Stuff
The ClubThe High DesertEpilogueAuthor's NoteForewordThis book originated with some ordinary, curiosity.What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to situp on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as aRedstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait forsomeone to light the fuse? I decided on the simplestapproach possible. I would ask a few astronauts andfind out. So I asked a few in December of 1972 whenthey gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch the lastmission to the moon, Apollo 17. I discovered quicklyenough that none of them, no matter how talkativeotherwise, was about to answer the question or evenlinger for more than a few seconds on the subject at theheart of it, which is to say, courage.
But I did sense that the answer was not to be found inany set of traits specific to the task of flying into space.The great majority of the astronauts who had flown therockets had come from the ranks of test pilots. All but afew had been military test pilots, and even those few,such as Neil Armstrong, had been trained in the military.And it was this that led me to a rich and fabulous terrainthat, in a literary sense, had remained as dark as the farside of the moon for more than half a century: militaryflying and the modern American officer corps.Immediately following the First World War a certainfashion set in among writers in Europe and soon spreadto their obedient colonial counterparts in the UnitedStates. War was looked upon as inherently monstrous,and those who waged it—namely, military officers—were looked upon as brutes and philistines. The tonewas set by some brilliant novels; among them, All Quieton the Western Front, The Journey to the End of theNight and The Good Soldier Schweik. The onlyproper protagonist for a tale of war was an enlistedman, and he was to be presented not as a hero but as
Everyman, as much a victim of war as any civilian. Anyofficer above the rank of second lieutenant was to bepresented as a martinet or a fool, if not an outrightvillain, no matter whom he fought for. The old-fashionedtale of prowess and heroism was relegated to secondand third-rate forms of literature, ghost-writtenautobiographies and stories in pulp magazines in theorder of Argosy and Bluebook.Even as late as the 1930s the favorite war stories in thepulps concerned World War I pilots. One of the fewscientific treatises ever written on the subject of braveryis The Anatomy of Courage by Charles Moran, whoserved as a doctor in the trenches for the British inWorld War I (and who was better known later as LordMoran, personal physician to Winston Churchill).Writing in the 1920s, Moran predicted that in the warsof the future adventurous young men who sought gloryin war would tend to seek it as pilots. In the twentiethcentury, he said, they would regard the military pilot asthe quintessence of manly daring that the cavalrymanhad been in the nineteenth.
Serious treatment of the drama and psychology of thisnew pursuit, flying high-performance aircraft in battle,was left to the occasional pilot who could write, themost notable of them being Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.The literary world remained oblivious. Nevertheless,young men did exactly what Moran predicted. Theybecame military officers so that they could fly, and thenflew against astonishingly deadly odds. As late as1970,I was to discover in an article by a military doctorin a medical journal a career Navy pilot faced a 23percent likelihood of dying in an accident. This did noteven include deaths in combat, which at that time, withthe war in Vietnam in progress, were catastrophicallyhigh for Navy pilots. The Right Stuff became the storyof why men were willing—willing?—delighted!—totake on such odds in this, an era literary people hadlong since characterized as the age of the anti-hero.Such was the psychological mystery that animated me inthe writing of this book. And if there were those readerswho were not interested in the exploration of space perse but who were interested in The Right Stuffnonetheless, perhaps it might have been because the
mystery caught their imagination, too.Since this book was first published in 1979 I haveenjoyed corresponding with many pilots and manywidows of pilots. Not all have written to pat me on theback, but almost all seemed grateful that someone hadtried—and it had to be an outsider—to put into wordsmatters that the very code of the pilot rules off-limits inconversation. These matters add up to one of themost extraordinary and most secret dramas of thetwentieth century.T.W.August 19831 - The AngelsWithin five minutes, or ten minutes, no more than that,three of the others had called her on the telephone toask her if she had heard that something had happenedout there.
"Jane, this is Alice. Listen, I just got a call from Betty,and she said she heard something's happened out there.Have you heard anything?" That was the way theyphrased it, call after call. She picked up the telephoneand began relaying this same message to some of theothers."Connie, this is Jane Conrad. Alice just called me, andshe says something's happened "Something was part of the official Wife Lingo fortiptoeing blindfolded around the subject. Being barelytwenty-one years old and new around here, JaneConrad knew very little about this particular subject,since nobody ever talked about it. But the day wasyoung! And what a setting she had for her imminentenlightenment! And what a picture she herselfpresented! Jane was tall and slender and had richbrown hair and high cheekbones and wide brown eyes.She looked a little like the actress Jean Simmons. Herfather was a rancher in southwestern Texas. She hadgone East to college, to Bryn Mawr, and had met herhusband, Pete, at a debutante's party at the Gulph Mills
Club in Philadelphia, when he was a senior at Princeton.Pete was a short, wiry, blond boy who joked around alot. At any moment his face was likely to break into awild grin revealing the gap between his front teeth. TheHickory Kid sort, he was; a Hickory Kid on the debcircuit, however. He had an air of energy, selfconfidence, ambition, joie de vivre. Jane and Petewere married two days after he graduated fromPrinceton. Last year Jane gave birth to their first child,Peter. And today, here in Florida, in Jacksonville, in thepeaceful year 1955, the sun shines through the pinesoutside, and the very air takes on the sparkle of theocean. The ocean and a great mica-white beach areless than a mile away. Anyone driving by will see Jane'slittle house gleaming like a dream house in the pines. Itis a brick house, but Jane and Pete painted the brickswhite, so that it gleams in the sun against a great greenscreen of pine trees with a thousand little places wherethe sun peeks through. They painted the shutters black,which makes the white walls look even more brilliant.The house has only eleven hundred square feet of floorspace, but Jane and Pete designed it themselves and
that more than makes up for the size. A friend of theirswas the builder and gave them every possible break, sothat it cost only eleven thousand dollars. Outside, thesun shines, and inside, the fever rises by the minute asfive, ten, fifteen, and, finally, nearly all twenty of thewives join the circuit, trying to find out what hashappened, which, in fact, means: to whose husband.After thirty minutes on such a circuit—this is not anunusual morning around here—a wife begins to feel thatthe telephone is no longer located on a table or on thekitchen wall. It is exploding in her solar plexus. Yet itwould be far worse right now to hear the front doorbell.The protocol is strict on that point, although writtendown nowhere. No woman is supposed to deliver thefinal news, and certainly not on the telephone. Thematter mustn't be bungled!—that's the idea. No, a manshould bring the news when the time comes, a man withsome official or moral authority, a clergyman or acomrade of the newly deceased. Furthermore, heshould bring the bad news in person. He should turn upat the front door and ring the bell and be standing there
like a pillar of coolness and competence, bearing thebad news on ice, like a fish. Therefore, all the telephonecalls from the wives were the frantic and portentousbeating of the wings of the death angels, as it were.When the final news came, there would be a ring at thefront door—a wife in this situation finds herself staringat the front door as if she no longer owns it or controlsit—and outside the door would be a man come toinform her that unfortunately something has happenedout there, and her husband's body now lies incineratedin the swamps or the pines or the palmetto grass,"burned beyond recognition," which anyone who hadbeen around an air base for very long (fortunately Janehad not) realized was quite an artful euphemism todescribe a human body that now looked like anenormous fowl that has burned up in a stove, burned ablackish brown all over, greasy and blistered, fried, in aword, with not only the entire face and all the hair andthe ears burned off, not to mention all the clothing, butalso the hands and feet, with what remains of the armsand legs bent at the knees and elbows and burned intoabsolutely rigid angles, burned a greasy blackish brown
like the bursting body itself, so that this husband, father,officer, gentleman, this ornamentum of some mother'seye, His Majesty the Baby of just twenty-odd yearsback, has been reduced to a charred hulk with wingsand shanks sticking out of it.My own husband—how could this be what they weretalking about? Jane had heard the young men, Peteamong them, talk about other young men who had"bought it" or "augered in" or "crunched," but it hadnever been anyone they knew, no one in the squadron.And in any event, the way they talked about it, withsuch breezy, slangy terminology, was the same waythey talked about sports. It was as if they were saying,"He was thrown out stealing second base." And thatwas all! Not one word, not in print, not in conversation—not in this amputated language!—about anincinerated corpse from which a young man's spirit hasvanished in an instant, from which all smiles, gestures,moods, worries, laughter, wiles, shrugs, tenderness, andloving looks—you, my love!—have disappeared like asigh, while the terror consumes a cottage in the woods,
and a young woman, sizzling with the fever, awaits herconfirmation as the new widow of the day.The next series of calls greatly increased the possibilitythat it was Pete to whom something had happened.There were only twenty men in the squadron, and soonnine or ten had been accounted for by the flutteringreports of the death angels. Knowing that the word wasout that an accident had occurred, husbands who couldget to a telephone were calling home to say it didn'thappen to me. This news, of course, was immediatelyfed to the fever. Jane's telephone would ring once more,and one of the wives would be saying:"Nancy just got a call from Jack. He's at the squadronand he says something's happened, but he doesn't knowwhat. He said he saw Frank D— take off about tenminutes ago with Greg in back, so they're all right. Whathave you heard?"But Jane has heard nothing except that other husbands,and not hers, are safe and accounted for. And thus, ona sunny day in Florida, outside of the Jacksonville
Naval Air Station, in a little white cottage, a veritabledream house, another beautiful young woman wasabout to be apprised of the quid pro quo of herhusband's line of work, of the trade-off, as one mightsay, the subparagraphs of a contract written in novisible form. Just as surely as if she had the entire rosterin front of her, Jane now realized that only two men inthe squadron were unaccounted for. One was a pilotnamed Bud Jennings; the other was Pete. She pickedup the telephone and did something that was muchfrowned on in a time of emergency. She called thesquadron office. The duty officer answered."I want to speak to Lieutenant Conrad," said Jane."This is Mrs. Conrad.""I'm sorry," the duty officer said—and then his voicecracked. "I'm sorry I " He couldn't find the words!He was about to cry! "I'm—that's—I mean he can'tcome to the phone!"He can't come to the phone!"It's very important!" said Jane.
"I'm sorry—it's impossible—" The duty officer couldhardly get the words out because he was so busygulping back sobs. Sobs! "He can't come to the phone.""Why not? Where is he?""I'm sorry—" More sighs, wheezes, snuffling gasps. "Ican't tell you that. I—I have to hang up now!"And the duty officer's voice disappeared in a great surfof emotion and he hung up.The duty officer! The very sound of her voice wasmore than he could take!The world froze, congealed, in that moment. Jane couldno longer calculate the interval before the front doorbellwould ring and some competent long-faced figurewould appear, some Friend of Widows and Orphans,who would inform her, officially, that Pete was dead.Even out in the middle of the swamp, in this rot-bog ofpine trunks, scum slicks, dead dodder vines, and
mosquito eggs, even out in this great overripe sump, thesmell of "burned beyond recognition" obliteratedeverything else. When airplane fuel exploded, it createda heat so intense that everything but the hardest metalsnot only burned—everything of rubber, plastic,celluloid, wood, leather, cloth, flesh, gristle, calcium,horn, hair, blood, and protoplasm—it not only burned,it gave up the ghost in the form of every stricken putridgas known to chemistry. One could smell the horror. Itcame in through the nostrils and burned the rhinalcavities raw and penetrated the liver and permeated thebowels like a black gas until there was nothing in theuniverse, inside or out, except the stench of the char. Asthe helicopter came down between t