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. - Tom Wolfe & Philip Kaufman
Oh lord, please don't let me fuck up. - Alan Shepard
When on October 14th, 1947 a loud bang was heard over Edwards Airforce Base in California's Mojave Desert, the first aeroplane had broken the sound barrier by reaching the speed of Mach 1. The plane was more like a rocket, it was named Bell XS-1 and the human sitting in it was Chuck Yaeger, one of the few Airforce pilots still willing to do these breakneck test flights even after too many deadly accidents and crashes. But Chuck Yaeger was the first pilot to break the invisible sound barrier with the XS-1 and paved the first steps to space - although at this point in history no one was really aware what would follow in the next two decades.
The Sputnik Shock
Almost exactly ten years later, on October 4th, 1957, the USSR shocked the western world by sending Sputnik 1, the first artificial man-made satellite, into space. The American government was absolutely unprepared for such an event and especially in a time of virulent anti-communism this was not good news for a country which wanted to be superior in all areas over Russia. It took almost three months and the launch of another Russian Sputnik satellite - this time even with a canine passenger, the dog Laika - until American scientists were able to launch Explorer 1, the first US satellite, into earth orbit.
Unmanned spaceflight was, however, not good enough to fight the cold war in space. As a result, in Summer 1958 American president Eisenhower signed off a law to create a new US space agency called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in short NASA. In October, Project Mercury was unveiled to develop manned spaceflight in the next five years. At this point, there was no real American spaceflight program except the endeavours of the Airforce, while the USSR had a definitive headstart. This would not change for at least a couple of years, but it was the beginning of a neck-and-neck space race between the two superpowers, which would last for more than a decade.
A New Beginning
First of all the newly-founded NASA had to find suitable pilots to be trained as Astronauts. This was accomplished with a hasty selection process, which sieved out seven pilots from 500 candidates between January and April 1959. Chuck Yaeger was not among them, because he had never finished College, but some of his former colleagues were part of the new Astronaut corps. Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard and Donald Slayton were presented to the public as the Mercury Seven in a big press conference in Summer 1959.
Simultaneously during the search for the future American astronauts, NASA awarded airplane manufacturer McDonnell and more than twenty other companies contracts to develop the Mercury space capsules. Even before, the Army had launched some test flights on Jupiter rockets with several monkeys and apes on board to find out if living beings could withstand the gravitational stress - while all animals were able to do so, some didn't survive the flights because of failed parachutes and other equipment failures. The first launches of the actual Mercury capsule prototypes were performed in Summer and Autumn of 1959 on top of the Little Joe rocket system and while there were several failures, further attempts were more successful. Also, two flights with rhesus monkeys on board to test the essential launch escape system succeeded in the winter of 1959 and 1960.
After several more failed launches, but also some unmanned successful flights, a chimpanzee called Ham was finally sent on a ballistic trajectory 250 kilometers into space and while the flight had some technical difficulties, it was deemed a success. But the human Astronauts were livid and felt that they were conned by NASA when the first American in space was revealed to be a primate. They wanted to fly themselves as early as possible and worried that the Russians would catch up soon - an assumption which proved to be right only shortly afterwards.
After five more unmanned test flight, among them another terrible launch failure, NASA was finally ready to send a human into space. Perhaps even more unmanned test flights would have been performed, but the USSR thwarted the American plans in the most spectacular way possible when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on April 12th, 1961. He did not only reach space with his Vostok space capsule, but also went into Earth orbit at a height of 327 kilometers, circling the planet completely in his 108-minute flight.
The First American in Space
Although they had been warned that this could happen, the American government was caught completely off-guard by Gagarin's flight and directed NASA to conduct the first manned spaceflight as soon as possible to catch up with the USSR. On May 5th, 1961, less than a month after the Russians' flight, it finally happened - the Americans were able to celebrate their first human spaceflight. With his self-designated Freedom 7, a Mercury capsule on top of a Redstone rocket, Alan Shepard became the first American human in space in a brief flight lasting only a quarter of an hour. While the flight, reaching a height of 188 kilometers, was an enormeous risk, it actually was surprisingly unproblematic and became a major milestone in the Mercury program. The flight was celebrated all over America and gave the public a much needed boost of self-esteem.
On July 21st, Gus Grisssom followed Alan Shepard into space with another launch of a Mercury capsule, but his flight ended with an incident, which almost brought Project Mercury to a standstill. When the capsule had already landed in the sea, the hatch blew open by itself and the capsule sank. Grissom himself would have drowned if he had not been rescued by a helicopter at the last second, but he was accused of having blown the hatch too early, something which he vehemently denied. It was never fully determined what had actually happened because the capsule had sunk, but Gus Grissom was later rehabilitated when the technicians found out that he could not have opened the hatch without severly bruising his hand, which he had not.
On August 6th, 1961, Russia once again shocked America by launching Gherman Titov with Vostok 2 into space and keeping him up for more than 24 hours, circling the earth seventeen times. Such a long-duration spaceflight, let alone a complete orbit, was still beyond what NASA had accomplished. At the end of November 1961, there actually was an American flight fully orbiting the earth, but on board the Mercury capsule was again a chimpanzee - much too the annoyance of the Astronauts, but NASA wanted to take as few risks as possible. A dead American astronaut would have meant the end of the US space program and victory for the USSR.
Around the Earth
Only on February 20th, 1962 John Glenn launched in his Mercury capsule called Friendship 7 on top of a bigger Atlas rocket to circle the Earth three times in five hours. After Alan Shepard's first flight this was the second milestone in American spaceflight history, which was not altogether undramatic. During the flight the technicians and scientists were not sure if the heat shield was intact, which would have made the reentry deadly for John Glenn - a problem which is still prevalent in today's spaceflight but fortunately was only a sensor failure and not the real thing on this historic flight.
With John Glenn's flight, which was even more celebrated by the public than Alan Shepard's and Gus Grissom's, Project Mercury was finally able to produce its biggest success. Because the main hurdles were now cleared, the rest of the Mercury program consisted of just three more spaceflights. In May 1962 Scott Carpenter replicated John Glenn's flight with Aurora 7, which went even more smoothly. Originally the second orbital Mercury flight was given to Deke Slayton, but he was the only one of the Mercury Seven not allowed to fly because of a before undiagnosed heart murmur. Instead, he became the head of the Astronaut corps responsible for crew allocations, but he was not trapped behind a desk for eternity: much later, at the end of the Apollo era, he finally went to space in 1975 with the Apollo-Soyuz program.
Living in Space
In October 1962, Walter Schirra went to space in the next-to-last Mercury flight, orbiting the Earth six times in over nine hours, making history as the most flawless spaceflight up to this point. Because the previous flights had gone so well and brought back a wealth of new insights about living in space, the final Mercury flight was designated a long-time excursion. In May 1963 Gordo Cooper launched with his Mercury capsule called Faith 7 into orbit and stayed there for 34 hours and 22 orbits, proving that humans could indeed live for more than only a couple of hours in space. A problem with the automatic guidance made it necessary for Cooper to manually perform the landing procedure - this was not without risk, but it showed that the Astronauts were perfectly capable of handling malfunctions like these.
While the Astronauts were keen on flying a seventh time in space to find out more about the effects of zero gravity and other problems affecting the human body, Project Mercury was called to a stop after Gordo Cooper's flight to reach the next step of the American space program as soon as possible. In September 1962, President John F. Kennedy had already laid out the path of NASA in his historical speech at Rice University to land on the Moon before the end of the decade. Project Gemini was the next step to develop space capsules for two Astronauts, make space walks and more long duration missions possible - and, above all, to make the spaceships more maneuverable, something which the Mercury capsules did not do very well yet. The end of the Mercury program did not mean the end of American space flight, but only its beginning.
The Story of the Mercury Seven
When bestseller author Tom Wolfe had told the beginning of American space exploration from the first test flights to break the sound barrier until the end of the Mercury program in his novel The Right Stuff in 1979, the public interest in space adventurers was not particularly large. But published during the gap between the end of the Apollo program in 1975 and the beginning of the Space Shuttle era in 1981, the author had picked exactly the right time to bring the beginnings of American spaceflight back into the public's minds. Furthermore, Wolfe had written the book as historic retelling and had put the emphasis on the people and not the technology.
In the relentlessly honest story the myth of spaceflight was not totally deconstructed, but the pilots and astronauts were also not made up as unapproachable, utterly perfect heroes, but real human beings. The eponymous "right stuff" was surprisingly demystified and Tom Wolfe made it clear that the astronauts and pilots may have been heroes, but they were not some kind of mythical creatures. In spite of the relatively sober, but still very exciting narrative of Project Mercury and its beginnings The Right Stuff quickly became a huge bestseller and was celebrated as very patriotic and American, although Tom Wolfe had used these ingredients actually only very sparingly. Even before the novel was published, two good acquaintances of the author, the film producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, began to develop an intense interest in Wolfe's new project.
To the Silver Screen!
Chartoff and Winkler quickly bought the film rights as independent producers to prevent a big Hollywood studio like the very interested Universal Pictures getting their hands on it. They hired William Goldman to write the screenplay, but he took the opportunity to inject a much too large dose of patriotism into the story and removed Chuck Yaeger, who was a very prominent character in the first third of the story, completely - this led to complications when United Artists chose to finance the movie with a healthy 20 million dollars. After several other directors declined to work on the complicated project, Director Philip Kaufman was asked, but he accepted only on the condition that Goldman's script would be discarded.
When William Goldman quit the production and Philip Kaufman finally signed on, there was no writer attached to the project. Tom Wolfe himself was not interested in writing the script, but together with the two producers suggested that Philip Kaufman should try it himself, which he did over the course of almost one year. But then United Artists nearly went bankrupt with the commercial failure of Michael Cimino's western epos Heaven's Gate and sold back The Right Stuff to the producers, who offered it to the Ladd Company, the independent studio of former 20th Century Fox president Alan Ladd. He was very interested in the project, but wanted more details - so the filmmakers created storyboards of piratically the whole movie and presented it in this way to the company president. Ladd was so delighted that he immediately promised to support the movie.
Actors for Astronauts
With financing secured, the real preparations for The Right Stuff were finallyable to start. The very first step was to find the suitable actors for the seven Mercury astronauts and their friends and colleagues, a task which turned out to be not as difficult as imagined. At first the idea was to cast the completely unknown pilots with equally unknown actors, which was, of course, only partially realized. But assembling a complete all-star-cast would have been impossible with a budget of only 27 million dollars, most of which would be needed for the production. What the filmmakers were looking for were fresh and unspent actors, who were able to put their heart and soul into their characters.
Casting the charismatic Chuck Yaeger, now a bigger character in the first part of the story, proved to be the only real challenge, but with Sam Shepard a perfect choice was found - ironically someone with a distinct fear of flying, which fortunately was not an issue for the production. Philip Kaufman was enthusiastic about Shepard (not to be confused with Astronaut Alan Shepard), but the producers had doubts about the experience of the actor, who had actually started his career as a theater playwright in the 1970s and had only recently begun to appear in movies. They feared that he would not be able to express the dialogue convincingly, but Philip Kaufman circumvented this problem simply with removing much of Shepard's text, making the character of Chuck Yaeger, who in real life was also more the silent type, only more realistic.
Alan Shepard, the first American in space, was cast with Scott Glenn, who had already established himself as a character actor and was also perfect for his role because of his resemblance to the astronaut. Ed Harris was also cast as John Glenn not only for his acting abilities, but for his looks. The role of Gordo Cooper had been originally written for Ken Wahl, but when he was not available, Philip Kaufman had asked Dennis Quaid, who had already expressed an interest in the role since he had read Tom Wolfe's book. Gus Grissom was cast with Fred Ward, Scott Carpenter was played by Charles Frank, Walter Schirra by Lance Henriksen and Deke Slayton by Scott Paulin - which were all relatively minor characters because the focus was on the first important Mercury flights, but these actors were still an essential part of the movie.
The wives of the astronauts were also minor characters, but also an important part of the plot. Their actresses were also relatively unknown at the time the movie was made, but Veronica Cartwright, Barbara Hershey, Pamela Reed, Kathy Baker, Mittie Smith and Mary Jo Deschanel had to embody complex and individual characters, which they all managed perfectly. Philip Kaufman made sure that their roles were carefully placed into the plot in his script, which even managed to avoid many typical clichées of the long-suffering astronaut wives and instead portrayed them as completely real women who had to cope with the facts that their husbands could be killed anytime by their profession.
The many other smaller characters were cast with distinct humorous undertones. The press, labled in the credits as the Permanent Press Corps, was portrayed by a comedy group calling themselves the "Bologna Brothers" or "Il Fratelli Bologna", who performed italian Commedia Dell'Arte theatre in San Francisco. Philip Kaufman recognized their amazing talent for improvisation and transformed the ghostly apparition of the press, an aspect largely absent in the book, into an eerie multi-headed monster, which accompanied almost all big events in the movie as an omnipresent being.
Many other secondary characters were cast with an almost satirical approach: Donald Moffat has a wonderfully cynical appearance as Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson with Eisenhower-lookalike Robert Beer at his side, who was actually a civil aircraft engineer before he sometimes appeared as the president. Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, then almost unknown comedians, brilliantly played a duo of awkward astronaut recruiters appearing in quite a lot of subliminally funny scenes which lighten the atmoisphere of the movie considerably. These satirical undertones in place of straight patriotic elements are what sets The Right Stuff apart from other movies of its ilk.
The filmnakers were lucky to get the Airforce's permission to film the movie in the one place where it all had begun - at Edwards Air Force Base, where many of the early scenes were staged. The pilot's tavern, Pancho's Happy Bottom Riding Club, which had actually been destroyed in a fire in 1952, was lovingly recreated on a farm not far from its original location - mostly thanks to the detailed recollections of Chuck Yaeger, who had become a technical consultant for the movie and even appeared in a short cameo in the movie. As a central location for the first third of the plot, the Mojave desert was an essential ingredient of The Right Stuff and brilliantly replicated the dusty and almost eerie atmosphere of the test flight community at Edwards Air Force Base. But the location proved to be very uncomfortable for the actors and the film crew - frequent sand storms made it sometimes impossible to film, but the extreme conditions also made this part of the movie more realistic.
Because the production was based on the west coast in California and other parts of the plot were located in Washington and Cape Canaveral in Florida, San Francisco and some other cities had to be cleverly disguised as realistic backdrops. Most of the interior locations were, however, reconstructed in a warehouse turned into a huge movie studio, where it was possible to shoot under more controlled circumstances. This allowed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to recreate an authentic 1950s and 1960s atmopsphere with comparatively simple means. Stock footage from NASA and even some Russian material was also extensively used and matched to newly filmed black-and-white sequences, which were presented in the 1.37:1 ratio to differentiate them from the rest of the colour footage shot in 1.85:1. While the scope ratio of 2.35:1 was considered, Caleb Deschanel had decided against it because rocket launches needed height and not width and the integration of the stock footage would have been even more problematic.
The reconstruction of a realistic nostalgic atmosphere was actually not a very big problem, but bringing the Mercury capsules, rockets and spacesuit back to life needed more than an ingenious production designer. Geoffrey Kirkland and his staff needed support from NASA and they got full cooperation - blueprints, plans and an extensive photo and film collection were at their disposal and before the production design began in earnest, the filmmakers visited several NASA facilities to have a very close look at the real thing. Perfectly prepared, the production design of The Right Stuff became one of the most fascinating aspects of the movie.
The musical accompaniment was finished at the very last minute because the original composer John Barry found it impossible to work with Philip Kaufman, whose temporary music track consisted mostly of Gustav Holst's The Planets, parts of Henry Mancini's score for The White Dawn and several of his favourite classical music pieces. Composer Bill Conti had been hired so late in the production that he had an almost finished final cut of the movie to work with. With his partly disco-influenced style he was at the height of his career at the beginning of the 1980s, having scored Sylvester Stallone's Rocky movies and, ironically, had even taken over from John Barry on the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.
Conti is said to have written three separate scores for The Right Stuff - one of his own composition, a second one heavily based on Holst's The Planets and a third one based on Philip Kaufman's temporary choices. For copyright reasons, a composite of all three was used with crediting the original composers, but also featuring many of Conti's own work. Much of it was in a mock-patriotic style, making use of brisk military marches and bombastic orchestral sounds with added keyboard parts. But it was especially Contis fondness for synthesizers that kept the music firmly in the early 1980s, making it about the only part of the movie that has not aged very well.
An Effects Movie?
Special and visual effects were absolutely essential for The Right Stuff, but with a relatively low budget for such a huge production, the filmmakers could not afford a top special effects studio like Industrial Light and Magic, which was busy with other projects anyway. Instead Philip Kaufman recruited the small effects studio USFX of his old friend Gary Guiterrez, who produced amazing scenes with simple and cost-effective results, which was supported by documentary stock footage from the 1950s and 1960s. Most of the special effects, among them the first realistic depiction of a spacecraft entering earth orbit in a fiery reentry, were even created in-camera without the use of optical printing. Closely interwoven, the special effects and the stock footage matched almost perfectly and could hardly be distinguished from another.
But special effects were not the real reason for the movie - like in Tom Wolfe's novel, The Right Stuff was not about the technical aspects of spaceflight, but about the humans and their personalities behind them. Because of this, the movie rests mainly on the shoulders of the very capable actors, who bring Philip Kaufman's script to life with their charismatic, emotional, but also often humorous portrayals of their famous and legendary characters. Although The Right Stuff has amazing production values and an amazing design, it sometimes feels like a theater play with a small handful of actors, who actually don't need any complicated effects to be convincing.
The Longest Story
At first glanse, The Right Stuff appears as a fully patriotic, intensly American entity, but on closer inspection there is actually not much of this in the movie. Philip Kaufman tells the story of the Mercury astronauts like they really were - cocky, reckless and very, very cynical and ironic. The typical American patriotism has even been noticeably satirized, but in an altogether affectionate way which was not offensive at all, but became especially entertaining for non-American viewers. Kaufman's script was the perfect adaptation of Tom Wolfe's novel and while it necessarily condenses the plot into the shape of a three-hour-movie, it still fully captures the essence and atmosphere of the book.
With a length of over three hours, The Right Stuff actually consists of two movies, because the history of the early test flights to break the sound barrier and the actual Project Mercury are separated from each other and would actually have worked as two single movies. This is especially astonishing that Philip Kaufman was able to convince the studio to accept such a long version of the movie - either the Director had the right to the final cut or some very understanding supporters at the Ladd Company.
All the Right Stuff
The premiere of the movie was held in Washington DC in March 1983, but it was accompanied by accusations that it was only a vehicle for John Glenn, who was a potential presidential candidate at the time. The political connection hurt the movie so much on the box office that the financial success was way behind the not even particularly high expectations. Warner, who had taken over the distribution of the movie, only showed it few cinemas and neglected the publicity work so much, that a real success was not even remotely possible. It was the year the third Star Wars movie Return of the Jedi together with not only one, but two James Bond movies stormed the cinemas and The Right Stuff simply had no chance against this kind of heavy competition.
The critics were, however, not deterred by the lack of the public interest and were very enthusiastic about The Right Stuff, praising the realistic and down-to-earth depiction of Project Mercury and its precursors. In addition to the rave reviews, The Right Stuff was able to win half of its Oscar nominations in 1984, even if these were mostly in the technical categories. This helped the movie to become a sleeper success and one of the most cherished films about American spaceflight history. A completely new genre had been created which was simply not attempted before - the spaceflight documentary drama became Hollywood's most challenging discipline and was not often successfully attempted after The Right Stuff, which had become a very special classic not even a decade after its making.
The Right Stuff has been available on DVD since the format's inception, but only in 2003 Warner had released a new Special Edition with an improved transfer, putting the complete movie on one dual layer disc instead of a single-layer flipper. But even more importantly, the studio had produced and collected an amazing amount of extras ranging from audio commentaries over documentaries to deleted scenes, all of which were housed on a second DVD making this release essential for everybody interested in the history of spaceflight.
This article reviews the German version of the special edition released in summer 2003, although the older inferior, extra-less single-disc version is still being sold to this date. Unfortunately this 2-disc-edition is out of print in Germany and all over Europe, making it an expensive collector's item - the Region 1 version is, however, still available at a low price. The surprisingly good quality and the first-rate extras make this DVD still worth buying ten years later, but Warner has recently announced that the movie will be released on Blu-Ray for the first time in November 2013. Until then, this version remains the best incarnation of The Right Stuff.