The stuff that separates pilots and astronauts that voluntarily participate in furthering the aeronautics and space programs by risking life and limb is undefined in words. In The Right Stuff, author Tom Wolfe examines the early heroes of these programs to define the ‘stuff’ that defines these individuals. The ‘right stuff’ is an elite human condition resulting from a combination of physical courage, psychological resilience and psychological minimization.
The human condition is not definable in simple terms. The definition is subjective to the perspective of the definer. When it comes to needing food, water and shelter to survive the human condition is generally the same. In terms of the need for purpose, love and knowledge the human condition varies from person to person, culture to culture. Much like evolution the status of the human condition per individual depends on immediate, exponential and personal factors. The ‘right stuff’ is inborn in a person and then brought to fruition by that person’s life experiences.
Physical courage is a main component in the ‘right stuff’. It is the ability to face high probability of pain and death unwaveringly. In the case of Navy fighter pilots, at the time of Wolfe’s book, statistics show a one in four chance a career Navy pilot would die in an aircraft accident. This statistic did not include the chance of dying in combat as the “military did not classify death in combat as accidental (Wolfe, 15).” This combined with the risks of ejecting from an aircraft is obvious for pilots but confronted nonetheless.
Psychological resilience is necessary to overcome the inevitable situations that call upon physical courage. Navy pilots attend the funerals of friends and colleagues frequently in their lifetime. The survivors are then to resume high spirits and job duties as usual soon afterward. The pilots are to put their “hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in at the last yawning moment-and then go up again the next day, and the next day and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite…(Wolfe, 17).”
Even in the face of such certain death and uncertain tomorrows, it is normal for those who survive the physical and psychological limits to only further challenge these limits. Mock dogfights between pilots are against regulation. This only entices fighter pilots even more. They will make “a pass at each other at 800 miles an hour (Wolfe, 23).” Someone eventually has to eject from his aircraft, shaking “his fist at the opponent while [floating] down by his parachute and his million dollar aircraft goes kaboom (Wolfe, 23)!” It is all in good fun and in proving the existence of an individual’s ‘right stuff.’
Psychological minimization helps strengthen the psychological resilience such as in the concept that accidents and mechanical flaws do not exist. For Navy fighter pilots the blame rests solely on the pilot. If a pilot goes up in an aircraft with the canopy open and carbon monoxide leaks in from the exhaust causing the pilot to pass out and crash it is the fault of the pilot. “How could he be so stupid? (Wolfe, 26)” Or if a man falls 8,100 feet because his parachute does not open it is part of a chain of missteps. This minimization allows the feeling that “He failed-but I wouldn’t have (Wolfe, 26)!”
The character traits that make up the ‘right stuff’ are interdependent. Physical courage, psychological resilience and psychological minimization can all manifest in an individual separate from one another. The combination of these traits together results in an elitism that is the ‘right stuff’. For the pilot who breaks the sound barrier and the astronaut who exits the atmosphere of Earth, the literal greatness comes in leaving behind those never taking such risk. “The entire world below…left behind (Wolfe, 29).” The potential to be of the ‘right stuff’ can exist in many but is only evident in those elite who pursue and survive the condition.
Work CitedWolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Picador, 1979. Print.