Does the ‘Right Stuff’ exist?

[After the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew, I questions the whole logic of sending people into space.  This included a rejection of Tom Wolfe’s notion of ‘The Right Stuff’.  But this false notion applies much more widely that space travel, being used to justify enormous incomes for Top People.  So I made this extract for the benefit of peoplem with no interest in space travel.]

No one should go into space if they have any dependents left back here on Earth.

It was the USA’s decision in the late 1950s and early 1960s to make it a venture their ‘ideal people’—initially white male military and married with children. The definition of ‘Perfect Persons’ as been extended with the softening of attitudes since the 1960s. But really, there is no need to risk anyone with dependant children, there are enough others who’d be happy to accept the risks.

Tom Wolfe documented the process in his space-flight book The Right Stuff. His story-telling is good: he begins with the quest to crack the ‘sound barrier’, supersonic flight without a fatal loss of control. Yeager was the man who did it, and the methods used led logically to rocket-planes that might have flown into space. This got aborted when the Russians started launching satellites and cosmonauts using the big rockets that had been developed for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. The USA followed suit, though with Yeager playing a prominent part in selecting and training the astronauts.

Wolfe’s big idea, though, is the ‘right stuff’ ideology. US culture believes that those with the ‘right stuff’ will pull through any danger. Those who perish deserve it—though it’s another not-in-my-backyard doctrines. The same people who apply the idea to strangers and foreigners would be outraged if it were applied to their own. The truth is, it’s an outrageous principle whoever it’s applied to.

It’s also wrong: factually mistaken as well as ethically odorous. Wolfe spices the nonsense with cynicism, but never says that the ideas are mistaken, or that there are other truths that can be discovered.. There’s a lot he’s not frank about, including the nature of Pancho Barnes’s little outfit. You might suppose it was a restaurant plus aeronautical fan club: but Yeager’s wife explains:

“Pancho called a spade a spade. Her bar was little more than a desert whorehouse. She knew it and so did I. She respected me because, unlike a lot of other wives, I never made a fuss about my husband going there… Pancho was amoral, with the foulest mouth imaginable.”

This is in Yeager’s own biography, where he makes space for other voices and casts doubt the whole ‘right stuff’ nonsense.

Tom Wolfe is an entertaining writer, but also a silly loud-mouth and superficial thinker. Elements of his ideas have passed into the ideology of McLunatic Globalisation, though he’s not wholly at home with the total package. And Yeager, though in most ways a typical American of the Keynesian era, knew from his own experience that he’d been lucky as well as brave and skilled. Misfortunes recounted by him include him and his brother accidentally shooting their baby sister, and Yeager as a young pilot being shot down after just 8 wartime missions. He was lucky to get back to Allied territory, even luckier to be allowed to fly again, in defiance of the normal rules, so that he accumulated enough of a reputation to become a test pilot and eventually ‘break the sound barrier’.

Yeager was an outstandingly good pilot, indeed, but also lucky, in that he arranged to get posted to nearest air base to home without having any idea what was to be done there.

“If another air base had been closer to Hamlin than Wright Field, I would not have been at the right time. I had no idea that I had stumbled into the most exciting place on earth for a fighter pilot.” (Yeager, An Autobiography by General Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos. Century Hutchinson, 1985, page 82.)

He also said

“The public didn’t really understand the concept of the sound barrier, but the press description if a brick wall in the sky made me seem like a young Captain Marvel. Sometimes I just winced reading stories crediting me with feats that were wildly exaggerated… It’s hard enough being a test pilot without dragging around a ten-foot reputation that just isn’t true. Everyone expects miracles from me and that’s a perfect way to get killed” (Ibid, p164)

Skill and quick thinking come into it.

“Flying at supersonic speeds, a pilot has a couple of seconds to take decisive corrective action when something goes alarmingly wrong. Some of the dead pilots needed more time to figure it out.” (Ibid, p 186).

On the other hand

“Fritz had been my backup pilot on the X-1 after Hoover. He was the best takeoff and landing pilot I ever saw. Nobody remembers that Fritz was the second pilot to break Mach 1 in the X-1… In late 1948… on landing, the wing hit the ground, the airplane cart-wheeled, and Fritz died of terrible head injuries. How and why such a fabulous pilot was caught that was is hard to understand.”(Ibid, p 187).

An extract from an article called “Cold Warriors In Space”. First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2003.

I’ve done other articles questioning the notion that highly successful people had some mysterious ‘X-plus’ that makes it ineviable that they will become Top People.  Showing that lucky played a part in the cases of Richard Arkwright and Sir James Goldsmith, and more generallly in a review of a book called Outliers.

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