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Annals of Work: What it takes to be an astronaut
Tom Wolfe covered the last Apollo moon launch, in December 1972, for Rolling Stone. But he found himself more interested in the astronauts than in the mission. He spoke with them and heard a collective voice, which he transcribed for the magazine’s readers.
You want to get down to the main business, to Apollo 17—you want to know what it's really like, Tom. We've always been willing to describe it, all of it, but so few people really wanted to listen, or else they didn't really know the nature of the question itself. The main thing to know is that the capsule right now is filled with three colossal egos.
Titanic egos, one might say, but of a type you've probably never known in your life, Tom, because it is extremely doubtful that you have ever been involved in a particular competition known as the Right Stuff.
That's what flying happens to be about. It's a vast competition, which no one involved will acknowledge the existence of, we being such cagey souls, called the Right Stuff. The main thing to know about an astronaut, if you want to understand his psychology, is not that he's going into space but that he is a flier.
The Right Stuff is not bravery in the simple sense; it is bravery in the most sophisticated sense. Any fool can put his hide on the line and throw his life away in the process. The idea is to be able to put your hide on the line—and then to have the moxie, the reflexes, the talent, the experience, to pull it back in at the last yawning moment—and then to be able to go out again the next day and do it all over again—and, in its best expression, to be able to do it in some higher cause, in some calling that means something.
Gus Grissom once mentioned that when he first went out to Korea to fly in combat, they used to go out to the field before dawn, in the dark, in buses, and the pilots who had not been shot at by a MIG in man-to-man combat had to stand up. At first he couldn't believe it, and then he couldn't bear it—those bastards sitting down were the only ones with the right stuff! The way Gus told it, and he wouldn't have lied about a thing like that, the next morning, as they rumbled out there in the dark, he was sitting down. He had gone out there the first day and had it out with some howling supersonic Chinee just so he could have a seat on the bus.
The truth is that unless you have flown in combat, you can never be truly accepted into the Brotherhood of the Right Stuff, no matter what else you may do. There were plenty of pilots in their thirties who, to the consternation of their moms, dads, wives, bosses, Buddy & Sis—they just couldn't freaking believe it—who confounded all by volunteering to go active and fly in Korea. In Godforsaken Korea! But it was simple enough. Half of them were fliers who had trained during World War II but never seen combat, and this was their last crack at it—at the ascension, at the Right Stuff.
This may be hard to believe, but there are astronauts—including some of us who have been to the moon—who have it gnawing at our hearts that we are not truly accepted into the Brotherhood of the Right Stuff because we have never stood that particular trial, which is combat.
From Tom Wolfe, “The Brotherhood of the Right Stuff,” Rolling Stone, Jan. 4, 1973.