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The Right Stuff
Actor Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager in the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, an exploration of themes of American masculinity and heroism.

We were heroes once: National Geographic’s “The Right Stuff” and the deflation of the astronaut


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Several years ago, National Geographic ventured out beyond documentaries to start producing scripted dramas. So far none of them have hit a high mark—nothing on the order of “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Fargo,” or other prestige television. Most recently they produced “The Right Stuff,” based on Tom Wolfe’s famous book and currently streaming on Disney+. But whereas Wolfe’s book was an exploration of the qualities required of men in a new and highly dangerous job, exploring space, the series is focused on depicting the Mercury astronauts as a bunch of back-biting, egotistical, insecure, argumentative jerks. The differences may be explained by the needs of a multi-episode series, and our changing cultural views of heroism, but the result is unfortunately mediocre.

The astronauts frequently get drunk, misbehave, or are emotionally crippled by the pressures of being a test pilot and losing friends to accidents. None of them possesses admirable qualities.

The eight-episode series spends little time on showing the astronauts training for space, flying their airplanes, or demonstrating the skills that led to their selection for the Mercury program in the first place. Instead, the focus is on rivalries between the astronauts, particularly Alan Shepard and John Glenn, many of them invented. Shepard is portrayed as cold, self-centered, and frequently nasty. Glenn is a boy scout, a square, a Christian, and a good Marine who believes that Shepard’s flaws jeopardize the program. Each is unlikeable in his own way. After Glenn helps cover up one of Shepard’s indiscretions, Shepard quickly—and mistakenly—suspects that Glenn used it to his advantage and turns on him. Glenn then seeks to get Shepard removed from the program. Instead of training hard to be the best, they’re fighting with each other. It is unclear why either man was considered worthy of being in the astronaut program, let alone one of the top candidates for the first Mercury flight.

Shepard and Glenn get the most screen time. The other Mercury astronauts are present, but rarely do much. Gordo Cooper is portrayed as having a loving relationship with his wife Trudy, but in reality, when Cooper was selected for the program, the two were already on the verge of divorce because of his philandering. In the show, Trudy is shown considering trying to become an astronaut herself, until Gordo publicly trashes the idea of women astronauts. Gus Grissom and Deke Slayton are rather bizarrely depicted as mumbling lunkheads. Considering how little screen time Gus Grissom gets, viewers will be surprised when he is selected ahead of Glenn for a mission. Slayton may have had a deep voice, but he was no yokel. The astronauts frequently get drunk, misbehave, or are emotionally crippled by the pressures of being a test pilot and losing friends to accidents. None of them possesses admirable qualities.

Despite a subject that has previously been depicted as big, patriotic, and even bombastic, the series feels small. Too often characters explain major historical events like the Bay of Pigs invasion and Yuri Gagarin’s flight rather the audience seeing them. And it seems like everybody—the astronauts, NASA officials, and eventually the astronauts’ families—all live in the same Cocoa Beach motel for months. The show often feels small and low budget, like they couldn’t go anywhere beyond the filming location and a few sets, and couldn’t afford much in the way of CGI to show the astronauts flying or launching into space.

The need to fill eight episodes of the series probably explains the emphasis—and invention—of interpersonal conflict. The producers decided that their first season would lead up to Shepard’s flight, and presumably a second season, if it happens, will focus on Glenn’s flight. With all those episodes to fill, the writers concluded that they needed the astronauts at each other’s throats for much of the time. Thus, Grissom and Cooper are shown as rivals rather than good friends, and although in reality Glenn had his problems with Shepard, in his biography he claimed to have set them aside to fully support Shepard once he had been selected for the first flight. The problem with the show isn’t so much inaccuracies as tone, and giving the audience a badly distorted portrait of the Mercury astronauts.

The problem with the show isn’t so much inaccuracies as tone, and giving the audience a badly distorted portrait of the Mercury astronauts.

As one example, there was a well-known incident during the Mercury program where NASA officials asked the astronauts to choose who, after themselves, they thought should be first to fly into space. This peer vote resulted in Shepard being selected first, Grissom second, and Glenn third. But by not showing the astronauts’ abilities, barely giving Grissom any screen time, and focusing so much on the infighting, the writers create the impression that this was a popularity contest rather than an assessment of ability.

The requirements of a multi-episode TV show cannot explain all of the differences between the show and a book written more than four decades ago, however. American culture perceives and portrays heroism differently today than it did four decades ago. Consider director Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman, with its wholesome hero, and the more contemporary version of the character in recent movies that have been decried by some displeased fans as “grimdark.” In the modern films, Superman has laid waste to a big part of the city that in earlier eras he was devoted to protecting. Tom Wolfe’s book, which appeared only one year after Donner’s film, was about American heroes and the things that made them heroes. These heroes had flaws, but they were defined by their abilities, their attitudes, and their bravery in the face of danger, despite their flaws. Wolfe clearly had an affinity for the astronauts, and a certain amount of disdain for the doctors and bureaucrats that he believed held them back from heroic acts. Wolfe took a long time to write his book, starting his research and writing while Americans were still flying in space. Wolfe was interested in an American archetype, the kind of man who rode horses and then tamed mechanical beasts of the air.

It’s impossible to refer to the new show without inevitably comparing it to the 1983 movie directed by Philip Kaufman. The film, although not perfect, did a good job at capturing the danger and wonders of launching into space atop a rocket filled with explosive fuel, and the skill, and cockiness of the men who did it. But in the movie, the real hero is not an astronaut, but Chuck Yeager, who is depicted as still out in the desert, pushing the envelope of flight, while the astronauts are little more than test subjects—spam in a can—being hurled around in a vehicle that they have little control over. In one of the film’s final scenes, Yeager loses control of his jet, spins out, and ejects over the desert, his helmet on fire, as the scene cuts back and forth to the astronauts watching a dancer perform in Houston. As the music builds, we see Yeager’s best friend heading out to the crash site, fearing the worst, until his driver asks if he sees a man. “Yeah, you’re damn right it is,” he answers.

Ultimately, it’s not about the right stuff, whatever that may be. Instead, it’s not about much of anything at all.

Despite their differences, the film, like the book, was a celebration of American masculinity. Wolfe’s book was published in 1979 and the movie premiered in 1983. That was a transitional time in American culture, from the post-Vietnam, post-Oil Crisis malaise period of the late 1970s to Reagan’s America, which sought to bolster American pride. Whereas Jimmy Carter became stereotyped as the president in a sweater, Reagan regularly held photo ops of him clearing brush on a ranch, or riding a horse. The American population was looking for heroes, and in different ways, Wolfe and Kaufman provided them.

The TV series could not have taken the same approach. We are far too cynical for that now. Too many heroes have been deconstructed and dethroned since that time, including the early astronauts. But it is a shame that the series never found anything new to say. Ultimately, it’s not about the right stuff, whatever that may be. Instead, it’s not about much of anything at all.


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