Books: Skywriting with Gus and Deke

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 4)

Yeager dips out of Wolfe's pages as the undisputed king of the right stuff, the man whose no-sweat, West Virginia drawl sounds like the archetype for modern airlinese ("We've got a little ol' red light up here on the control panel that's tryin' to tell us that the landin' gears're not... uh ... lockin' into position"). He is also the book's main foil, a member of a vanishing breed of hot-rock pilot in an age of increasingly automated flight.

The astronauts were sensitive about their missions' being controlled by earth-bound technicians. The chosen seven had pulled out of enough tight corners and survived enough glitches to rise to the top of what Wolfe, in a seizure of cliché avoidance, calls "the ziggurat." As a reminder that he was there too, Yeager told reporters he did not want to be an astronaut because they did no real flying. He then rubbed it in by saying that "a monkey's gonna make the first flight." Shepard, Glenn and company bucked back, demanding and getting concessions like an override control stick and windows in the capsule. The men had been selected for their experience, superb physical conditioning and ability to stand psychological stress. What the groundlings had not anticipated was commensurate egos.

John Glenn, for example: Wolfe sketches him as a bit of a prig, a jogging, strait-laced Presbyterian driving an underpowered Peugeot, who scolded his colleagues for their after-hours whoopee. The current Senator from Ohio, Wolfe suggests, may have gone to NASA officials in an effort to replace Shepard on the first flight. Others, too, according to Wolfe, would act in ways that demonstrated that "feeling of superiority, appropriate to him and to his kind." Gus Grissom almost certainly blew the hatch too soon, flooding and sinking his capsule, and then stubbornly maintained that the machine "malfunctioned." Scott Carpenter, a man who could hold his breath for 171 seconds, ignored warnings about wasting hydrogen peroxide fuel and nearly skipped off the earth's atmosphere during reentry.

Six years in the research and writing, Wolfe's most ambitious work is crammed with inside poop and racy incident that 19 years ago was ignored by what he terms the "proper Victorian Gents" of the press. The fast cars, booze, astro groupies, the envies and injuries of the military caste system were not part of what Americans would have considered the right stuff. Wolfe lays it all out in brilliantly staged Op Lit scenes: the tacky cocktail lounges of Cocoa Beach where one could hear the Horst Wessel Song sung by ex-rocket scientists of the Third Reich; Vice President Lyndon Johnson furiously cooling his heels outside the Glenn house because Annie Glenn would not let him in during her husband's countdown; Alan Shepard losing a struggle with his full bladder moments before liftoff; the overeager press terrifying Ham the chimp after his proficient flight; the astronauts surrounded by thousands of cheering Texans waving hunks of rare meat during an honorary barbecue in the Houston Coliseum.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4