Tom said that knew the moment he heard that phrase that he had found the title for his book. Not long after, his wife suggested that — though his original plan had been to write about Mercury, Gemini and Apollo — he had done enough by telling the story of Mercury. He had documented America’s first steps off our planet in a unique way. And he’d found his title. He submitted the manuscript to his publisher not long after, and the book was published in 1979. It’s never been out of print since.
“Whenever I tell people how inspired I was by ‘The Right Stuff,’” I said, “they always assume that I was inspired by the idea of space travel. But the truth is, I was captivated by your descriptions of the test pilots, before any of them were chosen as astronauts. The idea that their job was to get into an experimental airplane and struggle to stay alive just by their wits — I wanted to do that.”
“Even with the way the book starts?” Tom asked.
The book begins with a test pilot getting smashed to bits when his airplane malfunctions; a few pages later, another dies when a catapult on an aircraft carrier fails, and “his ship just dribbled off the end of the deck, with its engine roaring vainly, and fell 60 feet into the ocean and sank like a brick.” A pilot “rolls in like corkscrew from 800 feet up and crashes”; another passes out when his oxygen system fails; another let his airspeed fall too low before extending his flaps and loses control of the airplane.
Tom was right to sound incredulous: This part of the book was not exactly an advertisement for flight test. A career Navy pilot faced a 23 percent likelihood of dying from an accident — and this statistic did not include deaths in combat, since those could not be classified as “accidental.”
All this was meant to create a sense of the kind of courage these men had to possess in order to simply do their jobs every day. Before Tom’s readers could understand the concept of “the right stuff,” they had to understand the risks those pilots faced (and still face). But, I tried to explain to Tom, as a college freshman I saw something in those opening pages that spoke to me. I told him that seeing the risk of death brought to life on the page affected me the way nothing else had before. If I could risk my life in the same way, relying on my wits to bring me back down onto the runway in one piece, that would be something. Risking my life would give me life a meaning it hadn’t seemed to have before.
I followed the paths of the characters in the book as closely as I could — joined the Navy, became a naval aviator, qualified to fly jets off an aircraft carrier, was accepted into the Navy test pilot school at the Patuxent River air station, where “The Right Stuff” begins. I flew experimental aircraft and tested their flying abilities. Unlike many of the characters in the first pages of the book, I’d come back alive every time. Only after having survived all that did I apply to NASA as an astronaut; then I flew another experimental craft, the space shuttle.
I didn’t entirely understand, when I was a kid reading “The Right Stuff” for the first time, that in a sense Tom had invented the idea of the astronaut by writing about the Mercury 7. He taught us how to read their identical crew cuts and enormous wristwatches, their rakish smiles and indomitable swagger, their “Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving,” their endless pool parties at Cape Canaveral, racing their Corvettes along the highway testing their luck and believing themselves (incorrectly) to be “equally gifted in the control of all forms of locomotion.” By the time I became an astronaut myself, the culture had changed — the astronaut corps was more diverse and less debauched, but some of the swagger remained.