Monday, October 21, 2013

Telling the Tale of Special Kind of Men

"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, 750 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. Then, they built a small plane, the X–1, to try and break the sound barrier. And men came to the High Desert in California to ride it. They were called test pilots. And no one knew their names."

Opening narration (by Levon Helm)

With the recent death of Scott Carpenter, John Glenn is the last of the Mercury Seven astronauts who is still standing.

Their adventures are part of American history now. It is easy enough to read their stories, to learn of their accomplishments, to see how space travel came to be seen as routine by ordinary folks because a handful of extraordinary men had the courage to explore the unknown.

A lot of folks living today simply don't appreciate how hazardous it all was when it was still new to everyone. There were no guarantees of success.

Those early, tentative steps outside Earth's atmosphere seem quaint to 21st–century eyes, I suppose. The first couple of flights lasted less than half an hour, the next three only a matter of hours. It wasn't until the sixth flight that a man spent more than a day in space.

That was also the last one–man mission.

All that was before my time, but my grandmother told me stories of how seemingly everyone was caught up in what was happening, and people held their breath as the rockets lifted off, uncertain what would happen when a huge vehicle was thrust into the sky with enough force to burst through the atmosphere — and one lone man sitting at the top, hurtling into the heavens.

There was so much that people didn't know then. I guess that is hard for people of this century to comprehend. But those astronauts were latter–day pioneers, daring to run into the darkness.

As a student of history, I found the story that was told in "The Right Stuff," which was released as a movie on this day in 1983, rang true to what I had been told and what I had read. In fact, I read much of it in Tom Wolfe's book, upon which the movie was based.

"The Right Stuff" never needed to create dramatic moments. There were many human dramas in the lives of the Mercury Seven.

Scott Glenn played Alan Shepard, the first man in space whose historic journey lasted only 15 minutes. That mission would seem laughably short to folks today, almost like a Saturday Night Live parody, but it was met with a hero's welcome, a ticker–tape parade and a visit to the White House to dine with President and Mrs. Kennedy.

The astronauts' wives, who felt they had made a deal with NASA to be supportive of the program and to make sacrifices in its name, believed they would be repaid for their loyalty the way Shepard's wife had been. But when the mission of Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) was regarded as a failure because the capsule sank, Grissom's wife (Veronica Cartwright) bitterly complained about the unfair treatment they received.

"I thought I was going to be Honorable Mrs. Astronaut," she said, "and I ended up being Honorable Mrs. Squirming Hatchblower."

Perhaps it was inevitable that the mission of John Glenn (Ed Harris) got the most attention in the movie. He was the first to orbit the Earth and, consequently, witnessed things no man had seen before.

"It takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially when it's on national TV."

Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard)

But the movie was really a salute to Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier and, although not one of the Mercury Seven, the test pilot against whom all other test pilots were judged.

When it comes to heroic figures, it's hard to beat Yeager. He withheld the fact that he had broken his ribs while on a horseback ride with his wife (played in the movie by Barbara Hershey) so he could fly the experimental X–1 — and, in the process, he became the first man to break the sound barrier, to conquer "the demon."

Yeager was a persistent presence in a true story that read like a novel and had the same feeling in the movie. It was funny, poignant and thrilling to watch a dramatization of the by–the–seat–of–our–pants approach to space travel that was taken by people who really had no idea how to do what they were doing.

The risks were many, and the rewards, by comparison, were few.
Girl at Pancho's (O–Lan Jones): I just noticed that a fancy pilot like Slick over there doesn't have his picture on your wall. What do you have to do to get your picture up there anyway?

Pancho Barnes (Kim Stanley): You have to die, sweetie.