THE RIGHT STUFF

SUBJECTS — U.S./1945 – 1991; Aviation; Space Exploration;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Friendship; Teamwork; Courage;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility.

AGE; 12+; MPAA Rating — PG;

Drama; 1983; 193 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

THE BEST OF TWM

One of the Best! This movie is on TWM’s short list of the best movies to supplement classes in United States History, High School Level.

MENU

DESCRIPTION

This movie shows the recruitment, training, and space flights of the first U.S. astronauts. The film shows how the mantle of having “the right stuff” shifted from the USAF test pilots to the Mercury Astronauts during a time when the Soviet Union reigned supreme in the space race. The movie is based on Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction book of the same title.

SELECTED AWARDS & CAST

Selected Awards: 1983 Academy Awards: Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Original Score; 1983 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Sheppard), Best Art Direction/Set Direction, Best Cinematography; 1984 Golden Globe Awards; Nominations: Best Picture.

Featured Actors: Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Sam Shepard, Scott Glen, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey.

Director: Philip Kaufman.

BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE

Although the specific dialogue and some minor events have been fictionalized, events of any interest are accurately recounted in the film.

Students will learn a bit of U.S. history and research and write about space exploration as it has advanced from its early days as well as the Cold War mentality that drove the intensity of the program.

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS

Minor. There is a substantial amount of profanity in this movie and references to immoderate sexuality on the part of some married astronauts.

PARENTING POINTS

Your child, long accustomed to the concept of space travel, will have no difficulty with the film.

HELPFUL BACKGROUND

SOVIET DOMINANCE OF EARLY SPACE EXPLORATION

In 1957 the USSR launched Sputnik 1, becoming the first nation to send a space satellite into orbit around the earth. The United States had been working towards space exploration before this time but was shocked by the sudden ascendancy of Russian technology.

The Soviet Union led the way in the early era of space exploration. Sputnik, launched in October 1957, was an aluminum sphere 23 inches in diameter weighing 184 lbs. The next month, the Soviets launched Sputnik II, weighing 1,121 lbs and carrying a live dog. The first U.S. space satellite, Explorer I, weighed only 30 lbs and was not launched until January 31, 1958.

Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet Cosmonaut, was the first man in space. He made a one orbit flight in April 1961. The Soviets had the first multiple orbit flight, the first multi-person flight, the first spacewalk, and the first transfer of crews between docked spacecraft. The Soviets had a space station in orbit from 1971 until 2001. Their last, the Space Station Mir, remained serviceable through the collapse of the Soviet Union and into the era of cooperation between the U.S. and Russian space programs.

There have been four U.S. manned space programs, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Shuttle. This movie details the selection and training of the seven Mercury Astronauts. Alan Shepherd made the first U.S. spaceflight, a suborbital flight in May 1961. John Glenn made the first U.S. orbital flight in February 1962. All of the Mercury flights involved single astronauts. Gemini was a program in which two astronauts were on board the spaceship. Apollo was the effort to place a man on the moon which met with success in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon. After more than a decade, the U.S. beat the Russians to the moon and eventually surpassed the Soviets in the space race.

After Sputnik, the U.S. government poured money, not only into NASA and space science but also into general scientific research of all kinds. The added investment allowed U.S. scientists to gain ascendancy in many fields of study.

CHUCK YEAGER AND THE MYSTIQUE OF THE TEST PILOT

Charles Elwood Yeager (1923 – ) was the best and most famous U.S. test pilot. In World War II he flew 64 missions over Europe and shot down 13 German aircraft. Before the sound barrier was broken, no one knew whether an airplane could be controlled once it passed the speed of sound. On October 14, 1947, Yeager was the first test pilot to break the sound barrier and survive. In 1953 he piloted the X-1 experimental rocket plane to a speed of 1,650 miles per hour, a world record. He flew almost every kind of plane in the military and flew as fast as Mach 3.2.

Although Yeager was the greatest test pilot of his time and an inspiration to all other pilots, he was passed over for the U.S. Mercury Astronaut Program. NASA wanted only college trained astronauts and Yeager had only a high school diploma. He continued his career in the Air Force, commanding the Aerospace Research Pilot School and, in 1968, the Fourth Tactical Fighter Wing. Yeager retired from the Air Force as a Brigadier General in 1975 but continued as a consultant, testing planes at one dollar per year. He finally stopped flying for the military in October of 2002 at the age of 79. After his formal retirement from the military, he made commercials for products on television and wrote his autobiography.

Pilots who tested jet fighters underwent incredible risks and had very little control over their survival. They were required to “push the envelope” on the plane’s capabilities. If they strayed over the edge they would probably die. Survival was a matter of luck. Yeager was their hero. They developed a saying that those who survived, like Yeager, “had the right stuff. “

THE GERMAN ENGINEERS

At the end of WWII, German engineers who had previously worked for the Nazis were recruited by both the Soviet Union and the United States. The lead engineer recruited by the U.S. was Werner Von Braun (1912-1977) who had been in charge of developing the V-2 rocket used to bombard England. After helping put the first U.S. satellite into orbit in 1958, Von Braun was instrumental in the development of the Saturn Rocket used in the Apollo Moon landing program. He also pioneered the concept of the Space Shuttle. Von Braun was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1955. His contributions to the United States were immense and he received many honors from the United States Government. However, it should be noted that under current international law, Von Braun would probably have been considered a war criminal for making weapons that could only inflict random death and destruction to a civilian population. Note that many of the Allied tactics in World War II, such as the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, might not be tolerated today. For a telling parody of the policy of using engineers who had formerly served the Nazis, listen to the lyrics of the song entitled Werner von Braun by comedian and math professor Tom Lehrer. For the official U.S. government view, see the NASA biography of Von Braun. [Kris – set these out as HTML links]

QUESTION #1: Do you agree that the U.S. government should spend billions on a space exploration program when we have a pressing need for money at home to improve our schools and update our infrastructure such as roads, bridges, hospitals, etc.?

THE ASTRONAUTS’ STRUGGLE TO BE TREATED AS TEST PILOTS

In the early days of the U.S. manned space flight program, there was an engineering/political struggle between the seven Mercury astronauts, who had been pilots, and NASA engineers, led by Von Braun and other recruits from the German rocket programs, over whether or not the spaceships would have manual controls. The engineers wanted to rely on computers and deny the astronauts the ability to steer the spacecraft in emergency situations. The astronauts thought this made “spam in a can” and feared that they would be subject to ridicule by the community of test pilots. They were very uncomfortable having no control over the space capsules.

The astronauts used their unexpected personal popularity as the “champions” of the American people and the threat of going to the press to prevail in this dispute. This movie recounts part of that struggle. Experience proved that the astronauts were correct; several situations occurred in succeeding years in which spacecraft computers were damaged or failed and in which the astronauts survived only because they were able to manually steer their space capsules back to earth. See Apollo 13.

QUESTION # 2: What is the significance of the “high ground” in warfare?

THE ASTRONAUTS AS CHAMPIONS

Tom Wolfe, in his book The Right Stuff, contends that the astronauts became a modern equivalent of the “champions” of early human warfare. The Soviet success in putting satellites into orbit had shattered the assumption that the U.S. had superior technology that would protect it from Russian armaments. By 1959, not only did the Russians have the atomic bomb, but it looked as if they would soon control space and be able to deliver those bombs from this new high ground. It was frequently said and fervently believed that if the Russians won the “space race” the United States was doomed. Wolfe writes, at pages 122 and 123 that in this context, the U.S. and Russian manned space flight programs:

… [Brought] back to life one of the ancient superstitions of warfare. Single combat had been common throughout the world in the pre-Christian era and endured in some places through the Middle Ages. In single combat the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for a pitched battle between the entire forces. In some cases the combat would pit small teams of warriors against one another. Single combat was not seen as a humanitarian substitute for wholesale slaughter until late in its history. That was a Christian reinterpretation of the practice. Originally it had a magical meaning. In ancient China, first the champion warriors would fight to the death as a “testing of fate,” and then the entire armies would fight, emboldened or demoralized by the outcome of the single combat. Before Mohammed’s first battle as the warrior-prophet, the Battle of Badr, three of Mohammed’s men challenged the Meccans to pick out any three of their soldiers to fight in single combat, proceeded to destroy them with all due ceremony, whereupon Mohammed’s entire force routed the entire Meccan force. In other cases, however, the single combat settled the affair, and there was no full-scale battle, as when the Vandal and Aleman Armies confronted each other in Spain in the fifth century C.E. They believed that the gods determined the outcome of single combat; therefore, it was useless for the losing side to engage in a full-scale battle. The Old Testament story of David and Goliath is precisely that: a story of single combat that demoralizes the losing side. The gigantic Goliath, with his brass helmet, coat of mail, and ornate greaves, is described as the Philistine “champion” who comes forth to challenge the Israelites to send forth a man to fight him; the proposition being that whoever loses, his people will become the slaves of the other side. Before going out to meet Goliath, David — an unknown volunteer — is given King Saul’s own decorative armor, although he declines to wear it. When he kills Goliath, the Philistines regard this as such a terrible sign that they flee and are pursued and slaughtered. Mr. Wolfe notes that the public adored the astronauts, once they actually made it into space. Through their skill and willingness to risk their lives, they were the men who would protect the nation and redeem our national honor. See for example, Wolfe’s description of the ticker tape parade in Manhattan for John Glenn after the first U.S. orbital flight. While Glenn’s flight didn’t bring us close to the Russians in the space race, it gave us our first hope that we had a chance against the Russians.

People were crying, right out in the open, as soon as they laid eyes on John, … [T]here were people hanging over the railings … and they were crying and waiving little flags and pouring their hearts out.” … It was cold as hell, seventeen degrees, but the streets were mobbed. There must have been millions of people out there, packed from the curbings clear back to the storefronts, and there were people hanging out of all the windows, particularly along lower Broadway, where the buildings were older and they could open the windows, and they were filling the air with shreds of paper, every piece of paper they could get their hands on. …

Huge waves of emotion rolled over you. You couldn’t hear yourself talk, but there was nothing you could have said, anyway. All you could do was let these incredible waves roll over you. Out in the middle of the intersections were the policemen, … New York’s Finest, big tough-looking men in blue greatcoats — and they were crying! They were right out in the intersections in front of everybody, bawling away — tears streaming down their faces, saluting, then cupping their hands and yelling amazing things to John and the rest of [the astronauts] — “We love you, Johnny” — and then bawling some more, just letting it pour out. The New York cops!. . . pp. 347 & 348

USING IN THE CLASSROOM

Notes on Accuracy

The movie shows the wives of the astronauts talking about Jacqueline Kennedy. We are not sure of the accuracy of this report, however, during the early 1960s, the First Lady became a role model for many American women, particularly young women.

Almost everything in this film is accurate, as reported in the book on which it is based. This includes: the culture of the fighter jock who had “the right stuff;” the astronauts’ fears of being “spam in a can” and that their role as astronauts would tarnish the fighter jock image that they desired; the struggle between the astronauts and the engineers (many of whom were imports from Nazi Germany) over: (i) whether the astronauts would be passengers or pilots during the space flights; (ii) whether the vehicle would be called a capsule or a spaceship; (iii) to what extent the astronauts would be able to control the spaceship; (iv) whether the spaceship would have a window, etc.; the character study of Yeager and his impact on pilots all over the country; the extremely high death rates suffered by test pilots; the psychological effects on the wives of test pilots caused by the risks to their husbands; the hangout at Edwards Air Force Base; the incident in which Yeager injured himself and could not shut the door of his test airplane without the assistance of a broom handle; the transfer of “the right stuff” from the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base to the astronauts; the hysteria in the U.S. over the Soviet Union’s ability to put satellites and men into space; the adoration of the astronauts by the American public and politicians; the incident when Annie Glenn refused to see Vice-President Johnson and was supported by her husband (although it was only the threat of support from the other astronauts, not anything that they had to do, that made the NASA brass back down); the tests at the clinic, including the electrode in the thumb muscle, the incident with the breath test, and the barium enema given two floors away from the bathroom requiring an embarrassing trip in a public elevator; the request for a semen sample (though not the bathroom incident); the disagreement among the astronauts about how they should conduct their personal lives; the results of the individual flights including the fact that the astronauts used the manual controls that they insisted upon to save their lives on several occasions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.

1. In the film, the men compete with one another in order to be a part of the space program and yet cooperate and developed a strong sense of camaraderie. Think of members of professional sports teams who have had similar experiences. What do you think enables the men to balance both competition and cooperation?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. Most students will assert that seeing the big picture, the victory in a game or the goal of the endeavor, enables the required balance between cooperation and competition.

2. Why was the ascendency of the Russian Space Program so upsetting to U.S. citizens?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary: Aside from general fear of the Soviet Union fomented by the McCarthy era, in 1958 Americans thought that U.S. scientific advances were far ahead of all other countries. The early success of the Soviet space program, however, showed that the Russians were far ahead in space technology and rocket launching capability. A country that controlled space could drop nuclear weapons on its enemies with ease.

3. Werner von Braun and the other German engineers who had worked on the Nazi rocket programs escaped prosecution as war criminals and were given positions of authority in the U.S. space program. The same thing occurred with other engineers who were captured or surrendered to the Russians. What does this tell us about prosecutions for war crimes?

Suggested Response:

Prosecutions for war crimes are intensely political because winners are very seldom prosecuted and if someone on the losing side has something valuable to contribute to the winner (like Von Braun and the other German engineers), they will often escape prosecution.

4. Should the U.S. have given immunity against prosecution for war crimes to Von Braun and the other German engineers who worked on the V-1 and V-2 projects and should it have recruited them to work on the U.S. rocket program?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response to this question. Here are some of the concepts that should be raised in a discussion on this question: (a) There is a great risk in allowing people who have no moral compass to become powerful. (b) People who participate in war crimes and crimes against humanity should be punished. What about justice for the citizens of London who died as a result of the V-1 and V-2 rockets? The treatment given to Von Braun and the other V-1 and V-2 engineers calls into question the efforts of the International Community to prosecute as war criminals people who participate in genocide (Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur). Those who have committed crimes against humanity can argue, as did Von Braun, that they were just technocrats following orders and really didn’t agree with the policies of the government they were serving. This undercuts the principle of justice that people who participate in crimes should be prosecuted for their crimes. (c) The former Nazi engineers were essential to the U.S. space effort. Without them, it would have been even more difficult, perhaps impossible, for the U.S. to catch up to the Russians. The Soviet system was brutal and caused the death of millions under Stalin. It was important to resist that system. The U.S. had the power and indeed the responsibility to its own citizens to forgive Von Braun and the other V-1 and V-2 engineers of their war crimes. — For a spirited discussion, apply the arguments raised by this response to U.S. CIA agents and soldiers who tortured terrorists.

5. At the end of the movie when Gordo Cooper is asked “Who was the best pilot you ever saw?”, why couldn’t he talk about Yeager? He tried and it was on the tip of his tongue. But it never came out. What does this tell you about the mentality of test pilots?

Suggested Response:

It is very difficult for people who are so competitive to acknowledge that someone else is better than they are.

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING

FRIENDSHIP AND TEAMWORK

1. Give some examples of the teamwork among the astronauts shown in this film.

2. Give some examples of friendship among the astronauts shown in this film.

COURAGE

3. Is it courageous or foolhardy to be a test pilot?

Suggested Response:

The difference between courage and foolishness lies in the context in which the action is taken. Being a test pilot despite the great risk is courageous if there is a reasonable chance of success and the flight or test program is important enough to die for. Otherwise, it’s recklessness.

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.

RESPONSIBILITY

(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)

ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES

Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

1. Write a well researched opinion essay in which you take a stand on the issue of whether or not on the U.S. should have given immunity against prosecution for war crimes to Von Braun and the other German engineers who worked on the V-1 and V-2 projects, thus paving the way for these German scientists to work on the U.S. rocket program.

2. Select three of the characters in the film, Yeager or any of the astronauts. Research their biographies and write about the experiences in their lives that led them to their success. See if you can find any aspects of the character that the men share and emphasize the similarities and differences in their stories.

3. Create a timeline of space exploration from its earliest days to the most recent endeavors of the industry. Note both successes and failures and play close attention to the period in which Soviet and American scientific communities began to cooperate.

See also Additional Assignments for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

BRIDGES TO READING

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe is entertaining and fascinating reportage, suitable for good readers ages 14 and up.

LINKS TO THE INTERNET

BIBLIOGRAPHY

In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe, 1979, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York
  • article “Yeager Retires with A Big Bang”, by Wendy Thermos, Los Angeles Times, Sunday, October 23, 2002, pg. B-4.