Even though Tom Wolfe died at the ripe old age of 87, it still seems as if he passed too soon. His non-fiction works that read like novels and his novels that illuminated aspects of human existence in the late 20th Century were masterworks of the English language. If one had to pick out the one book that rises above the rest and will endure long after Wolfe is gone, that work has to be “The Right Stuff.”

Examining the souls of the early astronauts

The Right Stuff,” which told the story of the Mercury program, came out in 1979 during that interlude between the Apollo race to the moon and the space shuttle program.

The book was the first attempt in literature, aside from the now not lamentably forgotten “Of a Fire on the Moon” by Norman Mailer, to understand the early space program and the men who were at the center of it.

To Wolfe, the original Mercury astronauts were like medieval knights, performing unarmed single combat in the heavens on behalf of their country, never mind that they had the help of hundreds of thousands of engineers, scientists, and technicians. “The Right Stuff” was more of a human story of the men who rocketed into space to demonstrate the technological superiority of the United States over the Soviet Union rather than a nuts and bolts account of spacecraft and how they operated.

The book also touched on some of the political aspects of the space race, and why the United States and the Soviets became embroiled in the contest to start with.

What was 'The Right Stuff'?

Wolfe invented a new term to describe that quality that can make a man (and later women) astronauts. “The Right Stuff” was a quality that allows someone to do a difficult job.

Flying a spacecraft from on top of a rocket was one of the most challenging tasks of all.

Ironically, the most memorable character in the book and the movie that followed was not an astronaut, but a test pilot named Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound. Wolfe saw in Yeager the very personification of "The Right Stuff," the ability to take an aircraft up to the skies, wring every last ounce of capability out of it, and then land safely.

The book and movie turned Yeager from an interesting historical personage to a celebrity. He is currently in his nineties and can be found on Twitter.

The tragedy of ‘The Right Stuff’

Wolfe, during an interview decades ago, mentioned that he had gathered enough material to tell the story of the space program through Skylab and that he might return to the subject at some point. Now he never will. More's the pity.