“Anybody who goes up in the damn thing is gonna be Spam in a can.” • Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), “The Right Stuff” (1983), Written by Tom Wolfe and Phillip Kaufman based on the book by Tom Wolfe (1979), Directed by Phillip Kaufman
Henry Luce: “Now, I want them all to meet my people who will write their true stories. Naturally these stories will appear in Life magazine under their own bylines. For example, “by Betty Grissom,” or “by Virgil I. Grissom,” or…
Gus Grissom: “Gus!”
Henry Luce: “What was that?”
Gus Grissom: “Gus. Nobody calls me by…that other name.”
Henry Luce: “Gus? An astronaut named “Gus?” What’s your middle name?
Gus Grissom: “Ivan.”
Henry Luce: “Ivan…ahem…well. Maybe Gus isn’t so bad, might be something there…All right, all right. You can be “Gus.”Henry R. • Luce (John Dehner), Virgil (Gus) I. Grissom (Fred Ward)“The Right Stuff” (1983)
“Godspeed, John Glenn” • Scott Carpenter, Cmdr, USN, Project Mercury upon the launch of Friendship 7
To warp a phrase, and with apologies to my friend Peter David… But I’m digressing again…
February 20, 1962. 2:30 P.M. It is almost time to be dismissed from my 2nd grade classroom at P.S. 29 (which is still there, at the corner of Slosson Avenue and Victory Boulevard on Staten Island, New York), but no one is looking at the big clock on the wall. Mrs. Krieger – a woman with a softly wrinkled face and gray hair styled in a “1950’s Lois Lane” short, curled pageboy – is leaning against the closets that hold our winter coats and galoshes. We are all watching the television in front of her desk. She has pulled down the window blinds and shut off the lights. Walter Cronkite is talking over the picture of the white Atlas rocket standing in its gantry at Cape Canaveral, steam roiling out from its bottom. At the very “tippy-top” of the giant rocket is a tiny silver-gray fir cone. Inside that little metal capsule – officially the Mercury-Atlas 6, but more famously christened “Friendship 7,” is astronaut John Glenn.
I wonder what it’s like to be him, strapped into a chair, the door bolted shut – “Spam in a can” – as the countdown winds down. What is he thinking? Is he scared? Is he excited? What if something goes wrong? What if the rocket blows up?
10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1…
2:47 P.M. After over two hours of delays, and almost four hours since he entered Friendship 7, John Glenn is launched into orbit. The class erupts into cheers.
Seventeen years later, with the publication of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, we learned that Glenn’s mission did not go off without hitches that could have turned a moment of national triumph into national disaster.
A scheduled test to determine whether or not a pilot could fly the capsule manually became more than a test when it was discovered that a failure of the yaw attitude control jet forced Glenn to abandon the automated system and use the manual controls; Glenn flew the second and third orbits, plus re-entry “by the seat of his pants.”
NASA decided that three orbits were enough – instead of the possible seven – when telemetry revealed that the heat shield was loose. Without this heat shield, the astronaut and Friendship 7 would burn up in the atmosphere upon re-entry. It was determined that only the retrorocket pack was holding the heat shield in place. Normally, the retro pack would be jettisoned after re-entry, but Glenn determined to leave it in place to “steady” the heat shield. “It made for a very spectacular re-entry from where I was sitting,” he later said about the big chunks of burning material flying by the capsule’s window in that laconic manner that all pilots seem to have when discussing life-or-death situations; I know this personally from talking with my dad about some of his WW II, uh, adventures. “Fortunately, it was the rocket pack [and not the heat shield falling apart] or I wouldn’t be answering these questions.”
Splashdown occurred in the Atlantic Ocean four hours, 55 minutes and 30 seconds from launch, only 40 miles from the planned landing zone.
John Glenn was a real hero, as were all the men of the Mercury Project, as are all the men and women who have followed in their footsteps, going where no one has gone before.
The Right Stuff, book and movie, is not only the story of the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of California, and of the men who became the astronauts of Mercury Project, the first manned missions into space, but also of the political machinations behind the “Space Race.”
I also believe that that it qualifies the era as the time in which promotional news and public relations began to dominate not only our political discourses, but also our entire culture; Tom Wolfe himself made the equation that “the astronauts [were like the] single combat warriors from an earlier era who received the honor and adoration of their people before going forth to fight on their behalf.”
Before any of them went up into space, before any of them had even stepped into a mock-up of the capsule, before even a rocket was successfully launched, the seven Mercury astronauts were hailed and wined and dined and given houses and sports cars and money from “sponsors” like Henry R. Luce’s Life magazine in exchange for “exclusive” interviews and peeks into their home life. And the military and government loved it, because the project needed funding. The storm of media trumpets around the Mercury 7 created such a storm of patriotism around them that no Congressman in his right mind would have denied NASA money. As Fred Ward’s Gus Grissom says in the film, “No bucks…no Buck Rogers.”
In the mirror universe of today’s media, the only thing that corporate media trumpeted Donald J. Trump’s bid for the presidency in the search for ratings, i.e., funding, so that few mainstream media outlets, including MSNBC and The New York Times, could not help but to enable Trump’s victory. Indeed, the coverage afforded Trump “free funding,” as every outrageous lie and tweet spawned more and more airtime. His campaign rallies were televised as if he were Jesus returned, delivering second and third Sermons on the Mount. Only his sermons involved making fun of disabled reporters, of disavowing sexual harassment and assault, of denying climate change as a Chinese hoax, and of vowing to “build a wall and making Mexico pay,” to “lock her up,” and to “drain the swamp.” Of “making America great again.”
And the hordes believed and cheered and honored and adored and rewarded him with the Presidency.
With the expected pick of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as his nominee for Secretary of State, Trump has completed his scam. And at Forest Lawn Cemetery, a snickering can be heard coming from the gravesite of W. C. Fields: “Never give a sucker an even break.”
In 2016, the American people wanted Project Mercury and the Mercury 7. They wanted America to be great again. They wanted a hero.
What they got was Spam in a can.