The new Right Stuff

Space entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk are recapturing the bold and individualistic spirit of America's first astronauts, the Mercury Seven.

The original seven Project Mercury astronauts: front row, left to right, are Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Donald "Deke" K. Slayton, John Glenn Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter. Back row, left to right, are Alan Shepard Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, and Gordon Copper.
The original seven Project Mercury astronauts: front row, left to right, are Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Donald "Deke" K. Slayton, John Glenn Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter. Back row, left to right, are Alan Shepard Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, and Gordon Copper. Credit: NASA/Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

When I visited my parents last summer, my father forced us out into the garden every night to look for something in the night sky. For my brothers and I this was hardly new. When he was younger, my father flew helicopters in the Navy. So much of my life has been spent with my head arched back, searching the clouds for a rotor or the hint of fuselage.

On this August night, however, we were told to look for something different. It would, he said, be impossible to miss: dozens of dots of light, strung together in a line and filling the sky from east to west, like beads sliding across a heavenly abacus.

It’s easy to track this phenomenon down on Youtube, though a quick search punctures any mysticism for good. The dots are the satellites of SpaceX’s Starlink network, which has already put hundreds of these objects into orbit to provide a twenty-first century miracle: twenty-four-hour, worldwide internet access.

To light the earth is the original divine act; in the Qu’ran, Allah is he ‘who has appointed for you the stars, that you might be guided over the dark of land and sea.’ Universal wifi takes that one step further, for now we can navigate not only when the skies are clear, but even on the darkest of nights: we never need be lost again. Stealing fire from the heavens is one thing; but how much greater, we might think, is it to put it back?

SpaceX is one of the many ventures of Elon Musk, the Canadian entrepreneur and businessman who pitches himself somewhere between billionaire recluse Howard Hughes and Family Guy creator and comedian Seth MacFarlane. Along with Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos and Virgin’s Richard Branson he is one of a clutch of corporate titans set on pioneering a new space age. At the moment Musk is probably in pole position, with a gaggle of NASA contracts, but he has recently been trumped by Bezos, who revealed he would be the first of the triumvirate to go into orbit on 20 July. His news was closely followed by a counter-announcement from Branson, who plans to beat him with a flight on 11 July. The race is on.

That this new era of space flight should be defined by a small group of individuals is deeply appropriate, for it mirrors the original space race, as documented by the American writer and journalist Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, his definitive account of Mercury Seven. These were the seven men who flew NASA’s first manned space missions and without whom the Apollo project would not have been possible.

In Wolfe’s hands, the space race is the definitive clash in the otherwise terrestrial conflict for supremacy between the US and the Soviet Union, with the Mercury Seven explicitly cast as the single combat warriors of ancient times, the greatest of soldiers who fought individually as a proxy for the army as a whole. It is a vision that has its roots in the White House of John F. Kennedy. The Mercury programme began under his predecessor, President Eisenhower, but was picked up and promoted enthusiastically by Kennedy once he became President. If JFK’s White House was Camelot, then the likes of Alan Shepard and John Glenn were, for Wolfe, Lancelot and Galahad, and the moon the Holy Grail.

At first glance these men – largely test pilots from various branches of the US military – could not seem more different than the likes of Musk and Bezos. They were by no means saints, as Wolfe repeatedly pointed out: any grace or nobility they possessed came from their mission, while they themselves possessed the normal gamut of human failings.

And yet what they do share with today’s tycoons is an extraordinary individuality. Wolfe spends much of his account in awe of the test pilots, who are willing, despite the incredible personal danger, to get in these machines and ‘push the envelope’ every day. It is this combination of courage and ego that gives them the magical ‘right stuff’ of the title, and sets them so far beyond the ordinary mortals tasked with keeping them in check.

Space is the ideal locus for this kind of individuality: it is the endless frontier, which can never be conquered in full and thus perpetually provides humans with the chance to overcome and tame it – the essential American act, and the kernel of every Western film ever made. That is what makes it so compelling to the imagination: there, where there are no limits, the possibilities are boundless.

Bezos, Musk, and Branson have all reached a point where the normal trappings of earthly success cease to have any real significance. A single tweet from one of them can knock billions off the price of a company or send a cryptocurrency into meltdown; the losses incurred are almost nothing to them. Bezos and Musk in particular have been clear that their efforts in this area are no hobby. Whether through deep space mining or colonising Mars, the depths of space are new empires to be claimed by and for the forces of capitalism. The unknown person lifting off with Bezos in July has paid $28m for the privilege; to the highest bidder, the glory. If they are warriors then their creed is one of profit and loss.

We might think this distasteful, or ignoble, especially compared to those knights of old, for whom the risk was to life, not cash. In reality, though, the original space race was at its core another version of the conflict between the capitalist West and Soviet communism, and the pilots, in one sense, the acceptable face of the former.

Wolfe’s vision of that original brotherhood builds a myth upon a myth; those pilots represent an America in which he would like to believe, a great benevolence taking to the heavens for the benefit of its fellow man. With this new generation that artifice has been stripped away for good; the possibilities may be limitless, but only for an extremely limited group. For the likes of Bezos and Musk, the moment is unlikely to be a brief one; they are already deeply involved with NASA’s plans for a return to the Moon – and then beyond – by the middle of the decade.

Now we must wait and watch the skies. On that night last August, we did not see the lights, although my father swore they should be there. When they do appear, we must hope they shine for all of us.


Edward Thicknesse