Even Tom Wolfe can’t make me care about the Mercury Program Astronauts.
At age 14, when I first encountered Tom Wolfe, his work was an adrenaline shot. I got hold of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his portrait of the group of psychonaut drop-outs clustered around Ken Kesey. For the next decade I fantasized about going to San Francisco and joining a nomadic band of freaks.
If this longing was mostly caused by the subject matter, some of the responsibility of Tom Wolfe. His prose is always an overexcited, colloquial splurge of words, like a Good Ol’ Boy on speed. His fellow New Journalist Hunter S Thompson is the obvious comparison. Hunter, though, was in real life at least half as bonkers as his gonzo persona. Tom Wolfe was the straightest of the straight, but with sufficient journalistic chops to get inside the heads of the most varied people.
So even though I don’t care much about astronauts, I imagined Tom Wolfe might be able to show me their character.
The problem is, Wolfe seems not to care that much about astronauts either.
Perhaps a third of the book is dedicated to military test pilots, from whose ranks the first astronauts were chosen. This is by far the best part of the book. Wolfe describes a culture on – or sometimes over – the boundary between bravery and self-destruction, where fatal crashes are an unremarkable event. And yet he makes it comprehensible. The pilots are a band of young men who consider themselves a natural elite. Alongside bravery they share reflexes, calm under pressure, and an almost supernatural knack for getting out of tough scrapes. This combination, the ‘Right Stuff’ of the title is the defining feature of the pilots’ self-image, and is how they keep score among themselves.
The astronauts emerge from this world, but into one where there skills are all but valueless. The Mercury rockets allowed almost no manual piloting; the first flights were made by chimpanzees. In almost all their actions, the astronauts are subject to orders from engineers on the ground. So even while they are feted by society, test pilots sneer that they no longer have ‘The Right Stuff’
The problem is that, as the astronauts have nothing to do, the narrative naturally loses its drive. We hear about their car racing, their womanizing, their experiences of celebrity, their internal squabbles – but none of it seems to matter.
The suicidal passion of the test pilots might seem ridiculous from the outside, but it felt serious and honorable and life-defining. The astronauts’ mission was historic, but only minimally reliant on the men in the capsules. And so, in the end, I found it hard to work up excitement about these astronauts.