Book Review: The Right Stuff
Virgil “Gus” Grissom
These are the Mercury Seven.
Tom Wolfe chronicles the meteoric rise of these legendary pioneers of the Space Age in his 1979 classic The Right Stuff.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully propelled the satellite Sputnik 1 into the night sky, launching the Space Age --- and the Space Race.
President Eisenhower set the tone for the American Space Race by creating NASA as a civilian (instead of a military) space agency, although Ike personally insisted that NASA’s astronauts come from the ranks of military test pilots, the jocks of the jocks.
This was a rather curious order.
What exactly was NASA training decorated combat pilots like John Glenn to accomplish?
In all honestly, nothing a trained monkey couldn’t do.
Literally. Three months prior to Glenn’s space flight, NASA had sent a Mercury test capsule into orbit with a chimpanzee named Enos, who pushed buttons and pulled levers as he had been trained, and just as Glenn would imitate later.
For John Glenn and the Mercury 7, space travel was more of an achievement than an accomplishment.
But the symbolism of their achievements --- particularly John Glenn’s first orbits --- resonated powerfully through the hearts of the American people.
On February 20, 1962, John Glenn soared into space inside a Mercury space capsule atop an Atlas rocket, becoming the first American to orbit the earth.
Glenn returned to Earth 4 hours and 56 minutes later to a hero’s welcome.
President Kennedy flew to Florida aboard Air Force One to personally chauffeur Glenn back to Washington, where the new astronaut addressed a rare joint session of Congress. On March 1, 1962, the Big Apple showered praise and glory upon Glenn, honoring him with the largest ticker tape parade in New York City history.
Glenn’s parade would prove to be the high water mark of the Space Race --- not even Neil Armstrong would return to such euphoric adulation after landing on the moon in July 1969.
So, what about the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union led Americans to view the triumphal reentry of the first American in orbit as an epochal moment, perhaps only to be eclipsed by the Second Coming of Christ?
Why did the Mercury 7 accomplish so little yet achieve so much?
Above all, why did John Glenn and the Mercury 7 have The Right Stuff?