Saturday, May 23, 2020

THE RIGHT STUFF

My God!—to be a part of Edwards in the late forties and early fifties!—even to be on the ground and hear one of those incredible explosions from 35,000 feet somewhere up there in the blue over the desert and know that some True Brother had commenced his rocket launch…in the X–I, the X–IA, the X–2, the D–558-1, the horrible XF–92A, the beautiful D–558-2…and to know that he would soon be at an altitude, in the thin air at the edge of space, where the stars and the moon came out at noon, in an atmosphere so thin that the ordinary laws of aerodynamics no longer applied and a plane could skid into a flat spin like a cereal bowl on a waxed Formica counter and then start tumbling, not spinning and not diving, but tumbling, end over end like a brick…In those planes, which were like chimneys with little razor-blade wings on them, you had to be “afraid to panic,” and that phrase was no joke. In the skids, the tumbles, the spins, there was, truly, as Saint-Exupéry had said, only one thing you could let yourself think about: What do I do next? 

 Sometimes at Edwards they used to play the tapes of pilots going into the final dive, the one that killed them, and the man would be tumbling, going end over end in a fifteen-ton length of pipe, with all aerodynamics long gone, and not one prayer left, and he knew it, and he would be screaming into the microphone, but not for Mother or for God or the nameless spirit of Ahor, but for one last hopeless crumb of information about the loop: “I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C! I’ve tried D! Tell me what else I can try!” And then that truly spooky click on the machine. What do I do next? (In this moment when the Halusian Gulp is opening?) And everybody around the table would look at one another and nod ever so slightly, and the unspoken message was: Too bad! There was a man with the right stuff. There was no national mourning in such cases, of course. Nobody outside of Edwards knew the man’s name. If he were well liked, he might get one of those dusty stretches of road named for him on the base. He was probably a junior officer doing all this for four or five thousand a year.

Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (47-48). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. [1983] Kindle Edition.

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