New York : Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. Inscribed by Tom Wolfe. First Edition. Hardcover. 436 pages ; 21 cm. $12.95 dust jacket with a few tears around the dust jacket edges. Pages are clean and unmarked. Binding is firm.
Men first flew into space in 1961, bu until now few people have had a sense of the most engrossing side of that adventure: namely, the perceptions and goals of the astronauts themselves, aloft and during certain remarkable odysseys on earth.
It is this, the inner world of the early astronauts, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and their confreres, that Tom Wolfe describes with his extraordinary powers of empathy. He shows us the hidden Olympus to which all ambitious combat and test pilots aspired, the top of the pyramid of the right stuff. And we learn the nature of the ineffable pilot's grace without which all else meant nothing.
We see the men whose achievements dominated the flying fraternity in the late 1950's as the space age began, men like Chuck Yeager and Joe Walker, pilots of the first rocket planes, most notably the X-I and the X-15. The selection of the Mercury astronauts in 1959 shook up the fraternity as thoroughly as had Yeager's breaking of the sound barrier twelve years before. Public excitement and concern over the space race with the Soviets immediately elevated the seven astronauts to the uneasy eminence of heroes, long before their first flight.
At the time, the press depicted them as Flying Saints buttressed by Doris Day wives, or else as robots dialed up and down by NASA engineers. After months with astronauts and their families and others in and around the space program in Houston, Cape Kennedy, and elsewhere, Wolfe found the truth to be profoundly different from either stereotype. Through his account we become privy to moments of cosmic dimension and low comedy, as well as deep emotion, that Mission Control never knew about. We are with the astronauts and their wives during the flights and afterwards, as they deal with the unknowns and dangers of both rocket flights into space and the fame and celebrity no one had trained them for.
Nor was the public glory ever sufficient in itself. We see the seven men, in the very moment of their idolization by the outside world, struggling to gain the respect of their peers within the flying fraternity, even to the point of altering NASA's original conception of the astronaut's role—in keeping with the unspoken prerequisites of the right stuff.
Because Wolfe presents the astronauts at every turn as full-blooded human beings, he gives their triumphs a dimension that raises them above the technological. In the process the adventure itself—man's attempt to explore his galaxy—comes alive for the first time.
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