There is no movie that pushes my patriotic buttons as deftly as Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff. Based on the book by Tom Wolfe, the film compares pioneering test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) to the seven Mercury program astronauts on the subject of what it truly takes to be a hero. As in Wolfe's book, a considerable amount of time is spent on the nonsensical experiments conducted on a group of pilots before being pared down to the famous seven candidates: Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom (Fred Ward), Donald K. "Deke" Slayton (Scott Paulin), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen). The implication is that a certain amount of randomness came into play in the selection of these American idols, in contrast to Yeager's self-inspired pursuit of danger in the service of knowledge.
But it quickly becomes apparent that these seven men are not content simply being "astronaut occupants" as the scientists behind NASA's space program refer to them. The seven use their newfound celebrity and public support as leverage to become "astronaut pilots," lobbying for total control of the spacecraft once the flight is underway, and transcending their role as test subjects to become true American heroes.
Today, as we celebrate the anniversary of the moment when the space race reached its apex, I'd like to pay tribute in my own way by sharing some of my favorite moments from this awe-inspiring film.
Trudy Cooper (Pamela Reed): I went back east to a reunion and all my friends could talk about their husband's work. How "dog-eat-dog" and cutthroat it was on Madison Ave. Places like that. Cutthroat. I wondered how they would've felt if every time their husband went in to make a deal, there was a one-in-four chance he wouldn't come out of that meeting. [begins sobbing]
Reporter: Gentlemen, which one of you will be first into space?
Game Show Host: Major, Eddie here has a little problem with his girlfriend. Did you ever have a problem like that when you were 10?
John Glenn: Yes, I did, Bob. I liked a girl in my class, but all the other guys liked her too and she didn't pay any attention. But, I kept after her, Eddie.
Game Show Host: Did you finally get her to notice you?
John Glenn: Yes, I did. In fact, I finally got her to marry me.
John Glenn: Annie, listen to me, OK? You listening? If you don't want the Vice President or the TV networks or anybody else to come into the house, then that's it, as far as I'm concerned. They are NOT coming in, and I will back you all the way, a hundred percent on this. And you tell them that, OK? I don't want Johnson or any of the rest of them to set as much as one TOE inside our house.
Annie Glenn (Mary Jo Deschanel): OK.
John Glenn: You tell them that-- that Astronaut John Glenn told you to say that.
"Gordo" Cooper: You boys know what makes this bird go up? FUNDING makes this bird go up.
"Gus" Grissom: He's right. No bucks, no Buck Rogers.
Alan Shepard: Request permission to relieve bladder.
Alan Shepard: [during enema continence test] Tell me something, Mr. Gonzalez. You ever have any explosions doing this?
Gonzalez (Anthony Muñoz): All the time. It's a mess.
Alan Shepard: Tell me something else, Mr. Gonzalez. How am I doing?
Gonzalez: I think you're going to make it, man. I think you're going to be an astronaut.
"Gus" Grissom: I was just lying there... flat on my back, and it just blew.
Review Board Member: Thank you, Mr. Grissom. [Grissom walks out.] Well, what do you think?
Review Board President: Explosive hatches have been on jet fighters for ten years. The damn things have been wrung inside out... subjected to trial by heat, by water, by shaking, pounding. We even drop them from a height of 100 feet onto concrete... and not one of them has ever "just blown."
Betty Grissom (Veronica Cartwright): I thought I was going to be Honorable Mrs. Astronaut, and I ended up being Honorable Mrs. Squirming Hatchblower.
John Glenn: I see something strange out here. Ooooooh my goodness gracious what the h--heck is that? Sparks and needles of some kind, all over the sky! This is Friendship 7 and let me tell you what I'm in up here. I'm in a-- in a mass of some very small particles that are brilliantly lit up, like they're luminescent. I never saw anything like it... a whole shower of them coming by me now. They're bright bright yellow, and they're all lit up. They swirl around the capsule, and they go in front of the window, and they're brilliantly lighted. Y--You don't think these--these things could be alive, do ya? I know it sounds ridiculous but they look like fireflies or something. [chuckles] Whoa, whoa! Maybe some Air Force experiment went amok or something. Could our astronomers have been wrong? Hello, Capcom, do you read me? This is miraculous!
Chuck Yeager: Hey, Ridley, ya got any Beeman's?
Jack Ridley(Levon Helm): Yeah, I think I got me a stick.
Chuck Yeager: Loan me some, will ya? I'll pay ya back later.
Jack Ridley: Fair enough.
The Right Stuff airs tonight at 10 p.m. ET on TCM as part of their celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the First Moon Landing.