What "makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle"?
December 26, 2013 2:28 PM   Subscribe

In 1972, Tom Wolfe was assigned to do a piece for Rolling Stone on Apollo 17, NASA's last moon mission (Google book preview). That turned into a four-part series on the astronauts, written in a frantic three weeks. From there, he thought he could quickly expand the piece into a book (Gbp). But that book, on what makes an astronaut, ended up taking a much broader scope and more time. In 1979, The Right Stuff was published, and later was made into a well-regarded 3 hour movie. A few years later, Andrew Chaikin started on a similar path to Wolfe, more broadly documenting the US moon missions in his book, A Man on the Moon. The book was published in 1994, and HBO used it as the basis of a 12-part mini-series that they aired in 1998, titled From the Earth to the Moon.

In Tom Wolfe's interview with Chet Flippo (Google books preview, from The Rolling Stone Interviews, edited by Jann S. Wenne), Wolfe notes that he probably benefited from the Life magazine contract between NASA and the publication, which ended before he approached the Apollo 17 astronauts. However the past deals lead up to his efforts, he spend a considerable time with astronauts, and he had this to say about the mind of the men who had left Earth's gravitational pull:
The main thing to know about an astronaut, if you want to understand his psychology, is not that he's going into space but that he is a flyer and has been in that game for fifteen or twenty years. It's like a huge and very complex pyramid, miles high, and the idea is to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you are one of the elected and anointed ones that have the right stuff and can move even higher and even -- ultimately, God willing, one day -- that you might be able to join that very special few at the very top, that elite who truly have the capacity to bring tears to men's eyes, the very Brotherhood of The Right Stuff itself.
(Excerpted from God Knows All Your Names: Stories in American History, by Paul N. Herbert [Google books preview])

The book was then adapted to film, which you can see on YouTube (full film in one video; "high def" video in two parts: part 1, part 2). There was some artistic license taken with the book, and more for the film, as discussed in this forum, but both are largely considered good documentaries of the U.S. space program.

Andrew Chaikin expanded Wolfe's view to the history of NASA's Apollo program. Mission by mission, Chaikin presents the men who flew to the moon and the staff who supported them in Houston and Florida. This decade-long effort was turned into an HBO mini-series, in part thanks to Tom Hanks, who "[intended] to transform the space program of the 1960s and '70s into nothing less than a heroic, inspiring saga."

The episodes:
1. "Can We Do This?"
A prelude to Apollo, following the beginnings of the manned space race which began with Sputnik, but greatly accelerated after Yuri Gagarin's launch with fears of a "Red Moon," including the flight of Freedom 7, the choice of nine new astronauts to follow the "Original Seven," significant Gemini missions (Ed White's successful spacewalk and the near tragedy of Gemini 8), the fatal jet crash of Bassett and See, and the problems of NASA actually conceiving the mission objectives to send a man to the moon (an almost impossible list).
2. "Apollo One"
The disastrous fire that killed Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White in the 1967 plugs-out test is the subject of part two. After the glitch-ridden spacecraft catches fire, the investigative committee endures the fault-finding between NASA and the North American Aviation Company, builder of the command module, focusing mainly on the conflict between Apollo Spacecraft Manager Joe Shea and North American's Harrison "Stormy" Storms, and the resulting Congressional hearings headed by Walter Mondale, who considered the space program a waste of time.
3. "We Have Cleared the Tower"
Following the Congressional hearings, the Apollo program struggles to get back on track. A documentary team is shown filming a story about the Apollo 7 mission, interviewing everyone from the Mission Control team to nurse Dee O'Hara to Guenter Wendt, the Launch Pad director to, of course, the crew, which is followed through emergency aborts and sober discussion about the needed success of the mission after the fire.
4. "1968"
News footage of the tumultuous events of 1968--the Tet Offensive, rioting, the presidential nominating conventions, escalation in Vietnam, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy--are juxtaposed against the continuing efforts of the Apollo program to achieve their moon landing deadline and the successful test of the Saturn 5 rocket and their discovery of a new Soviet rocket. Thus the decision to send Apollo 8 to the moon without the lunar module.
5. "Spider"
How to get to the moon: many ideas--a few offbeat--are posed, but the two primary ideas are, at first, direct ascent and earth orbit rendezvous. Then an engineer named Tom Dolan proposes a "shuttle" approach, a cause taken up by NASA engineer John Houboult, who fights to have the idea considered. When lunar orbit rendezvous is chosen as the way to go, Grumman Aircraft wins the award to build the lunar module. The remainder of the story follows the building, testing and first flight of the LM.
6. "Mare Tranquilatis"
A framing sequence of the Apollo 11 astronauts being interviewed by Emmett Seaborn is interspersed with a chronicle of the first moon landing and the conflicts that went on between Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in training for the mission, Aldrin in intensity for the significance of the event and Armstrong in simply wanting to do his job.
7. "That's All There Is"
After Apollo 11, the next moon landing had to be an anticlimax--but the crew of Apollo 12 perform their mission with a good-natured attitude that infects this installment. Alan Bean's jaunty narration follows the mission from its ill-starred beginning (lighting having struck the rocket during liftoff) to the successful moonwalk with an unsuccessful camera, interspersed with flashbacks of Bean's friendship with his crewmates Conrad and Gordon and how he won his slot on the mission.
8. "We Interrupt This Program"
Apollo 13's ill-fated mission as seen from the point of view of the once-jaded media, whose interest in the space program is suddenly reawakened by the accident in space. As Emmett Seaborn covers the crisis for the fictional NTC network, the ugly head of exploitative journalism raises its head when young hotshot reporter Brett Hutchins does all he can to get exclusive footage of the astronaut's families and finally ambushes Jack Sweigert's elderly parents--and the network approves of his initiative.
9. "For Miles and Miles"
Alan Shepard's journey back into space is chronicled. After he is diagnosed with Meniere's disease, a disabling inner ear disorder, Shepard is pulled from flight rotation (indeed is forbidden to fly any aircraft again for months, then only reinstated with a co-pilot). Reassigned to ground duty, Shepard takes his job as mission coordinator seriously but longs to go back into space--his chance comes when an inner ear surgeon suggests a new procedure. When it's successful, Shepard pushes his way back into flight rotation. Malfunctions in the guidance system prove Shepard's mettle and skill.
10. "Galileo Was Right"
When the later Apollo mission astronauts are required to learn more about geology, Harrison Schmitt requests that the static minerology lectures they have been enduring be replaced with field work teaching the astronauts to be better field observers. Schmitt then talks eminent geology professor Lee Silver into training his compatriots to be field geologists. The men are skeptical, until they fall under Silver's unorthodox spell and the magic of "context." In the meantime, Farouk El-Baz teaches Al Worden how to observe from above.
11. "The Original Wives Club"
The loss of newlywed Ken Mattingly's wedding ring enroute to the moon on Apollo 16 frames a story about the hardships faced by the astronauts' wives. Keeping all worries away from their husbands not to jeopardize their husbands' positions on the flightline and supporting each other during crises leads to strain for many of the wives: shy Pat White is uncomfortable with the publicity that surrounds the astronauts, Susan Borman begins drinking heavily, others feel alienated. In the end, death--and divorce--take their toll on the women of the space program.
12. "Le Voyage Dans La Lune"
Blythe Danner's otherworldly narration links two moon flights: the final voyage of Apollo 17 juxtaposed against the first on film, made by pioneer film-maker George Melies. Producer Tom Hanks appears in this final part as one of Melies' assistants, who chronicles the conception and filming of Le Voyage Dans La Lune in Melies' turn-of-the-century French movie studio. In the present, Cernan, Schmitt, and their compatriots reminisce about the final Apollo flight and our reasons for going into space.
The series took its title from Jules Verne's novel from 1865 (Project Gutenberg transcription on Archive.org; circa 1900 book scanned on Archive.org; 43 illustrations by Henri de Montaut), but of no other relevance to that early work of science fiction.

Final tangent: if you were hoping for more Jules Verne inspired material, you can watch the 1958 film on YouTube.
posted by filthy light thief (28 comments total) 93 users marked this as a favorite
Along the same lines, Norman Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon.
posted by John of Michigan at 3:17 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

excuse the aside but that question makes me think of Phil Hartman doing this

RIP Phil
posted by Colonel Panic at 3:51 PM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh man, I love this genre! I've seen The Right Stuff and From The Earth To The Moon over and over...

There's a scene in The Right Stuff where Chuck Yeager flies his jet up into the atmosphere as high as it can go, until the blue outside his cockpit turns to black and the machine can go no further, that hits a special note of heartbreak like no other scene in any movie. Happens every time.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:03 PM on December 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

There's a scene yt in The Right Stuff where Chuck Yeager flies his jet up into the atmosphere as high as it can go

I was thinking of this scene, too, as I read this post. It's the last scene in the movie, basically. Tragic, comic, and amazing, all at the same time.

Man, I love Tom Wolfe.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:13 PM on December 26, 2013

"Hey Ridley, ya got any Beeman's? Loan me some, will ya? I'll pay ya back later."
posted by KingEdRa at 4:19 PM on December 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

I hope to find the original Rolling Stone articles online somewhere some day and read them again. They were very good if you like Wolfe's nonfiction, and they had almost nothing in common with what finally appeared as The Right Stuff.
posted by jfuller at 4:25 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

this is an awful lot of trouble to go to cover up something that was so obviously faked. I mean, look no further than The Right Stuff movie. Those are all well known actors.
posted by philip-random at 4:42 PM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

The original Rolling Stone articles were excellent, jfuller. It was a think-piece about a mid-level space crew struggling with their limitations in the harsh face of moondom.
posted by dr_dank at 4:51 PM on December 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

dr_dank, now I'm imagining a lonely Michael Collins calling Philip Seymour Hoffman to talk about being uncool while Armstrong and Aldrin are down on the surface.
"The only true currency in this bankrupt moon is what you share with someone else when you're in solo orbit."
posted by freelanceastro at 4:57 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend another of Chaikin's Apollo books: Voices from the Moon: Apollo Astronauts Describe Their Lunar Experiences. IT contains gorgeous photos from the missions, interspaced with quotes by the astronauts themselves.

The best book about being an Apollo astronaut was written by Michael Collins, command module pilot of Apollo 11. It's called Carrying the Fire and well worth it, as Collins is an excellent writer. It's a shame he chose to retire, otherwise he would have commanded Apollo 17.

...I'm imagining a lonely Michael Collins...

He wasn't lonely. His Wikipedia entry contains a quote from his book about what he was thinking as he orbited the Moon:
During the 48 minutes of each orbit that he was out of radio contact with Earth, the feeling he reported was not loneliness, but rather "awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation".[2]:402
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:01 PM on December 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

I read The Right Stuff in one day, and I'm a slow reader. It was that good.
The opening hooked me right away.
Glad it was a slow day at work, 'cause that's all I did that day.
posted by MtDewd at 5:20 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Earth to the Moon was a strange series. There was a too much of Hanks in it, what with him doing the intro of every episode and the odd ways it tried to make the individual missions interesting. It feels like the creators thought series would be boring, so they had to jazz it up, by taking different tactics and perspectives. Which is a pity, as the 3 prime astronauts of each mission usually had enough personality themselves to form an interesting story around. Cut a lot of that gets lost in the background. The episodes about Apollo 9 and Apollo 12 are pretty interesting though.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:29 PM on December 26, 2013

I just loved The Right Stuff as a book. It's exactly the kind of non-fiction-that-reads-like-fiction that I enjoy. That Yeager scene linked to above was riveting to read. It's one of those books I pick up when I have nothing to do and open it anywhere and start reading.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:40 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Man, I loved the book and the movie was perfectly cast.

A few years ago, I was traveling and picked up a newspaper, the Jakarta Post I think it was, generally a dull, horrible paper which I rarely read. Someone had left it behind in a restaurant, I opened it up and the first thing I saw was a brief paragraph about Scott Crossfield being killed.

Chuck Yeager is still with us though and I see he flew a F-15 on the 65th anniversary of breaking the sound barrier last year, at the age of 89.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:19 PM on December 26, 2013

I really wish Alan Bean hadn't misplaced that camera timer during his EVA.
posted by entropicamericana at 6:21 PM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Kevin Street: Oh man, I love this genre!

Ah, thanks for reminding me. The reason I put these two together is because the HBO mini-series intentionally stuck to summarizing Project Mercury, because The Right Stuff covered that era. Also of note, the episode "We Interrupt This Program" was shot from the perspective of the media covering Apollo 13 because the movie of the same title, featuring Tom Hanks, covered the events from the view of the astronauts.

A few last bonus links: NASA highlighted JFK's comments on the future space missions, from his message delivered in person before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961.

And DVD Talk has a per-episode review of the series.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:41 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh man, I just finished reading A Man on the Moon and wrote a review not ten minutes ago. Basically, I'm amazed that the first words on the moon weren't "AHHHHHH THIS IS SO COOL!" but the astronauts were trained beyond belief and they probably screened for extreme giddiness. I'm excited to watch the series and fill in the blanks in my head.
posted by Turkey Glue at 8:04 PM on December 26, 2013

I have this on VHS. No, really. Taped from original airing VHS.
posted by mwhybark at 9:16 PM on December 26, 2013

Le Voyage Dans La Lune
posted by 1367 at 10:56 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Turkey Glue wrote: Basically, I'm amazed that the first words on the moon weren't "AHHHHHH THIS IS SO COOL!" but the astronauts were trained beyond belief and they probably screened for extreme giddiness.

Ah, but perhaps you missed Pete Conrad's first word (NSFW) as portrayed in From the Earth to the Moon.

And everyone now knows from the Finest American News Source what Neil Armstrong's actual first words were....
posted by 1367 at 11:04 PM on December 26, 2013

This is an outstanding series chock fucking full of fantastic acting, directing and writing.

The first five minutes after Hanks opening diatribe, you get a shitton of impossibility dumped in these guys laps and they spend eight years getting to the fucking moon.

I could go on for a while, but seriously, if you have any interest at all in how men walked on the moon, it would behoove you to watch this one.

The late Lane Smith steals the show as Emmett Seaborn.
posted by Sphinx at 11:07 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you would like to know more about the astronaut's wives (and by extension, their families) I'd recommend The Astronaut Wives Club. It focuses on the Mercury Seven wives and though I haven't read it yet myself, the reviews are generally approving.
posted by librarylis at 11:32 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

A couple of other excellent series is In the Shadow of the Moon and Moon Machines. The former is a documentary about Apollo, with interviews of the various astronauts. That latter is a look at the various technology that Apollo used and interviews with people who designed and built it. It's a fascinating look at Apollo from the point of view of the "trenches" i.e. the people who waled so hard to build the roman candle the astronauts sat on.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:06 AM on December 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

They cheated a bit on "That's all there is." A lot of the dialog is directly lifted from the transcripts. That jaunty tone? That calling Al Bean "Al Bean?" All those "Hey babe" salutations?

That's how they talked in Apollo 12. Apollo 11 was flown by the Steeliest Eyed of the Steely Eyed Missile Men. Apollo 12 was flow by the silliest of them. It's a great episode of a great series -- and how the handled Apollo 13 was brilliant, given that the movie had already told that story.
posted by eriko at 6:24 AM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's a fantastic book about top female aviators who tried for years to break into the space program, starting with Jerrie Cobb in 1960: The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight:

These 13 women, among the most accomplished pilots in the world at the time, went through many of the same challenging, even excruciating tests undergone by NASA's original seven male astronauts but, unlike the latter, the women did so in relative obscurity and often against the express wishes of all arms of the nascent space program. That each woman passed all the tests, often with scores exceeding those of the males, carried absolutely no weight with an entrenched bureaucracy.

It's a beautifully researched, incredibly inspirational and heartbreaking read, well worth it for anyone who likes space program stuff.
posted by mediareport at 7:31 AM on December 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was just listening to NPR's Exploring Space Audiobook last week. They mention The Mercury 13 and other parts of the space program that I was not aware of, including the missing high-quality video from Apollo 11.
posted by MtDewd at 8:53 AM on December 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

obligatory link to For Michael Collins, Jeffrey + Me ...
posted by philip-random at 10:16 AM on December 27, 2013

Great post. I think the film version of The Right Stuff is why – despite them looking nothing like each other, and having wildly varying acting styles – I still, maybe 25 years from when I first saw it as a 10 or 11 year old, confuse Ed Harris, Scott Glenn and Sam Shepard when I'm not actually watching them on screen.

I mean, you had Ed Harris playing John Glenn, Scott Glenn playing Alan Shepard and Sam Shepard playing Chuck Yeager. Thanks, casting director!
posted by Len at 9:16 AM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

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