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Astronauts are heroes—skilled, brave, adventurous, bold. They fly into the highest heavens and have “slipped the surly bonds of Earth, … and touched the face of God” (in the words of pilot and poet John Gillespie Magee, which President Ronald Reagan used after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger).
When Tom Wolfe wrote a series of articles that turned into the nonfiction book The Right Stuff in 1979, he captured this spirit of adventure, bravado, and competition that animated and inspired the test pilots who became astronauts in the 1950s and ’60s. They were confident they had the right stuff to be heroes. Unfortunately, the National Geographic TV series (streaming on Disney+) of the same name is a disappointing mishmash that focuses on rivalries between astronauts and sordid behavior, leaving viewers pitying these early space explorers more than admiring them.
Episode 1 launches right into the bitter rivalry between square, straight-laced John Glenn and partying womanizer Alan Shepard (at least, according to the portrayals in this series). The race to be the first American in space has driven a wedge between these two, and Shepard feels no need to disguise his hatred for Glenn. The narrative then flashes back to the beginnings of the Mercury program, when NASA recruited from the ranks of the bravest and most skilled test pilots to select the seven men who would be America’s first astronauts.
We meet each through their flaws. While skilled and brave, they are hard-living, hard-drinking, unfaithful to spouses, and immature. The exception is Glenn, portrayed as a Christian with high moral standards and a loving marriage. But the series shows him to have a large ego and an enormously competitive drive to be the first man in space, perhaps at the expense of others.
The beginning of each episode reminds us that “this dramatization, although fictionalized, is based on actual events. Dialogue and certain events and characters have been created or altered for dramatic purposes.” Viewers can only guess which of the scenes of infidelity, partying, back-stabbing, or fistfights actually occurred and which were added for these “dramatic purposes.” It all plays much more like a soap opera than a serious portrayal of an interesting period in NASA’s history, and its blasphemous language and unnecessary intimate scenes are further marks against it.
Americans can be proud of the accomplishments of the space program. The “space race” with the Russians was a chance to prove that a free society could accomplish greater things than a totalitarian regime. This version of The Right Stuff does nothing to add to these chapters of history, and with its mixing of real and imagined scenes, is not edifying, inspiring, or enlightening.