Saturday, April 30, 2016


(October 1983, U.S.)

Is it me or does it feel as if the American space program doesn't even exist anymore? It seems as though ever since we decommissioned out space shuttle program after the last flight on July 8, 2011, the only news of space exploration we ever hear about anymore are cute, little probes that land on Mars and shuffle around. Not exactly too exciting to the average person who's not a scientist, yes?. Ah, but there were times, however, when space exploration meant everything to this country, and I'm not necessarily speaking of only the infamous Space Race and the Apollo 11 moon landing of the 1960s. For my generation, the 1980s were also a defining era when it all began with the launching of the Space Shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981, for which I awoke early on that Sunday morning to watch on television. I was in junior high school back then and it was easy to feel how every kid and every adult was gripped by the new technological time period we were entering in our space program (prior to that morning, I'd only seen a space shuttle in the James Bond movie MOONRAKER). Perhaps it was no accident that THE RIGHT STUFF, based on Tom Wolfe's best selling book, was released in movie theaters at a time when each space shuttle launch still had meaning and could truly resonate with many of us who cared.

Even as a kid, which I still felt like in 1983, it was impossible for me to imagine how America's future in space began with just one man, World War II hero Captain Chuck Yeager (played by Sam Shepard) and his test pilot mission of the rocket-powered Bell-X1 aircraft which enabled him to finally break the sound barrier. Were it not for this film, I never actually would have ever heard of Chuck Yeager. Anyway, it was this breakthrough that got things started in our quest toward rocket design and seeing just how far we could take it. That, and our need to compete with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. In 1957, when they launched their satellite Sputnik, America and NASA went apeshit to stay ahead of them in the quest for space. The search for America's first astronauts began with a vengeance. This is when we meet the new heroes of the film, including John Glenn (played by Ed Harris), Alan Shepard (played by Scott Glenn), Gus Grissom (played by Fred Ward), Scott Carpenter (played by Charles Frank), Walter Schirra (played by Lance Henrikson) and Don Slayton (played by Scott Paulin). Again, until this film, I'd only previously heard of John Glenn and Alan Shepard. I was also unaware of the rigorous, if not sometimes silly, training program that these future-men-of-space were required to endure. It's rather comical, and I suppose the film intentionally makes it so, that the men, even after all that training and sacrifice, are substituted for a chimpanzee when it comes time to actually launch some sort of life form into space after many failed tests of our rocket design finally comes to a successful conclusion. Back in the era of the Space Race, enthusiastic Americans only got to see their space heroes in the shining light that the media was able (and willing) to offer them. THE RIGHT STUFF (both film and book) attempts to show these men as they were when they weren't in front of the camera with their wide, positive smiles and their encouraging statements. They appeared to be faulted men of ego, fear, stupidity and even infidelity. Whether it was true or not, John Glenn assumes the role of the honest, wholesome, do-no-wrong American hero who insists on keeping up the healthy, heroic images for the American public, even when it means hiding the fact (whether or not it's deliberate, I'm not sure) that his wife suffers from a stutter.

Alan Shepard is the first American to reach space on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight. Later, Gus Grissom makes a similar flight, but the capsule's hatch mysteriously blows open and quickly fills with water and sinks. Grissom escapes and is criticized by many for potentially panicking and opening the hatch prematurely. John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the Earth completely and receives a ticker-tape parade (I remember reading about that in elementary school). Even while all of this history in space is taking place, the test pilots, all but forgotten back at their base in the desert, cannot escape the reality that they're no longer the fastest men on Earth, even as they seemingly mock the entire space program, using phrases like "Spam in a can". Chuck Yeager recognizes it, and in a final act of bravery and defiance, attempts to set a new altitude record at the edge of space in the new Lockheed NF-104A aircraft and is nearly killed in a high-speed ejection when his engine fails. The aircraft is destroyed, but he survives, proving that he still has the "right stuff" (Chuck Yeager is still alive today).

Getting back to my own generation's experience with space exploration, it's impossible not to mention two other historic moments that took place in the 1980s following the successful inaugural launch of Columbia. The first (and I'm sure this is obvious enough) was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. I didn't actually see it happen on television when it did, but I was returning to my freshman dorm at college after a morning class and found nearly every kid on the floor gathered in front of the TV. I barely even had to ask the question of what had happened. Somehow, I just knew they were going to tell me that the shuttle was destroyed and all the astronauts on board were killed. Well, after repeatedly watching the horrible image of the shuttle explosion on the news and listening to (then) President Ronald Reagan make the necessary speech, it was impossible not to feel the overwhelming sorrow and setback of the entire space program. The second moment was the "Return to Flight" mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery on September 29, 1988, the first mission following the Challenger disaster. I must confess, there's a certain wonderful feeling from watching the local New York newspaper go from this... this in less than three years...

As I said before, the American space program, like many other parts of our history, is often dependent on our own generation's memories and experiences. For myself, I never got to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969. I merely watched space shuttles take off into orbit and land on the ground like a conventional aircraft in the '80s. Today, I hear on the news about silly probes on Mars examining the surface. I hope that's not going to be as good as it gets from now on. I'd like to think that the visions of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke shall one day have its possibilities.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Narrator: "There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier."

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