“How the future began.”
Once upon a time, man would stare up at the night sky and wonder what lay in the great beyond, that mysterious inky black void, pricked by dots of light. Now, one might look up and see the passing of the International Space Station, as it passes overhead once every 90 minutes or so, our foothold and presence in the cosmos.
Over 50 years have now passed since we first landed on the Moon, with one small step simultaneously becoming a giant leap. Within two years from now, there should be a return to our nearest neighbour, thanks to NASA’s Artemis missions. What was once the sole preserve of science fiction has now become science fact, and space – once declared in a famous monologue as “the Final Frontier” – seems more within our grasp than ever before. Thanks to billionaires and private enterprise, space is now open to tourists, and even William Shatner – the orator of said narration – has touched the sky, becoming the oldest human in space at age 90.
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With such developments, it would so be easy to be blasé and to take space flight for granted. Yet the path to slip the surly binds of Earth and to tread the high untrespassed sanctity of space – as described in John Gillespie Magee’s famous poem High Flight – has not been without great sacrifice and cost. It was in 1986 that this very poem was quoted by President Ronald Reagan to commemorate the loss of the Challenger astronauts, after the Space Shuttle had exploded 73 seconds after lift off. There have been numerous other tragedies and near-misses, both before and since, which reminds us not to be complacent about the risks involved.
Between the time of the Wright Brothers’ first ever powered flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and Yuri Gagarin having become the first man in space, there was less than 60 years which separated those two events. From then until America made good on John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the Moon before the decade was out, it was only eight years, a quite remarkable achievement. While we resoundingly live in the ‘Space Age’, the origins are still within living memory for so many, dating back to a time which we thought had in many ways been left behind, a period of rising international tensions between global superpowers.
With perestroika and glasnost now being things of the past, and the era of international cooperation between America and Russia seemingly at an end, a new Cold War appears to be underway. Old rivalries have been reignited, and the ‘50s and ‘60s political climate feels more current and relevant at the moment than it has for a long time. If it had not been for the clash between two competing and conflicting ideologies at the time, then the ‘Space Race’ might not have happened in the way that it did, and there may have been a rather more languid path into orbit and beyond, without that impetus to try to gain supremacy and dominance of this uncharted and unclaimed frontier.
Exactly a decade after Neil Armstrong’s boots first touched lunar soil, the journalist and author Tom Wolfe published an account of the earliest days of the American space program, under the title The Right Stuff, a 436 page book charting the triumphs and tragedies of the nation’s rush to beat the USSR. Wolfe penned a four-part series of articles for Rolling Stone magazine entitled ‘Post-Orbital Remorse’, which saw print in 1973, and saw him looking at the reality which lay behind the carefully stage-managed public personae of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, exploding some of those myths, and shedding light on the men who became unwitting warriors in a PR offensive being played on a global stage.
The first of the four chapters was entitled ‘The Brotherhood of the Right Stuff’, and it would be from this that Wolfe was to take the title of his book, in which he would take a look at the history of the space program, going back to its origins in the endeavours of test pilots such as Chuck Yeager, the man who had first broke the Sound Barrier. Hollywood producer Robert Chartoff had known Wolfe since the very beginning of Chartoff’s career, and his partner Irwin Winkler was a social friend of Wolfe’s, having dinner with the writer and his wife. Wolfe told Winkler he was working on The Right Stuff, and it seemed there was potential to adapt it into a film.
Chartoff and Winkler would win the movie rights to the book in 1979, paying $350,000, and the pair had Wolfe write the initial screenplay, before hiring William Goldman to take up the reins. However, Goldman’s take would completely excise Yeager, focusing solely on the astronauts, and Goldman had ramped up the patriotic elements, feeling that the events of the then-recent Iran hostage crisis had dented the national pride. When Philip Kaufman was hired as the film’s director, he disagreed with Goldman’s approach and tone, leading to Goldman quitting the project, and Kaufman writing a brand new screenplay in just eight weeks.
Kaufman had been inspired earlier in his career by the French and Italian New Wave in cinema, and became involved in the ‘New Hollywood’ scene, collaborating with George Lucas on ideas for the screenplay of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kaufman would reinstate Yeager into the story, stating in an interview with The New York Times in tracing how the future started, “it began really with Yeager and the world of the test pilots. The astronauts descended from them”. Yeager would end up being a technical consultant on the movie, and was even featured on camera, playing a cameo role as a bartender in a watering hole that was frequented by aviators which was located near to Edwards Air Force Base.
Due to not possessing the kind of budget most Hollywood productions would be expected to have at their disposal, it meant that there was a move to cast relative unknowns in the movie. Looking back at it now, however, it would seem that Kaufman had great prescience, as the roster of names featured has retrospectively taken on greater significance, and is remarkably impressive – the likes of Dennis Quaid, Lance Henriken, Ed Harris, Jeff Goldblum, Fred Ward, and Sam Shepard, who would receive an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager. The Right Stuff would have rather more success in some of the other Academy Awards categories in which it was put up for consideration.
As well as its wins for Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects Editing, The Right Stuff would also pick up the Oscar for Best Original Score. Bill Conti’s rousing soundtrack is truly an iconic tour-de-force, with its memorable fanfare, which accompanied the oft-imitated group shot of all seven Mercury astronauts striding purposefully towards camera in their spacesuits, such as in Community’s 2010 episode ‘Basic Rocket Science’. Interestingly, John Barry was initially lined up as composer, but later dropped out over frustration with Kaufman. Conti’s score draws on elements of Holst’s ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’, as well as Aaron Copeland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’, while also being bold and original at the same time.
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The Right Stuff would prove to be something of a box office flop on its release, with its underperformance contributing to the eventual collapse of The Ladd Company. However, its reputation has only grown over time, and has been cited by Christopher Nolan as “an almost perfectly made film”, along with being “one of the great American movies”. Wolfe’s book has been adapted for the small screen more recently, with a series version being made for Disney+, but it lacked the pace and urgency of Kaufman’s movie, and felt rather anaemic in comparison. Indeed, the series was even removed from the streaming service, having already been cancelled after just one season.
Kaufman’s interpretation of Wolfe’s work would make The Right Stuff the template for other studies of the US space program’s highs and lows, such as Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, or HBO miniseries From The Earth To The Moon. With the prospect of a return to the Moon being imminent, and then the push to Mars, the 40th anniversary of Kaufman’s classic feature film gives us as good a reason as any to go right back to where it all began, reminding us of the human cost which was involved in capturing that Promethean fire, and starting us on that long road to the stars.
The Right Stuff was released on 21st October 1983.