The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

by Tom Wolfe
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The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe


THE MEN HAD IT. Yeager. Conrad. Grissom. Glenn. Heroes...the first Americans in space...battling the Russians for control of the heavens...putting their lives on the line.

THE WOMEN HAD IT. While Mr. Wonderful was aloft, it tore your heart out that the Hero's Wife, down on the ground, had to perform with the whole world watching...the TV Press Conference: "What's in your heart? Do you feel with him while he's in orbit?"


It's the quality beyond bravery. It's men like

  • CHUCK YEAGER, the greatest test pilot of all and the fastest man on earth.
  • PETE CONRAD who almost laughed himself out of the running.
  • GUS GRISSOM who almost lost it when his capsule sank.
  • JOHN GLENN, the only space traveler whose apple-pie image wasn't a lie.


--The New York Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553381351
Publisher: Bantam Books
Publication date: 10/28/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.03(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.99(d)

About the Author

Tom Wolfe (1930-2018) was one of the founders of the New Journalism movement and the author of such contemporary classics as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, as well as the novels The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. As a reporter, he wrote articles for The Washington Post, the New York Herald Tribune, Esquire, and New York magazine, and is credited with coining the term, “The Me Decade.”

Among his many honors, Tom was awarded the National Book Award, the John Dos Passos Award, the Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence, the National Humanities Medal, and the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

A native of Richmond, Virginia, he earned his B.A. at Washington and Lee University, graduating cum laude, and a Ph.D. in American studies at Yale. He lived in New York City.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

March 2, 1931

Place of Birth:

Richmond, Virginia


B.A. (cum laude), Washington and Lee University, 1951; Ph.D. in American Studies, Yale University, 1957

Read an Excerpt

The Angels

Within five minutes, or ten minutes, no more than that, three of the others had called her on the telephone to ask her if she had heard that something had happened out there.

“Jane, this is Alice. Listen, I just got a call from Betty, and she said she heard something’s happened out there. Have you heard anything?” That was the way they phrased it, call after call. She picked up the telephone and began relaying this same message to some of the others.

“Connie, this is Jane Conrad. Alice just called me, and she says something’s happened...”

Something was part of the official Wife Lingo for tiptoeing blindfolded around the subject. Being barely twenty-one years old and new around here, Jane Conrad knew very little about this particular subject, since nobody ever talked about it. But the day was young! And what a setting she had for her imminent enlightenment! And what a picture she herself presented! Jane was tall and slender and had rich brown hair and high cheekbones and wide brown eyes. She looked a little like the actress Jean Simmons. Her father was a rancher in southwestern Texas. She had gone East to college, to Bryn Mawr, and had met her husband, Pete, at a debutante’s party at the Gulph Mills Club in Philadelphia, when he was a senior at Princeton. Pete was a short, wiry, blond boy who joked around a lot. At any moment his face was likely to break into a wild grin revealing the gap between his front teeth. The Hickory Kid sort, he was; a Hickory Kid on the deb circuit, however. He had an air of energy, self-confidence, ambition, joie de vivre. Jane and Pete were married twodays after he graduated from Princeton. Last year Jane gave birth to their first child, Peter. And today, here in Florida, in Jacksonville, in the peaceful year 1955, the sun shines through the pines outside, and the very air takes on the sparkle of the ocean. The ocean and a great mica-white beach are less than a mile away. Anyone driving by will see Jane’s little house gleaming like a dream house in the pines. It is a brick house, but Jane and Pete painted the bricks white, so that it gleams in the sun against a great green screen of pine trees with a thousand little places where the sun peeks through. They painted the shutters black, which makes the white walls look even more brilliant. The house has only eleven hundred square feet of floor space, but Jane and Pete designed it themselves and that more than makes up for the size. A friend of theirs was the builder and gave them every possible break, so that it cost only eleven thousand dollars. Outside, the sun shines, and inside, the fever rises by the minute as five, ten, fifteen, and, finally, nearly all twenty of the wives join the circuit, trying to find out what has happened, which, in fact, means: to whose husband.

After thirty minutes on such a circuit — this is not an unusual morning around here — a wife begins to feel that the telephone is no longer located on a table or on the kitchen wall. It is exploding in her solar plexus. Yet it would be far worse right now to hear the front doorbell. The protocol is strict on that point, although written down nowhere. No woman is supposed to deliver the final news, and certainly not on the telephone. The matter mustn’t be bungled! — that’s the idea. No, a man should bring the news when the time comes, a man with some official or moral authority, a clergyman or a comrade of the newly deceased. Furthermore, he should bring the bad news in person. He should turn up at the front door and ring the bell and be standing there like a pillar of coolness and competence, bearing the bad news on ice, like a fish. Therefore, all the telephone calls from the wives were the frantic and portentous beating of the wings of the death angels, as it were. When the final news came, there would be a ring at the front door — a wife in this situation finds herself staring at the front door as if she no longer owns it or controls it — and outside the door would be a man ... come to inform her that unfortunately something has happened out there, and her husband’s body now lies incinerated in the swamps or the pines or the palmetto grass, “burned beyond recognition,” which anyone who had been around an air base for very long (fortunately Jane had not) realized was quite an artful euphemism to describe a human body that now looked like an enormous fowl that has burned up in a stove, burned a blackish brown all over, greasy and blistered, fried, in a word, with not only the entire face and all the hair and the ears burned off, not to mention all the clothing, but also the hands and feet, with what remains of the arms and legs bent at the knees and elbows and burned into absolutely rigid angles, burned a greasy blackish brown like the bursting body itself, so that this husband, father, officer, gentleman, this ornamentum of some mother’s eye, His Majesty the Baby of just twenty-odd years back, has been reduced to a charred hulk with wings and shanks sticking out of it.

My own husband — how could this be what they were talking about? Jane had heard the young men, Pete among them, talk about other young men who had “bought it” or “augered in” or “crunched,” but it had never been anyone they knew, no one in the squadron. And in any event, the way they talked about it, with such breezy, slangy terminology, was the same way they talked about sports. It was as if they were saying, “He was thrown out stealing second base.” And that was all! Not one word, not in print, not in conversation — not in this amputated language! — about an incinerated corpse from which a young man’s spirit has vanished in an instant, from which all smiles, gestures, moods, worries, laughter, wiles, shrugs, tenderness, and loving looks — you, my love! — have disappeared like a sigh, while the terror consumes a cottage in the woods, and a young woman, sizzling with the fever, awaits her confirmation as the new widow of the day.

The next series of calls greatly increased the possibility that it was Pete to whom something had happened. There were only twenty men in the squadron, and soon nine or ten had been accounted for ... by the fluttering reports of the death angels. Knowing that the word was out that an accident had occurred, husbands who could get to a telephone were calling home to say it didn’t happen to me. This news, of course, was immediately fed to the fever. Jane’s telephone would ring once more, and one of the wives would be saying:

“Nancy just got a call from Jack. He’s at the squadron and he says something’s happened, but he doesn’t know what. He said he saw Frank D — take off about ten minutes ago with Greg in back, so they’re all right. What have you heard?”

But Jane has heard nothing except that other husbands, and not hers, are safe and accounted for. And thus, on a sunny day in Florida, outside of the Jacksonville Naval Air Station, in a little white cottage, a veritable dream house, another beautiful young woman was about to be apprised of the quid pro quo of her husband’s line of work, of the trade-off, as one might say, the subparagraphs of a contract written in no visible form. Just as surely as if she had the entire roster in front of her, Jane now realized that only two men in the squadron were unaccounted for. One was a pilot named Bud Jennings; the other was Pete. She picked up the telephone and did something that was much frowned on in a time of emergency. She called the squadron office. The duty officer answered.

“I want to speak to Lieutenant Conrad,” said Jane. “This is Mrs. Conrad.”

“I’m sorry,” the duty officer said — and then his voice cracked. “I’m sorry ... I...” He couldn’t find the words! He was about to cry! “I’m — that’s — I mean ... he can’t come to the phone!”

He can’t come to the phone!

“It’s very important!” said Jane.

“I’m sorry — it’s impossible — ” The duty officer could hardly get the words out because he was so busy gulping back sobs. Sobs! “He can’t come to the phone.”

“Why not? Where is he?”

“I’m sorry — ” More sighs, wheezes, snuffling gasps. “I can’t tell you that. I — I have to hang up now!”

And the duty officer’s voice disappeared in a great surf of emotion and he hung up.

The duty officer! The very sound of her voice was more than he could take!

The world froze, congealed, in that moment. Jane could no longer calculate the interval before the front doorbell would ring and some competent long-faced figure would appear, some Friend of Widows and Orphans, who would inform her, officially, that Pete was dead.

Even out in the middle of the swamp, in this rot-bog of pine trunks, scum slicks, dead dodder vines, and mosquito eggs, even out in this great overripe sump, the smell of “burned beyond recognition” obliterated everything else. When airplane fuel exploded, it created a heat so intense that everything but the hardest metals not only burned — everything of rubber, plastic, celluloid, wood, leather, cloth, flesh, gristle, calcium, horn, hair, blood, and protoplasm — it not only burned, it gave up the ghost in the form of every stricken putrid gas known to chemistry. One could smell the horror. It came in through the nostrils and burned the rhinal cavities raw and penetrated the liver and permeated the bowels like a black gas until there was nothing in the universe, inside or out, except the stench of the char. As the helicopter came down between the pine trees and settled onto the bogs, the smell hit Pete Conrad even before the hatch was completely open, and they were not even close enough to see the wreckage yet. The rest of the way Conrad and the crewmen had to travel on foot. After a few steps the water was up to their knees, and then it was up to their armpits, and they kept wading through the water and the scum and the vines and the pine trunks, but it was nothing compared to the smell. Conrad, a twenty-five-year-old lieutenant junior grade, happened to be on duty as squadron safety officer that day and was supposed to make the on-site investigation of the crash. The fact was, however, that this squadron was the first duty assignment of his career, and he had never been at a crash site before and had never smelled any such revolting stench or seen anything like what awaited him.

When Conrad finally reached the plane, which was an SNJ, he found the fuselage burned and blistered and dug into the swamp with one wing sheared off and the cockpit canopy smashed. In the front seat was all that was left of his friend Bud Jennings. Bud Jennings, an amiable fellow, a promising young fighter pilot, was now a horrible roasted hulk — with no head. His head was completely gone, apparently torn off the spinal column like a pineapple off a stalk, except that it was nowhere to be found.

Conrad stood there soaking wet in the swamp bog, wondering what the hell to do. It was a struggle to move twenty feet in this freaking muck. Every time he looked up, he was looking into a delirium of limbs, vines, dappled shadows, and a chopped-up white light that came through the tree-tops — the ubiquitous screen of trees with a thousand little places where the sun peeked through. Nevertheless, he started wading back out into the muck and the scum, and the others followed. He kept looking up. Gradually he could make it out. Up in the treetops there was a pattern of broken limbs where the SNJ had come crashing through. It was like a tunnel through the treetops. Conrad and the others began splashing through the swamp, following the strange path ninety or a hundred feet above them. It took a sharp turn. That must have been where the wing broke off. The trail veered to one side and started downward. They kept looking up and wading through the muck. Then they stopped. There was a great green sap wound up there in the middle of a tree trunk. It was odd. Near the huge gash was ... tree disease ... some sort of brownish lumpy sac up in the branches, such as you see in trees infested by bagworms, and there were yellowish curds on the branches around it, as if the disease had caused the sap to ooze out and fester and congeal — except that it couldn’t be sap because it was streaked with blood. In the next instant — Conrad didn’t have to say a word. Each man could see it all. The lumpy sack was the cloth liner of a flight helmet, with the earphones attached to it. The curds were Bud Jennings’s brains. The tree trunk had smashed through the cockpit canopy of the SNJ and knocked Bud Jennings’s head to pieces like a melon.

In keeping with the protocol, the squadron commander was not going to release Bud Jennings’s name until his widow, Loretta, had been located and a competent male death messenger had been dispatched to tell her. But Loretta Jennings was not at home and could not be found. Hence, a delay — and more than enough time for the other wives, the death angels, to burn with panic over the telephone lines. All the pilots were accounted for except the two who were in the woods, Bud Jennings and Pete Conrad. One chance in two, acey-deucey, one finger-two finger, and this was not an unusual day around here.

Loretta Jennings had been out at a shopping center. When she returned home, a certain figure was waiting outside, a man, a solemn Friend of Widows and Orphans, and it was Loretta Jennings who lost the game of odd and even, acey-deucey, and it was Loretta whose child (she was pregnant with a second) would have no father. It was this young woman who went through all the final horrors that Jane Conrad had imagined — assumed! — would be hers to endure forever. Yet this grim stroke of fortune brought Jane little relief.

On the day of Bud Jennings’s funeral, Pete went into the back of the closet and brought out his bridge coat, per regulations. This was the most stylish item in the Navy officer’s wardrobe. Pete had never had occasion to wear his before. It was a double-breasted coat made of navy-blue melton cloth and came down almost to the ankles. It must have weighed ten pounds. It had a double row of gold buttons down the front and loops for shoulder boards, big beautiful belly-cut collar and lapels, deep turnbacks on the sleeves, a tailored waist, and a center vent in back that ran from the waistline to the bottom of the coat. Never would Pete, or for that matter many other American males in the mid-twentieth century, have an article of clothing quite so impressive and aristocratic as that bridge coat. At the funeral the nineteen little Indians who were left — Navy boys! — lined up manfully in their bridge coats. They looked so young. Their pink, lineless faces with their absolutely clear, lean jawlines popped up bravely, correctly, out of the enormous belly-cut collars of the bridge coats. They sang an old Navy hymn, which slipped into a strange and lugubrious minor key here and there, and included a stanza added especially for aviators. It ended with: “O hear us when we lift our prayer for those in peril in the air.”

Copyright 1982 by Tom Wolfe

Table of Contents


Title Page,
I. - The Angels,
II. - The Right Stuff,
III. - Yeager,
IV. - The Lab Rat,
V. - In Single Combat,
VI. - On the Balcony,
VII. - The Cape,
VIII. - The Thrones,
IX. - The Vote,
X. - Righteous Prayer,
XI. - The Unscrewable Pooch,
XII. - The Tears,
XIII. - The Operational Stuff,
XIV. - The Club,
XV. - The High Desert,
Also by Tom Wolfe,

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The Right Stuff 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful insight into the complex politics and personalities involved. Highly recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Perhaps being a bit biased due to my intense interest in the subject matter, I found Wolfe’s recounting of the events of the fledgling space program against the backdrop of the force invisible, that ancient religion — the “right stuff” to be thoroughly informative, but providing more than a few grins throughout. I cannot recommend this brilliant book enough!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Much better than the movie- as usual...and the movie was very good.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Right Stuff focuses on the original 7 Mercury astronauts. At first I thought this book would be boring and mainly about science. I was quickly proven wrong. Tom Wolfe gives the reader a clear view of the entire Mercury project, while still keeping it exciting. He gives you facts and background information so that if you nothing about astronauts you will still understand everything in the book. The book does start off a little slow, but after the first 25 pages I quickly became absorbed in it. The author does an excellent job of describing the emotions and the mindset of the original 7. He describes how they possessed something more than courage. Any fool could climb into a rocket. But what made the astronauts unique, was the ability to do it day after day and even manage to enjoy it. Overall I thought this was a good read. But if you don't find astronauts interesting, you will most likely hate this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So this was the first Tom Wolfe book I've read, and I can tell you that is does not disappoint, and neither does Wolfe's ability to portray the struggles and triumphs of the Original Seven. A must read for anyone interested in the space race or flight in general!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The contrast between the air force pilots and the astronauts was fascinating. The astronauts influencing NASA to make it truly a pilot position as a point pride turned out to be necessary in the end for both the safety of the astronauts and future of the space program.
Alex_Maurer More than 1 year ago
The Right Stuff In the book “The Right Stuff” it talks about the history of air and space flight. This book took place in the 1960s-1980s. It started out with Pete and how he loved to fly planes. Then NASA wanted to be the first country to launch a man in space and beat Russia. Unfortunately the USA weren’t the first country to launch a man into space – The Soviet Union was. Then they wanted to go forth and launch a rocket to the moon. The USA was the first and only country to ever send a man to the moon. This was a great book. It was a little hard to for me read, so I would recommend it to anyone in high school or above. It was an exciting book. I would strongly recommend this book to whoever likes history of planes, famous astronauts, and space flight.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book has the right stuff, just like the mercury seven. It is a story of a great invisible ziggurat made of ‘the right stuff’; and how every pilot in the military tries to reach the top. There are ‘summits’ of the might pyramid, when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the X-1, then the advent of the X-15 program, Being the first man to pilot a ship into the upper atmosphere and eventually space. It shows men’s journey up the ziggurat, who are all left behind, to seven skilled men that are brave enough to sit on a rocket ‘that always blows up’ and will be hurtled into the heavens for a glorious moment. That moment is when that man, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper; sits on top of the menacing ziggurat, knowing that every other human being is below him. A major theme in this book is bravery. All pilots had to be incredibly brave to climb in test aircraft that always crashed and rockets that always blew up. The wives of the pilot also had to be brave to marry their husband, knowing full well the statistics of the survival rate of a military test pilot. The ziggurat symbolizes the process that every pilot underwent, and it determined who had the right stuff. This was important because it weeded out the pilot who didn’t make the cut, whether in night carrier landings, high speed maneuvers or even medically (Deke Slayton). I enjoyed the book because I enjoy cold war history and aircraft, but I found that some parts in the beginning of the book were very dry. You would enjoy this book if you like science or if you want to learn about the early U.S. Space program from the view of the astronauts. If you enjoy this book, the books Yeager and Apollo 13 would be good for you. Overall, I found this book very entertaining and interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was informative and great entertainment. I loved reading about each of the astronauts stories ! NASA, roots from Chuck Yeager the greatest test pilot of all time through the rocket age.
SpeedReaderBG More than 1 year ago
I was raised in this environment, in this time period. Wolff got it right. His insight into these people and this life is right on. He brought things I observed into focus, his ability to portray it all amazes me.
JoshuaB More than 1 year ago
This book is great. This is without a doubt the best book I have ever read on astronauts. This book is good for all readers.
goldstein-gregg More than 1 year ago
Fantastic voyage with Tom Wolfe and the Mercury seven.
Anonymous 3 months ago
Finally read the book. I loved the space program and was sorry to see it end.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book started off a little slow, but by the end of the first chapter it hooked you. I thought this book would be very science based, but I was proven wrong when I got further into the book. This book covers the original 7 men to become astronauts as well as their families. The author does a great job explaining the emotion and describing everything so realistically. I found a couple typo errors such as the word Has, and Had being repeated twice, but overall the writing style was great. The book is very interesting if you’re into science, airplanes, or aerospace, but otherwise I think you’d get bored quickly if you had no interest in it. There’s incredible detail and wonderful explanations throughout the book and overall a good interesting read. I highly recommend the book.
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