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One of my all-time favorite movies is “The Right Stuff”—the 80’s movie based off of Tom Wolfe’s book about the origins of NASA’s efforts at manned space flight and the challenges faced to become the first Mercury astronauts. I am a fan of the Nat Geo series “The Right Stuff” in part based on my appreciation for the 80’s film, in part because of the nostalgia and excitement of the early days of the Space Race, and in part because they have done an excellent job of telling the story again.
Truth be told, the combination of “The Right Stuff” and “Top Gun” is a large part of how I ended up in the US Air Force after high school. I never became a pilot—but the pride and heroism depicted made it something that I definitely aspired to become. I did get to take a flight in an F-111 Aardvark and break the speed of sound over the Mediterranean Sea, but not quite the same thing as actually becoming a pilot.
One of the things that stands out in “The Right Stuff” is the larger than life attitude of the US fighter pilots that were vying to join the Mercury team. They each had their strengths and weaknesses—as you can see in this exclusive clip of Alan Shepard from the series—but one thing they had in common was a competitive edge and the drive to be the best.
Getting It Right
I had an opportunity to speak with, Robert Yowell, a 30-year veteran of the US space program, and advisor to the film industry. His experience as a former flight controlled with the NASA Space Shuttle program provided him with firsthand insight to provide technical assistance and consulting to help a production like “The Right Stuff” get it right.
He was also able to provide some real-world perspective for the actors and production crew. He told me that he has a 16mm film that was shot in Mission Control during Alan Shepard’s flight. He shared that with the crew, so they knew exactly what the atmosphere was like and what happened at the time—enabling them to create a more realistic depiction of the event.
The Technology, or Lack Thereof
I also spoke with some of the cast of the series about the experience of recreating such a classic and iconic story, and what they want viewers to get from watching the series. We talked about whether they had read the book or seen the 80’s movie adaptation—and responses were mixed. Some had, but others had not and noted that they made a conscious decision to not watch the movie before starting the project because they didn’t want their portrayal of the character to be influenced in any way by how it was done before.
They talked about how eye-opening it was to see some of the original equipment and revisit what the engineers had available to them in the 1950’s. Eric Laden—the actor who plays NASA engineer Chris Kraft, marveled about the fact that people hold more computing power in their hands today in a single smartphone than existed in all of Mission Control for these missions. NASA managed to launch rockets into orbit and bring men safely back to Earth—and even eventually land men on the Moon—with less computing power than a smartphone.
When it comes to technology, or lack thereof, Yowell also shared some interesting information. He described how we did not have the communications technology we do today. There was no undersea cable or microwave transmissions, and we didn’t have communication satellites orbiting the Earth. NASA had to create a worldwide tracking network from scratch in 1961 to be able to track and monitor our rockets in orbit because the technology and the internet did not yet exist.
Aspirations for a New Generation of Space Exploration
The drive behind NASA and our space program has waned significantly since its pinnacle in the 1960’s and 1970’s. When the Space Shuttle program shut down, many people lost interest in space and space exploration—and with that interest they also lost some hope.
Things are back on the upswing now. Millions tune in to watch broadcasts and livestreams of SpaceX launches, and there is significant interest in returning to the Moon, and aggressively pursuing a manned expedition to Mars.
“The Right Stuff” is a reminder of what we are capable of when we push the boundaries. It is an entertaining and educational look at the origins of manned space flight in the US, but it is also aspirational and illustrates what’s possible.