Takeaways From Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff

I recently read The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. I enjoyed the book. It is a captivating novel about the Space Race and the pilots behind the early development of NASA. The book is also a work on American Heroism and the fighter pilots that had the “right stuff.” Check out the book’s Amazon page here for more information.

A few quick thoughts:

  1. Tom Wolfe wrote The Right Stuff after questioning what would make a man willing to sit on top of an enormous Roman Candle. He wanted to know what set them apart. Was it just that they were born with the “right stuff?”
  2. The book was a little extreme at times with its nonchalant and sarcastic portrayal of death. However, I think this is how many of the pilots felt at the time. Something like one out of every four fighter pilots of the era died on the job. The first few chapters of the book paint a picture of these men (who are blessed with the “right stuff”) who aren’t scared of death. If a fellow test pilot dies in an accident they essentially say that he didn’t have the “Right Stuff.” 
  3. It was interesting to learn about the Chief Designer, AKA Sergei Korolev. He was the Soviet Union’s lead rocket engineer and single-handedly (according to the book) outperformed the United States in the first few years of the Space Race. Every time America was about to unveil a new breakthrough the Soviet Union would do it first. If he were an American he would be a household name.
  4. Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, is the reason behind the “West Virginian” drawl that pilots speak with (go ahead and imagine how “Good Afternoon, this is your captain speaking.” sounds). The Right Stuff says “It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.” He was the pilot that all the other pilots wanted to be like. He was from West Virginia and had a very distinguished accent, and it wasn’t long before all of the other pilots started copying his drawl.
  5. Courage and resolution are key to the “right stuff.” There was not an absolute definition that Wolfe gives for what the “right stuff” is (see my favorite description of the “right stuff” in the quote box below). Instead, he reveals the definition chapter by chapter through stories and experiences. But throughout the book, I believe that courage is the defining factor for these men who risked so much.
  6. It was hard to be married to one of these fighter pilots. Their husbands were never there. The Right Stuff also highlights the darker side of the 1950s, namely the rampant immorality among these married fighter pilots. The wives also had the daily worry that their husband might become one of the 25% who didn’t make it.
  7. I would listen to Dennis Quaid read an Audiobook again. He does a wonderful job.

Quote on the “right stuff”

“But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process. No, the idea here (in the all-enclosing fraternity) seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment—and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite—and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God”

– The Right Stuff

Write to me: sam@samuelpedro.com

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