Saturday, January 03, 2009

Vacation Reading: THE RIGHT STUFF

Happy New Year folks! After a fun few days in the sun (and a few more at home in recovery), I've decided to do a quick series about the books I blew through while trying to keep my kids from jumping into the lagoons to "play" with the sharks they had on display.

First up is The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. After catching the last half of the movie on AMC a couple weeks ago I lamented on twitter that I had yet to get off my ass to read the book, one quick recommendation from Kevin Church and a 40% off coupon from Borders later and it was on the top of the pile for my vacation. Being a space geek from earliest childhood, my first ever book report was about a biography of John Glenn, I was very familiar with the story of the Mercury Seven astronauts and the American space program in general, I've also seen the film many, many times. However, the book is a much different animal than the movie, which seemed to be a much more straight forward docu-drama about how the men were chosen and what happened during the years of the program. Wolfe, in his book, seems more interested in getting in their head and finding out, "what makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle wait for someone to light the fuse?" He also delves into the idea that the Astronauts were not merely meant to be heroes to our nation, but our ultimate heroes during the Cold War, single-combat warriors battling the Russian Cosmonauts for rule over the very space above our heads.

I think he does the first the best, helping us to understand the mind-set of a military pilot and how the best of the best judge themselves against each other. The supreme amount of confidence that a ma must have being a pilot at that time, knowing you had a 20% chance of dieing by simply climbing into an airplane in those days must have been stifling. Yet, Wolfe never makes these men out to be egotistical. They are doing a job that requires them to be this way, and quite simply, it almost makes them, ad their families unable to operate as "normal" society does. In a way, it mirrors what seems to be happening with returning Iraq and Afghan War veterans with PTSD, and I wonder if he looked into those who had "the right stuff" and lost it ever experienced symptoms of PTSD, or if that was a closed subject, both in the 1950's & 60's when these events occurred and even in the late 1970's when this book was written.

Wolfe's second theme of the book, that the Astronaut's were America's proxy single-combat warriors of the skies didn't work so well for me. Probably because, by the time I was a child, the Cold War was still going on and space seemed less like a battle ground than an empty place where ICBM's will pass in the night whist on their way to delivering mutually-assured destruction. Wolfe even goes as far as to declare the Cold War over once the US pushes forward its agenda to go to the moon, despite the War forging ahead for at least two more decades. I understand his point, but the Astronauts proved to be simply warriors in a battle that came in the middle of the war.

All of this is not to say that I did not enjoy the book, the cooperation of many of the Astronauts in the writing of the book is what makes it the most interesting, as a long time space geek, I'm very familiar with the time lines and the general facts of each launch, but the personal recollections ad some of the behind-the-scenes politicking of the missions are very enlightening. Also, it is a very quick, snappy read. I blew through its 351 pages in two days, so I highly recommend it.

Other recommended reading: Andrew Chaikin's A Man on the Moon, is probably my favorite book on the American space program, gaining incredible access to NASA and the twelve men who walked on the moon, this book (at 720 pages) is a solid brick of knowledge, but it's also a very fast read as well.

No comments: