Right stuff, wrong planes

Book review of The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe*

Have you ever wondered why we don’t have cities on the moon?  We went from putting satellites up, to putting chimps up, to putting people up – to the Moon, to space stations, to . . well, not much after that.  Who cares about a few robots on Mars.  Those things don’t even say, ‘Oh, dear!’ in a really camp way, much less moan, ‘Life?  Don’t talk to me about life.’

In The Right Stuff, we see the beginnings of the space program.  Air Force test pilots were taking up experimental X-planes to the very fringes of space, way back in the 1950s.  Each new place could do more than the previous one, though it was no safer, and the pilots knew that if they had precisely the right combination of rare physical and psychological attributes, and didn’t die like 23% of their colleagues did, they might be the first men to ever fly into space.  Apparently it was worth it, to these men who had the right stuff, although part of that stuff was the quality of never thinking or talking about the awful risk.  And the next generation or two of test pilots might be going places where only Flash Gordon had gone before.

But then along came a man named JFK, whose brain, shortly before being blown out of his handsome skull by CommieNazi CIA aliens in Texas, had the bright idea that the US should send a man to the Moon.  Why?  Well, the Soviets were beating them on every other front in space.  He wanted to open up a new front where America might actually win, and that seemed like the best option.

The problem was, the X-plane program was too incremental.  While the technology might one day offer an all-in-one, there-and-back-again Moontrip, that time was too far off.  JFK needed a win YESTERDAY, so an alternative solution was required.

The strategy was quick, dirty, unsustainable and of no military or civilian use aside from this one mission: send up a massive rocket chockers with fuel then jettison it, send an orbiter to the Moon, then send down a lander, get the lander back to the orbiter, bring the orbiter back to Earth, jettison the orbiter and lander, and the tiny Earth landing module splashes down, the only part of that entire, expensive bunch of equipment not to be burned up or abandoned in space.  And even that bit was not reused, merely studied for future missions.  And one of them sank.

It was the McDonalds of space travel, although a better analogy would be if in all that plastic and paper there were but a single fry that might be et.

The X-planes needed serious pilots, the absolute best of the best from the Navy and Air Force, but the Moonshot would be different.  It would be more like firing a clown out of a cannon.  Physical fitness and ability to withstand stress would be the most important attributes.  There might not be any flying, or even many buttons to press.  Almost everything would be managed far earlier back on Earth.  Hence a chimp was sent up first.  No chimps were ever put in control of X-planes.

Who would be put in these things?  People with deep-sea diving experience?  Scientists?  Athletes?  No one suggested convicts, but the thought must have crossed someone’s mind.  In the end they invited those extremely high-skilled test pilots from the Air Force and other places.  They wouldn’t need to do much once they were up there, but that little they would need to do, they ought to be able to because they were accustomed to extreme pressure, in both respects.

The test pilots were skeptical.  They called the Mercury program ‘spam in a can’.  They wanted to fly, not get shot into space by egg-heads wearing wide-rimmed glasses.  But the recruiter knew how to convince them: he said things like ‘highly dangerous’, ‘national priority’, ‘courage’.  And they were in.

There were rewards, of course.  Famous, heroic, daring – you know what that means:

There were juicy little girls going around saying, “Well, four down, three to go!” or whatever – the figures varied – and laughing like mad.

A few years later funding for the X-plane program was cut, and modern efforts towards achieving commercially-viable space travel with reusable rockets are only a few steps ahead of that 1950s technology.  Had it not been interrupted, perhaps there might now be affordable tourist flights to the Moon.  Or to Mars.  Who knows.

I had previously imagined the Moon landing to be the greatest moment for Western civilization, the pinnacle of all our philosophical, cultural and technological achievements.  But now I wonder if it was perhaps the beginning of the end, or at least a signal that the end was coming.  The US was beginning to veer away from its republican, freedom-loving roots, first towards empire, then towards massively expensive vanity projects such as this.  Various post-WWII conflicts and the Great Society might belong in the same category.  In fact, the two world wars probably belong there, too.

It is sometimes said that technology progresses mostly because of capitalism, but the state has a huge role to play in pushing along the development of military technology.  A serious country, after all, wants to win wars.  A serious country will develop the best weapons it can, or purchase them from others.  Thus, even in the Dark Ages, weaponry improved dramatically even as many civilian technologies were lost.  The Crusaders would have made mincemeat out of any Roman army, though their infrastructure and living standards back home were rubbish in comparison.

In funding the space program and others like it, the US perhaps began to move away from being a serious country.  It was less concerned about viable, long-term space vehicles that might have practical uses, and more concerned with . . . what’s that term?  Oh, I got it: virtue signaling.

On the same theme, consider this longish but important quote:

. . . Yeager got word from the brass that the President . . . was determined that NASA have at least one Negro astronaut in their lineup.  The whole process was to take place organically, however, as in the natural order of things.  Kennedy was leaning on the Defense Department, Defense was leaning on the Air Force brass, and they tossed the potato to Yeager.  The pilot who had been singled out was an Air Force captain named Ed Dwight.  He was to go through ARPS [Aerospace Research Pilot School] and be selected by NASA.  The clouds developed soon enough.  Dwight was enrolled in the basic flight test course along with twenty-five other candidates.  Only the top eleven students could enter ARPS’s six-month space-flight course, which had limited facilities, and Dwight did not rank among the top eleven.  Yeager didn’t see how he could jump him over the other young tigers, all of them desperate to become astronauts.  Every week, it seemed like, a detachment of Civil Rights Division lawyers would turn up from Washington, from the Justice Department, which was headed by the President’s brother Bobby.  The lawyers squinted in the desert sunlight and asked a great many questions about the progress and treatment of Ed Dwight and took notes.  Yeager kept saying he didn’t see how he could simply jump Dwight over these other men.  And the lawyers would come back the next week and squint some more and take some more notes.  There were days when the ARPS seemed like the Ed Dwight case with a few classrooms and some military hardware appended.  A compromise was finally struck in which Dwight would be admitted to the space-flight course, but only if every man who ranked above him was also admitted.  That was how it came to pass that the next class had fourteen students instead of eleven and included Captain Dwight.  Meanwhile, the White House, apparently, was signaling to the Negro press that Dwight was going to be “the first Negro astronaut,” and he was being invited to make public appearances.  He was being set up for a fall, because the chances of NASA accepting him as an astronaut appeared remote in any event.

To the 1979 reader it would have been obvious that this was because Dwight was not among the best candidates, but for today’s audience we must explicitly state this fact, otherwise you-know-what.  And we don’t say ‘Negro’ anymore because a woker term coined thirteen minutes ago is now the only acceptable nomenclature.  Tom goes on:

The whole thing was baffling.  On upper reaches of the great ziggurat [of elite test pilots] the subject of race had never been introduced before.  The unspoken premise was that you either had the right stuff or you didn’t, and no other variables mattered.  When the seven Mercury astronauts had been chosen in 1959, the fact that they were all white and all Protestant seemed to be interpreted as wholly benign evidence of their Small-Town American virtues.  But by now, four years later, Kennedy, who had been supported by a coalition of minority groups in the 1960 election, had begun to raise the question of race as a matter of public policy in many areas.  The phrase “white Protestant” took on a different meaning, so that it was now possible to regard the astronauts as some sort of cadre of whites of northern European racial background.

Nup, not a serious country.  And now that “white Protestant” would have to be accompanied with “straight, cis, male” and maybe half a dozen other categorizations of evil privilege, we can safely say that the entire West is no longer a serious civilization.


* I’m not linking to Amazon anymore because (a) I’ve made a grand total of $13.00 of book vouchers from four years in their affiliate program and (b) they are banning reasonable and moderate books due to media pressure, which makes me disinclined to further reinforce their monopoly.  Does anyone have a suggestion for an alternative retailer I might link?  No affiliate deal necessary, I just want to stick it to Amazon.


  1. philebersole · November 15, 2019

    Yes, Tom Wolfe is a great writer, isn’t he?

    I’ve long tried to avoid buying books from Amazon because of Jeff Bezos’ monopolistic power and monopolistic ambitions.

    I have a Barnes & Noble membership card and credit card partly because Barnes & Noble maintains physical bookstores in my community, which will vanish if B&N can’t complete with Amazon.

    I also order books from Book Depository, which has distribution centers in the UK and Australia. The great advantage of Book Depository is that it ships books anywhere in the world without shipping charges.

    Unfortunately, neither Barnes & Noble nor Book Depository has as broad or deep an inventory as Amazon, so they would not necessarily have the particular books that Amazon dropped. My last resort is to just Google the book title I’m interested in and see what comes up.


  2. RBooster Man · January 18, 2020

    Rocketships aren’t airplanes. That’s why spaceplane boosters are a failed path to full reusability. Without a flyback first stage, there’s no path for a reusable second stage. Now we have rockets that can land as rockets should land (thanks Elon Musk). The path to full reusability is now clear with the Starship/Superheavy.


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