America

When ‘The Right Stuff’ Goes Wrong


- July 19th, 2019
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In 1962, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to put an American on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. 

Just to be clear, nothing like this had ever been attempted. Americans, though, were uniquely suited to the task, Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon . . . and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

In Kennedy’s day, it was understood the American he had in mind for this dangerous mission would be a man (or, as it turned out, men) expected to perform at the highest level.

In his speech Kennedy emphasized “hard,” as in something requiring great effort, now a word heard mostly in male-enhancement commercials. Sadly, the bedroom may be the one place these days where men’s performance gets any kind of public mention—and that’s to sell pharmaceuticals. 

American men live in a very different country from the one Apollo 11 came from on July 20, 1969. That was the day when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon while Michael Collins circled above in the lunar command module, hoping to take the three of them home. 

How different? Read The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. The book is a celebration of old-fashioned manhood in all its rocket-powered glory. In other words, most of the astronauts Wolfe wrote about would never pass a human resources screening.

Their qualifications were tested, but not by having them fill out forms. These guys, many of them former combat pilots, had already proven they had balls. That’s part of what Wolfe meant by the book title. 

In the ultrasensitive work environment of today, the mere mention of similar male attributes would get you fired. On the flight of Apollo 11, they were among the things that mattered most.

Which explains why on this historic occasion there won’t be any mainstream media salutes to “the right stuff,” as Wolfe conceived it. Putting aside the Playboy lifestyle enjoyed by some astronauts, the idea that three white men, relying solely on know-how and pre-toxic masculinity, got from the earth to the moon and back might alarm certain people. Then there are “the optics.” In addition to being all male and active duty or ex-military, the Apollo 11 crew was not ethnically diverse, culturally inclusive, or gender fluid. 

Years later, there were rumors in some parts of the world that Armstrong had converted to Islam while taking his famous moonwalk. All officially denied by the U.S. State Department in 1983.

Speaking of spiritual matters, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which manages the U.S. space program, used to allow crews to mix science and religion. During the 1968 Christmas Eve flight of Apollo 8, astronauts broadcast the first live television pictures of an earthrise as they read a passage from Genesis. Atheists sued.

Armstrong and Aldrin have never been rebuked like Christopher Columbus and other well-known explorers, largely because they never encountered and/or enslaved any indigenous peoples on their 21-hour moon visit. But they did leave an American flag behind. And that was a problem.

“First Man,” the 2018 Neil Armstrong biopic, received generally favorable reviews, except from some conservatives, who complained the film omitted an important patriotic element by not depicting the planting of a U.S. flag on the lunar surface. 

Producers were probably concerned about the effect on ticket sales in countries that hate America, or maybe ticket sales to moviegoers in this country who hate America.

Just as Nike was concerned recently when it halted the sale of a new shoe decorated with a miniature version of the original U.S. flag. (On the advice of a washed-up football player who’s made a new career for himself trashing the country’s most cherished symbols.)

Given how much has changed, it’s not hard to imagine what America’s first mission to the moon would be like if it happened today. 

The spacecraft would have to be bigger to accommodate a larger, more diverse crew, including at least one unskilled illegal immigrant. 

Leading the mission would be a commander of color, with crew members chosen by NASA and a select panel of race, ethnicity, and gender identity consultants. 

In-flight meals would feature dehydrated multicultural entrees and a special vegan menu. Tang would also be served. 

The landing would be televised and show the mission commander climbing down a ladder to set foot on the moon, followed by the non-binary co-commander who would read the following statement:

“That’s one small step for they. One giant leap for them.”

Then, as the phone rang, signaling a call from the White House, xe would say, “If that’s Donald Trump, we’re not answering.” 

It makes you glad the real thing happened 50 years ago.

Photo credit: Corbis via Getty Images

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