The Right Stuff

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The Right Stuff
original movie poster
Starring Fred Ward
Dennis Quaid
Ed Harris
Scott Glenn
Sam Shepard
Barbara Hershey
Lance Henriksen
Veronica Cartwright
Jane Dornacker
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Produced by Irwin Winkler
Written by Philip Kaufman
Tom Wolfe (book)
Distributed by Warner Brothers
Released 21 October, 1983 (premiere)
Runtime 193 minutes
language English
AMG Info All Movie Guide
IMDB Info 0086197 on IMDb

The Right Stuff is a 1979 book by Tom Wolfe, and a 1983 film adapted from the book. They recount the story of the first seven astronauts selected for the NASA space program, based on interviews and research by Wolfe. The story contrasts the "Mercury Seven" and their families with Chuck Yeager, who was considered by many test pilots to be the best of them all, but who was never selected as an astronaut. The Mercury Seven were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.


Author Wolfe wrote that the book was inspired by the desire to find out why the astronauts accepted the danger of space flight. He recounts the enormous risks that test pilots were already taking, and the mental and physical characteristics required for and reinforced by their jobs ("the right stuff"). Wolfe likens the astronauts to "single combat warriors" from an earlier era who received the honor and adoration of their people before going forth to fight on their behalf.

The story is more about the space race than space exploration in general. The Soviet Union's early space efforts are mentioned only as background, focusing entirely on an early portion of the U.S. space program. Only Project Mercury, the first operational manned space-flight program, is covered. Emphasis is given to the personal stories of the astronauts and their wives rather than the technical aspects of space travel and the flights themselves. The storyline also involves the political reasons for putting people into space, asserting that the Mercury astronauts were actually a burden to the program and were only sent up for promotional reasons. Reasons for including living beings in spacecraft are barely touched upon, but the first option considered was to use a chimpanzee (and, indeed, chimpanzees were sent up first). Another option considered were athletes already accustomed to physical stress, such as circus trapeze artists. Wolfe states that President Eisenhower, however, insisted on pilots, even though the first crewmen would not actually fly the spacecraft. When Gus Grissom lands at sea and exits his space capsule, saving the capsule seems more important to the recovery team than saving the pilot because of the value of the data. Another political issue (mentioned in the film, not in the book) concerned the appropriateness of Grissom's names for publicity purposes. Neither his nickname, "Gus", nor his real first name, Virgil, were considered good names for an astronaut; but his second name was Ivan and that was even less appropriate, as it was a common Russian name.

Both sides of the space race (US and USSR) used experienced German engineers and rocket scientists. In a particularly humorous moment in the film version, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson attends a meeting where the politicians are reacting to the news of Sputnik's 1957 launch. Senator Johnson asks "Is it their [the Soviets] German scientists that got them up there first?". At that moment, the "German scientist" (a composite character, heavily patterned on Wernher von Braun) responds: "No Senator...our Germans are better than their Germans." This may have been based upon the fact that, as a result of Operation Paperclip, most of the German managers and engineers went to the United States, while the Soviet Union gained many manufacturing workers.

Another test pilot highlighted in the movie is the late Scott Crossfield. Crossfield and Yeager were fierce but friendly rivals for speed and altitude records.

Wolfe contrasts the Seven with the Edwards test pilots, among which was Chuck Yeager, who was shut out of the astronaut program after NASA officials decided to use college-degreed pilots, not ones who gained their commissions as enlisted men, such as participants in the USAAF Flying Sergeants Program in World War II. Chuck Yeager spent time with Tom Wolfe explaining accident reports "that Wolfe kept getting all wrong." Publishing insiders say these sessions between Wolfe and Yeager led Wolfe to highlight Yeager's character, presence, thoughts, and anecdotes throughout the book. As an example, Yeager prides his speech to the Society of Test Pilots that the first rider in the Mercury development program would be a monkey, not a real test pilot, and Wolfe plays this drama out on the angst felt by the Mercury Astronauts over those remarks. Yeager himself downplayed the theory of "the right stuff," attributing his survival of potential catastrophes to simply knowing his airplane thoroughly, along with some good luck.

The Movie

The 3-hour-13-minute movie stars Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley, Levon Helm, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Lance Henriksen, and the real Chuck Yeager in a cameo appearance. It features a score by composer Bill Conti.

The screenplay was adapted by Philip Kaufman from the book, with some contributions from screenwriter William Goldman (Goldman dissociated himself with the film after quarrelling with Kaufman about the story). The film was also directed by Kaufman. Critical reaction was generally positive, although some complained that the non-astronaut character portrayals (most notably Vice President Lyndon Johnson) were sometimes cartoon-like.

It won Academy Awards for Sound Effects Editing; Best Film Editing; Best Music, Original Score and Best Sound. It was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Sam Shepard), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Cinematography and Best Picture.

When the movie came out, former (and future) astronaut and Senator John Glenn (Ohio) was running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. It was felt that the movie might help his chances, but in fact, his candidacy did not go far.

While the movie took liberties with certain historical facts as part of "dramatic license", criticism focused on one: the portrayal of Gus Grissom panicking when his Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft sank following splashdown. Most historians, as well as engineers working for or with NASA and many of the related contractor agencies within the aerospace industry, are now convinced that the premature detonation of the spacecraft hatch's explosive bolts was caused by failure not associated with direct human error or deliberate detonation at the hands of Grissom. This determination had, in fact, been made long before the movie was filmed, and even Tom Wolfe's book only states that this possibility was considered, not that it was actually judged as being the cause of the accident. However, the book makes clear that, at the time, Grissom was thought to have erred, and this is what is portrayed in the film. Grissom was given only token appreciation by NASA, as compared with the acclaim for Shepard and Glenn. NASA's long-term confidence in Grissom was demonstrated by his close involvement with the Gemini and early Apollo programs, which are beyond the scope of the film (and book). In fact, Grissom was assigned to command the first flights of both Gemini and Apollo. Ironically, Grissom died in the Apollo 1 fire because there was no quick-opening hatch on the Block 1 Apollo Command Module - a design choice made because NASA had determined that the explosion in the hatch on Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 had been most likely self-initiated.

Another fact that had been altered in the movie was the statement by Trudy Cooper, who commented that she "wondered how they would've felt if every time their husband went in to make a deal, there was a one-in-four chance he wouldn't come out of that meeting." According to the book (page 22), this actually reflected the 23% chance of dying during a 20-year career as a normal pilot. For a test pilot, these odds were higher, at 53%, but were still considerably less than the movie implied. In addition, the movie merely used the fictional Mrs. Cooper as a vehicle for the statement; the real Mrs. Cooper is not known to have said this.

Wolfe made no secret that he disliked the movie, especially because of changes from his original book. William Goldman, involved in early drafts of the script, also disliked the choices made by Kaufman, saying in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? that Kaufman believed that Yeager was a true hero, and only he had the titular "right stuff", while the astronauts had just gotten lucky and did not match up to him in any way. Critics, however, generally were favorable toward the movie. Robert Osborne, who introduced showings of the movie on Turner Classic Movies, was quite enthusiastic about the film. The cameo appearance by the real Chuck Yeager in the film was a particular "treat" which Osborne cited.

On June 23, 2003, Warner Brothers released a two-DVD Special Edition that featured scene-specific commentaries with key cast and crew members, deleted scenes, three documentaries on the making of the film including interviews with Mercury astronauts and Chuck Yeager, and a feature-length documentary, John Glenn: American Hero.

In addition, the British Film Institute published a book on the movie by Tom Charity in October 1997 that offered a detailed analysis and behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

In 2005, Tom Hanks had expressed interest in a radio interview in producing a new Right Stuff miniseries in hopes of giving the history and the myths associated a bit more in-depth representation.


  • The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, Published by Bantam Books, 2001 < ISBN:0553381350 > on

A Personal Note from Robin

The Right Stuff is about those test pilots and astronauts who lived, worked and flew from Edwards Air Force Base and Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. Many of the people portrayed in this movie were people that I grew up with. I went to high school and spent time with their children.

Also see the page [ Palmdale ]


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