No surprise here, but the book is much better than the movie. Tom Wolfe’s writing is electric, and his subject matter fascinating. There are no modern equivalents to the test pilots and astronauts of the 1950’s and 1960’s. I wonder how people of the internet age would react to the constant death defying, or death inducing, stunts like those undertaken by these pilots. These crazy bastards put their lives on the line to test the limits of speed, space and technology. Imagine volunteering to be a test pilot knowing the following:
In 1952 sixty-two Air Force pilots died in the course of thirty-six weeks of training, an extraordinary rate of 1.7 per week. Those figures were for fighter-pilot trainees only; they did not include the test pilots, Bridgeman’s own confreres, who were dying quite regularly enough….56 percent probability, to be exact, that at some point a career Navy pilot would have to eject from his aircraft and attempt to come down by parachute. In the era of jet fighters, ejection meant being exploded out of the cockpit by a nitroglycerine charge, like a human cannonball. The ejection itself was so hazardous—men lost knees, arms, and their lives on the rim of the cockpit or had the skin torn off their faces when they hit the “wall” of air outside—that many pilots chose to wrestle their aircraft to the ground rather than try it … and died that way instead.
One figure showed that there was a 23% probability of death if you were a part of the program. But the book is about the right stuff, and those with the right stuff didn’t sweat figures like these because “The figures were averages, and averages applied to those with average stuff.” You have to love the attitude and egos of these men. Oh and they were always drunk:
Every young fighter jock knew the feeling of getting two or three hours’ sleep and then waking up at 5:30 a.m. and having a few cups of coffee, a few cigarettes, and then carting his poor quivering liver out to the field for another day of flying. There were those who arrived not merely hungover but still drunk, slapping oxygen tank cones over their faces and trying to burn the alcohol out of their systems, and then going up, remarking later: “I don’t advise it, you understand, but it can be done.” (Provided you have the right stuff, you miserable pudknocker.)
I loved Wolfe’s description of astronauts as the cold war equivalents “single combat warriors”
Just as the Soviet success in putting Sputniks into orbit around the earth revived long-buried superstitions about the power of heavenly bodies and the fear of hostile control of the heavens, so did the creation of astronauts and a “manned space program” bring back to life one of the ancient superstitions of warfare. Single combat had been common throughout the world in the pre-Christian era and endured in some places through the Middle Ages. In single combat the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for a pitched battle between the entire forces.
If you like American History and/or stories of pushing the limits of human capability and endurance, this book is for you.