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Interview with Tom Wolfe

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Interview with Tom Wolfe
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Authors & Literature Oral History
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Literature, Modern -- Florida
Fiction -- Florida
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Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Department of History, University of Florida
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AL2
Interviewee: Tom Wolfe
Interviewer: Dr. Michael Gannon
Date: April 2, 1984


G: Welcome to another Conversation. My guest is Tom Wolfe, one of the most
prolific and most perceptive writers in America today. His book titles will be
known to many of you -- The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Radical Chic and Mau
Mauing The Flak Catchers, From Bauhaus To Our House, and probably his best
know title, The Right Stuff. Tom, welcome to Conversation and the campus of
the University of Florida.

W: Thank you very much.

G: I am grateful to __ and the other members of the Accent staff for bringing you
here to talk to our students and our faculty and staff. You gave a very engaging
talk on campus, and it spoke to a lot of issues that I think cause wonder and
worry. What ever happened to bravery and courage in our society? Have we
defined it now only in the instances of certain people whom we have lifted up on
pedestals such as astronauts, fighter pilots, and people of that sort?

W: I was just thinking the other day what an antique term "the brave warrior" is.
Today I think it would be impossible for a poet to write the "The Charge of the
Light Brigade" [written by the English poet Lord Alfred Tennyson, published in
1855], no matter how updated it might be, and have it taken seriously. It would
be presumed that the writer was being sarcastic, cynical, or ironic. The brave
man, particularly the brave warrior, is a term that has almost fallen into disuse.
Throughout the entire Korean and Vietnam wars, I cannot think of a single heroic
figure who became a national hero. Probably the last person we have had in the
sense of a military man regarded by the great mass of the citizens as a brave,
heroic figure was John Glenn [first man to orbit the earth, 1962; U.S. senator
from Ohio].

G: John Glenn epitomized much that we admire about ourselves -- courage, good
humor, a nice all-American smile, an upbringing that bespoke a nativist tradition
in America. He came from a small town and grew up in a stable family in a white
Protestant culture. Is this all part of the mystique that John Glenn had?

H: At the time when the astronauts were selected, it was considered a perfectly
normal, ordinary, and natural thing for all of the astronauts to be white Protestant
Christians from small towns. There was a belief in a kind of a "mom's pie" view
of American life that was accepted by everyone. It was not until after John F.
Kennedy's election in 1960, and Kennedy after all was elected in no small part by
a coalition of minorities, that anyone began to raise the question of why are all of
the astronauts white [and] why are all of the astronauts Protestant. Actually, the
answer is nothing very extraordinary. It so happened that at that time, and it is









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not really true any longer, practically the entire officer corps was made up of
white Protestants. It was an age when no one questioned the notion that there
should be heroic figures who came from the subtle all-American background. It
is only in the last twenty years that there has been such cynicism about a subject
of this sort. During this current Democratic campaign before John Glenn
dropped out, he was often ridiculed by his opponents for his role as an astronaut.
I could not help but think of what an extraordinary change this represents. If any
presidential aspirant in 1960 had ridiculed the role of astronaut, he would not
have stood a chance. There was such a unanimity of opinion on matters like that
back then.

G: Yes. And the PT 109 incident in the Second World War served John F. Kennedy
very well.

H: Indeed, it did. Actually, a lot of things that even then were considered great
pluses for a man like Kennedy have gone by the boards. Even Kennedy, as a
man representing a coalition of minorities, did not dare stand up and say, I am
against war; I am a pacifist, which is a very popular position now. [Saying
something like that] did not even occur to him. Things have changed
dramatically, in no small part, as a result of the war in Vietnam.

G: John Glenn might not have had the right stuff to be a presidential aspirant, but in
your book The Right Stuff, which I have in my hand, you do say that he did
possesses the right stuff to become the first American to orbit the earth. What is
the right stuff? It is more than bravery. There is something else here, and it is
more than wild living, drinking, driving, and flying. There is something about
these men that set them apart and enabled those who made the final selection
[to be] comfortable in saying that these are the ones who possess the qualities
necessary to do this particular and almost frightening task. What was it?

W: "The right stuff" was a term that I had to give to a certain code, because the
people involved in it would never talk about it; it was taboo to talk about it. This
was a particular type of bravery involved in military flying, which was a matter of
not merely being willing to risk your life because it was regarded that anyone
could throw his life away, it was the willingness to risk your life over and over
again, day after day, in the routine pursuit of your occupation, and at the same
time to have the skill, experience, and moxie to control a hurdling piece of
machinery and bring it back from the edge day after day after day. This
demanded a new type of courage. For example, Marines in the Second World
War, even those who were in the thick of the war in the Pacific, rarely went
through more than sixty days of actual combat. Sixty days was a lot [of combat]
for any individual Marine to go through. Pilots, even if they were not in battle,
were going through life-threatening situations day after day. This code of "the
right stuff," which they would never talk about (in fact, part of the way that you









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maintain this quality was not to talk about it and not to let it bubble up into your
emotions all of the time), was partly a superstition, in my opinion. It was based
on the belief that you were supernaturally endowed with an immunity. The odds
were terrifically against you. The Navy eventually discovered that a Navy pilot
stood a one in four chance of dying in an accident if he flew for twenty years.
That is amazing odds against an individual. People like John Glenn and the
other fighter pilots who became astronauts believed that somehow they were
immune -- that averages like one in four are for average people. Averages do
not apply to people with the right stuff for the same reason that they would never
believe that death in an aircraft was accidental. There was always a failure by a
man who did not have this quality.

G: As a private pilot, I look up to people of that kind and sometimes wish I had that
skill, [while] at other times I am scared to think that if I had that skill I would use it
and hurt myself. And yet I wish I could identify with [those] people. I suppose
that is why at the first shuttle launch, I boldly went up and shook hands with Neil
Armstrong [first man to walk on the moon, 1969] and [Albert] Scott Crossfield
[aviation expert and pilot; first to fly the X-15] as a way of sharing by some kind of
mystical apotheosis their greatness as pilots. Then I shook hands with the man
who I believe is really the hero of your book. It is not one of the astronauts; it is
Chuck Yeager [pilot; first man to break sound barrier]. And that was a great thrill
for me because he is regarded, among pilots, as the pilot par excellence. Is it
your judgement that the hero who stands forth in you book is Chuck Yeager?

W: I think he does, and I did not start the book intending to make Yeager the hero.
At first he was only going to be in the third chapter as the individual example of
these qualities to which I was devoting the book. The more I learned about
Yeager and the more I talked to him, the more I realized that the story of the
astronauts is not simply the story of those who became astronauts, but [also the
story of] those with whom they were competing for the top of this pyramid. What
people forget about Chuck Yeager, even those people who knew who he was
and very few people did even in the 1970s, was that he broke the sound barrier
and still fewer remember that he shot down thirteen German aircraft in the
Second World War, including German jets, with his propeller-driven fighter plane.
These were things that had been largely forgotten. And people have certainly
forgotten the fact that Yeager, like Scott Crossfield who we just mentioned, flew a
rocket aircraft. The X-1 was a rocket plane just as the Mercury series of space
flights were rocket flights. These were the X-1, the X-2, the X-1A, and the X-15.
And they were all aircraft propelled by rocket engines that were quite similar to
the engines used in the redstone rockets -- the Titan rockets and the Saturn
rockets that eventually took men to the moon. There was an unseen competition
(unseen by the outside world) between these early rocket pilots such as Yeager
and Crossfield who were completely in command of their aircraft, [while] the
astronauts, for the most part, were very passive passengers.









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G: That was one of the things that I picked up in your book right away when I read it;
namely, the fact that the astronauts were so passive and resented that [so much]
that they insisted on having a window drilled on the side of the Mercury capsule
so that they could at least pretend that they were piloting their craft.

W: The Mercury program was a human cannonball program. The first American to
go into space, Alan Shepard [ in 1961], (who did not go into orbit, but went up
and above fifty miles and came down near Bermuda) was "Spam in a can" as the
rocket pilots were called. The capsule had no window. He did not even have a
hatch that he could open by himself. He came down in the water, and he could
wiggle out of the neck of this Mercury capsule, but he could not open the hatch
which had to be undone by Navy swabbos with lug wrenches. The public at large
did not care. All that the public saw was here are men who were brave enough
to do this. They did not realize how the astronauts themselves agonized over the
fact that other pilots did not regard them as real pilots.

G: Yes. That comes out very strongly in your book. That must have been a telling
experience among them, because they had all been exemplary fighter pilots.
Then suddenly they were reduced to the role of a chimpanzee. And a
chimpanzee did go up first, did it not?

W: A chimpanzee made the first sub-orbital flight before Alan Shepard, and people
forget that a chimpanzee made the first orbital flight before John Glenn. And the
flights were identical; the chimpanzee did just about as much as the man in these
flights. The chimpanzees had to throw a lot of switches, not for anything in
controlling the craft, just to test various systems, which they were trained to do.
As a matter of fact, I almost did not write about the apes in The Right Stuff. I had
read an article in National Geographic about the training of these chimpanzees,
which was so exhaustive in the National Geographic fashion that I figured there
was really nothing more to say. But this article described how happy these
animals were, and how much they loved being trained for this kind of thing. They
were always grinning in the pictures taken by National Geographic. So I figured,
well, I better at least check it out with somebody. I found a veterinarian and
biologist who had been closely involved in this program. And he said, are you
kidding? These chimpanzees were like He said that they were literally
kidnapped in Africa, taken away from their mothers, put on airplanes as young
chimpanzees, transported from the middle of the jungle to the middle of the
desert. There were these hot pads or something that they would clamp on their
feet, and if they did not follow instructions, they got these terrific shocks on the
soles of their feet. They went through living hell, and they all ended up with very
much elevated blood pressures. A chimpanzee has a blood pressure reading that
is pretty much like a man's, and these young animals in the prime of their life-
cycles were ending up with blood pressures of 240, 250, 260 when they were at
rest. In fact, this particular man, after he left the NASA orbit, began devoting his









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career to studying the effects of stress on health, blood pressure, heart,
circulation, and so on.

G: I suppose he finds in human beings a similar elevation of blood pressure
resulting from stressful circumstances.

W: He felt that the worst kind of stress was not danger because a dangerous
situation is usually over very fast, but deprivation of liberty because you have to
live with being constantly forced to follow a rigid code without the slightest
freedom. I do not know whether this hypothesis turned out to be absolutely true,
because I have not really followed through on all of his experiments, but they
were fascinating.

G: Returning to Chuck Yeager for a moment, in his conversations with you, did he
acknowledge any resentment over not having been chosen himself as one of the
Mercury astronauts?

W: He never acknowledged any. He always dealt with it very cavalierly. That is not
entirely accurate. He would say one thing seriously and another thing
humorously. The serious thing he would say was, look, I had my chance and
more of a chance than any man could ever ask for. They gave me the X-1 to fly,
and I broke the sound barrier; they gave me the X-1A, and I went faster than
Mach 2. At one point, he held the speed record for an aircraft -- Mach 2.4. He
said, how much can a man ask for? It is perfectly proper that a new bunch
should get this space program. I am not sure that he really meant that, but he
also always said, look, there was no flying to be done in the space program. I
am a pilot, and I have always been a pilot. These astronauts are not going to do
any flying. After all, I refuse to fly in any craft where you have to sweep monkey
crap off of the seat before you sit down. [laughter] He said this over and over
again. This would have stung the astronauts. The rest of the world never even
heard about it because the newspapers in those days would not print a word like
crap. Actually, he said it a little more forcefully, and they would not have printed
that either. So I do not know. I know that in the case of someone like Joe
Walker, who was one of the great pilots of the X-15 and at one time held records
for speed and altitude, if he had been in the military, he would have received
astronaut wings. I always thought that Joe Walker was perfectly content to fly
the X-15 and never wanted to go into space. But I talked to his widow years
later, and she said that in fact, by that time, the aura of the astronaut was such
that even Joe Walker would have liked to have done it. By this time, he was
really getting too old. He was forty-two or forty-three years old. Although now
astronauts are going up who are well over the age of fifty with white hairs
growing out of their ears.

G: I do not know how faithfully the movie represented the book, and I want to ask









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that in a moment. But after the book came out and before the motion picture,
what were the reactions to your book that you received from Scott Carpenter,
Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, and the others in that first group [of astronauts]?

W: There were several tacit reactions. Scott Carpenter seemed to like it. I do not
know whether Wally Schirra [piloted Gemini 6, 1965; commander of Apollo 7,
1968] liked it or not, but at least he found it accurate, which was all that I cared
about. Alan Shepard said that he did not read it and did not intend to read it. I
can only take that at face value. John Glenn wrote me a very fine letter. He
said, in any future additions to your book, you may wish to consider two changes.
First, my car was not a Peugeot but a Prinz. This is actually better for your
story, because the Prinz is an even more underpowered automobile than the
Peugeot. My point was that all of the other astronauts like all red-blooded fighter
pilots wanted very hot cars like a Corvette or a Ferrari if they could afford it.

G: Or a Maserati.

W: Yes, eventually Schirra had a Maserati. Carpenter had a Shelby Cobra, and he
went around with this car with about two horse power. Then he said, secondly,
the inscription on the blackboard in the astronaut office was not as you said in
your book, "The sports car is a symptom of the male menopause," [which was]
an inscription that he had written on the blackboard there after being needled by
Alan Shepard and others about driving this little car. The actual inscription was,
"definition of a sports car: hedge against the male menopause." Yours sincerely,
John Glenn, U.S. Senate. I think he was actually giving me a little nudge in the
ribs saying, there are some other changes I would like for you to make, but I will
just mention these two.

G: When the motion picture came out, how faithfully did it represent your book? Of
course, no motion picture can be perfectly faithful to the book.

W: The picture attempted to follow the book pretty closely, and was a serious picture
and in most respects well made. Certain bits of fictionalization were done not for
any perverse reason, but only to compress the plot a bit. I would say the most
glaring departure was that Wernher von Braun [scientist who led the
development of V-2 missiles for Germany during WW II; later directed rocket
research in the U.S.] becomes somehow almost the head of NASA in the movie,
and he is the boss of the astronauts and becomes this martinet with a heavy
German accent who is going around telling the astronauts to do things they do
not want to do. It is total fiction. Von Braun, in fact, got along very well with the
astronauts, but never saw that much of them. Despite the fact that he was very
well known, he was kept somewhat in the background by NASA. After all, he
had been part of the Nazi war machine, and they did not feel like having this
German as a prominent figure in NASA.









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G: In my recollection, he was more situated at Huntsville, Alabama, and oversaw the
development of the rockets as such.

W: That was entirely it in von Braun's case. Also in the movie NASA in general is
depicted as being made up of martinets and kind of bureaucrats out of M.A.S.H.
or something like that, which is not the case at all. NASA went through two
phases. At the beginning, NASA looked like a very inefficient, almost farcically
incompetent operation. This was just during the early test stages of the rockets.
By the time two or three Mercury flights were underway, people began to realize
that this was an extraordinarily efficient, highly motivated organization, which it
remained right through the Apollo program.

G: Was Webb the director at that time?

W: Webb was the head administrator in the early phase; then Thomas Paine was
later head of __ He was the administrator during most of Apollo, and it was
Paine who made one of the most courageous decisions in the history of the
space program. And that was the decision to have the flight of Apollo 8 occur
when it did. It was moved up without any rehearsals to Christmas Eve 1968.
NASA believed, quite erroneously, that the Soviet Union was ready to go to the
moon. This flight with Frank Borman, William Anderson, and James Lovell [flew
Gemini 7, 12, Apollo 8, 13 space missions] did not land, of course. They went
around the moon and came back to Earth. And that was pretty much Paine's
decision, although Frank Borman had a big hand in that too.

G: It was a very successful flight. It was a tour-de-force for American public
relations world-wide.

W: In that year of 1968, everything had gone wrong for the United States
internationally: the Tet Offensive [the name given to the North Vietnamese and
Viet Cong massive surprise offensive against the South Vietnamese; launched
on January 30, 1968] the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Bobby
Kennedy was assassinated, Martin Luther King was assassinated, Jacqueline
Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis [wealthy shipping executive] (I do not know if
that is a catastrophe or not), Andy Warhol [pop artist and author] was shot. It
really was a chaotic year. Although he stayed in office, Lyndon Johnson, in
effect, resigned. The one triumph of that year was Apollo 8, and it was extremely
risky because suddenly Paine was told by people in the government, what is it
going to look like if we end up with three dead astronauts circling the moon
forever on Christmas Eve while Silent Night, Holy Night plays in everybody's
living room. But they went ahead and took the gamble. I think Paine, who was
an old submarine commander in the Second World War, will go down in our
history as a very courageous figure.









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G: This has been fascinating talking about bravery, courage, "the right stuff," human
beings who are heroes of our time. Tom, thank you very much for being with me
on Conversation.

W: Thank you very much, I have enjoyed this.

[End of the interview.]




Full Text

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AL 2 Interviewee: Tom Wolfe Interviewer: Dr. Michael Gannon Date: April 2, 1984 G: Welcome to another Conversation . My guest is Tom Wolfe, one of the most prolific and most perceptiv e writers in America today. His book titles will be known to many of you -The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test , Radical Chic and Mau Mauing The Flak Catchers , From Bauhaus To Our House , and probably his best know title, The Right Stuff . Tom, welcome to Conversation and the campus of the University of Florida. W: Thank you very much. G: I am grateful to ____ and the other member s of the Accent staff for bringing you here to talk to our students and our faculty and staff. You gave a very engaging talk on campus, and it spoke to a lot of issues that I think cause wonder and worry. What ever happened to bravery and courage in our society? Have we defined it now only in the instances of certain people whom we have lifted up on pedestals such as astronauts, fighter pilots, and people of that sort? W: I was just thinking the other day what an antique term “the brave warrior” is. Today I think it would be impossible for a poet to write the "The Charge of the Light Brigade" [written by the Englis h poet Lord Alfred Tennyson, published in 1855], no matter how updated it might be, and have it taken seriously. It would be presumed that the writer was being sarc astic, cynical, or ironic. The brave man, particularly the brave warrior, is a te rm that has almost fallen into disuse. Throughout the entire Korean and Vietnam wars , I cannot think of a single heroic figure who became a national hero. Probabl y the last person we have had in the sense of a military man regarded by the gr eat mass of the citizens as a brave, heroic figure was John Glenn [first man to orbit the earth, 1962; U.S. senator from Ohio]. G: John Glenn epitomized much that we admire about ourselves -courage, good humor, a nice all-American smile, an upbr inging that bespoke a nativist tradition in America. He came from a small town and grew up in a stable family in a white Protestant culture. Is this all part of the mystique that John Glenn had? H: At the time when the astronauts were selected, it was considered a perfectly normal, ordinary, and natural thing for all of the astronauts to be white Protestant Christians from small towns. There was a belief in a kind of a "mom's pie" view of American life that was accepted by ev eryone. It was not until after John F. Kennedy's election in 1960, and Kennedy after all was elected in no small part by a coalition of minorities, that anyone began to raise the question of why are all of the astronauts white [and] why are all of the astronauts Protestant. Actually, the answer is nothing very extraordinary. It so happened that at that time, and it is

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AL 2 Page 2 not really true any longer, practically t he entire officer corps was made up of white Protestants. It was an age when no one questioned the notion that there should be heroic figures who came from the subtle all-American background. It is only in the last twenty years that t here has been such cynicism about a subject of this sort. During this current Democratic campaign before John Glenn dropped out, he was often ridiculed by his opponents for his role as an astronaut. I could not help but think of what an ex traordinary change this represents. If any presidential aspirant in 1960 had ridicul ed the role of astronaut, he would not have stood a chance. There was such a unanimity of opinion on matters like that back then. G: Yes. And the PT 109 incident in the Second World War served John F. Kennedy very well. H: Indeed, it did. Actually, a lot of th ings that even then were considered great pluses for a man like Kennedy have gone by the boards. Even Kennedy, as a man representing a coaliti on of minorities, did not dare stand up and say, I am against war; I am a pacifist, which is a very popular position now. [Saying something like that] did not even occur to him. Things have changed dramatically, in no small part, as a result of the war in Vietnam. G: John Glenn might not have had the right stu ff to be a presidential aspirant, but in your book The Right Stuff , which I have in my hand, you do say that he did possesses the right stuff to become the firs t American to orbit the earth. What is the right stuff? It is more than bravery. There is something else here, and it is more than wild living, drinking, driving, and flying. There is something about these men that set them apart and enabled those who made the final selection [to be] comfortable in saying that t hese are the ones who possess the qualities necessary to do this particular and almost frightening task. What was it? W: "The right stuff" was a term that I had to give to a certain code, because the people involved in it would never talk about it; it was taboo to talk about it. This was a particular type of bravery involved in military flying, which was a matter of not merely being willing to risk your life because it was regarded that anyone could throw his life away, it was the willingness to risk your life over and over again, day after day, in the routine pursuit of your occupation, and at the same time to have the skill, experience, and moxie to control a hurdling piece of machinery and bring it back from the edge day after day after day. This demanded a new type of courage. For example, Marines in the Second World War, even those who were in the thick of the war in the Pacific, rarely went through more than sixty days of actual co mbat. Sixty days was a lot [of combat] for any individual Marine to go through. P ilots, even if they were not in battle, were going through life-threatening situati ons day after day. This code of “the right stuff,” which they would never talk about (in fact, part of the way that you

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AL 2 Page 3 maintain this quality was not to talk about it and not to let it bubble up into your emotions all of the time), was partly a s uperstition, in my opinion. It was based on the belief that you were supernatur ally endowed with an immunity. The odds were terrifically against you. The Navy eventually discovered that a Navy pilot stood a one in four chance of dying in an accident if he flew for twenty years. That is amazing odds against an individual. People like John Glenn and the other fighter pilots who became astronaut s believed that somehow they were immune -that averages like one in four are for average people. Averages do not apply to people with the right stuff for the same reason that they would never believe that death in an aircraft was accidental. There was always a failure by a man who did not have this quality. G: As a private pilot, I look up to people of that kind and sometimes wish I had that skill, [while] at other times I am scared to think that if I had that skill I would use it and hurt myself. And yet I wish I could identify with [those] people. I suppose that is why at the first shuttle launch, I boldly went up and shook hands with Neil Armstrong [first man to walk on the moon, 1969] and [Albert] Scott Crossfield [aviation expert and pilot; first to fly the X15] as a way of sharing by some kind of mystical apotheosis their greatness as p ilots. Then I shook hands with the man who I believe is really the hero of your book. It is not one of the astronauts; it is Chuck Yeager [pilot; first man to break s ound barrier]. And that was a great thrill for me because he is regarded, among pilots, as the pilot par excellence. Is it your judgement that the hero who stands forth in you book is Chuck Yeager? W: I think he does, and I did not start the book intending to make Yeager the hero. At first he was only going to be in the thir d chapter as the individual example of these qualities to which I was devoting the book. The more I learned about Yeager and the more I talked to him, the more I realized that the story of the astronauts is not simply the story of t hose who became astronauts, but [also the story of] those with whom they were compet ing for the top of this pyramid. What people forget about Chuck Yeager, even those people who knew who he was and very few people did even in the 1970s, was that he broke the sound barrier and still fewer remember that he shot down thirteen German aircraft in the Second World War, including German jets, with his propeller-driven fighter plane. These were things that had been largely forgotten. And people have certainly forgotten the fact that Yeager, like Scott Cr ossfield who we just mentioned, flew a rocket aircraft. The X-1 was a rocket plane just as the Mercury series of space flights were rocket flights. These were the X-1, the X-2, t he X-1A, and the X-15. And they were all aircraft propelled by ro cket engines that were quite similar to the engines used in the redstone rockets -the Titan rockets and the Saturn rockets that eventually took men to t he moon. There was an unseen competition (unseen by the outside world) between thes e early rocket pilots such as Yeager and Crossfield who were completely in command of their aircraft, [while] the astronauts, for the most part, were very passive passengers.

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AL 2 Page 4 G: That was one of the things that I picked up in your book right away when I read it; namely, the fact that the astronauts were so passive and resented that [so much] that they insisted on having a window dr illed on the side of the Mercury capsule so that they could at least pretend that they were piloting their craft. W: The Mercury program was a human c annonball program. The first American to go into space, Alan Shepard [ in 1961], (who did not go into orbit, but went up and above fifty miles and came down near Bermuda) was "Spam in a can" as the rocket pilots were called. The capsule had no window. He did not even have a hatch that he could open by himself. He came down in the water, and he could wiggle out of the neck of this Mercury capsule, but he could not open the hatch which had to be undone by Navy swabbos with lug wrenches. The public at large did not care. All that the public saw was here are men who were brave enough to do this. They did not realize how t he astronauts themselves agonized over the fact that other pilots did not regard them as real pilots. G: Yes. That comes out very strongly in your book. That must have been a telling experience among them, because they had a ll been exemplary fighter pilots. Then suddenly they were reduced to the role of a chimpanzee. And a chimpanzee did go up first, did it not? W: A chimpanzee made the first sub-orbita l flight before Alan Shepard, and people forget that a chimpanzee made the first orbi tal flight before John Glenn. And the flights were identical; the chimpanzee did ju st about as much as the man in these flights. The chimpanzees had to throw a lot of switches, not for anything in controlling the craft, just to test various systems, which they were trained to do. As a matter of fact, I almost did not write about the apes in The Right Stuff . I had read an article in National Geographic about the training of these chimpanzees, which was so exhaustive in the National Geographic fashion that I figured there was really nothing more to say. But this article described how happy these animals were, and how much they loved being trained for this kind of thing. They were always grinning in the pictures taken by National Geographic . So I figured, well, I better at least check it out with somebody. I found a veterinarian and biologist who had been closely involved in this program. And he said, are you kidding? These chimpanzees were like ____. He said that they were literally kidnaped in Africa, taken away from their mothers, put on airplanes as young chimpanzees, transported from the middle of the jungle to the middle of the desert. There were these hot pads or so mething that they would clamp on their feet, and if they did not follow instructi ons, they got these terrific shocks on the soles of their feet. They went through living hell, and they all ended up with very much elevated blood pressures. A chimpanz ee has a blood pressure reading that is pretty much like a man's, and these young animals in the prime of their lifecycles were ending up with blood pressures of 240, 250, 260 when they were at rest. In fact, this particular man, a fter he left the NASA orbit, began devoting his

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AL 2 Page 5 career to studying the effects of stress on health, blood pressure, heart, circulation, and so on. G: I suppose he finds in human beings a similar elevation of blood pressure resulting from stressful circumstances. W: He felt that the worst kind of stress was not danger because a dangerous situation is usually over very fast, but deprivation of liberty because you have to live with being constantly forced to fo llow a rigid code without the slightest freedom. I do not know whether this hypot hesis turned out to be absolutely true, because I have not really followed through on all of his experiments, but they were fascinating. G: Returning to Chuck Yeager for a moment, in his conversations with you, did he acknowledge any resentment over not having been chosen himself as one of the Mercury astronauts? W: He never acknowledged any. He always dealt with it very cavalierly. That is not entirely accurate. He would say one thing seriously and another thing humorously. The serious thing he would say was, look, I had my chance and more of a chance than any man could ever ask for. They gave me the X-1 to fly, and I broke the sound barrier; they gave me the X-1A, and I went faster than Mach 2. At one point, he held the speed re cord for an aircraft -Mach 2.4. He said, how much can a man ask for? It is perfectly proper that a new bunch should get this space program. I am not sure that he really meant that, but he also always said, look, there was no flying to be done in the space program. I am a pilot, and I have always been a pilot. These astronauts are not going to do any flying. After all, I re fuse to fly in any craft where you have to sweep monkey crap off of the seat before you sit down. [laughter] He said this over and over again. This would have stung the astronauts. The rest of the world never even heard about it because the newspapers in t hose days would not print a word like crap. Actually, he said it a little more forcefully, and they would not have printed that either. So I do not know. I know that in the case of someone like Joe Walker, who was one of the great pilots of the X-15 and at one time held records for speed and altitude, if he had been in the military, he would have received astronaut wings. I always thought that Joe Walker was perfectly content to fly the X-15 and never wanted to go into space. But I talked to his widow years later, and she said that in fact, by that time, the aura of the astronaut was such that even Joe Walker would have liked to have done it. By this time, he was really getting too old. He was forty-two or forty-three years old. Although now astronauts are going up who are well over the age of fifty with white hairs growing out of their ears. G: I do not know how faithfully the movie represented the book, and I want to ask

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AL 2 Page 6 that in a moment. But after the book came out and before the motion picture, what were the reactions to your book that you received from Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, and the others in that first group [of astronauts]? W: There were several tacit reactions. Sc ott Carpenter seemed to like it. I do not know whether Wally Schirra [piloted Gemi ni 6, 1965; commander of Apollo 7, 1968] liked it or not, but at least he found it accurate, which was all that I cared about. Alan Shepard said that he did not r ead it and did not intend to read it. I can only take that at face value. J ohn Glenn wrote me a very fine letter. He said, in any future additions to your book, you may wish to consider two changes. First, my car was not a Peugeot but a Prinz . This is actually better for your story, because the Prinz is an even more underpowered automobile than the Peugeot. My point was that all of the other astronauts like all red-blooded fighter pilots wanted very hot cars like a Corvette or a Ferrari if they could afford it. G: Or a Maserati. W: Yes, eventually Schirra had a Maserati . Carpenter had a Shelby Cobra, and he went around with this car with about two horse power. Then he said, secondly, the inscription on the blackboard in the as tronaut office was not as you said in your book, "The sports car is a symptom of the male menopause,” [which was] an inscription that he had written on the bl ackboard there after being needled by Alan Shepard and others about driving this littl e car. The actual inscription was, "definition of a sports car: hedge against the male menopause.” Yours sincerely, John Glenn, U.S. Senate. I think he was actually giving me a little nudge in the ribs saying, there are some other changes I would like for you to make, but I will just mention these two. G: When the motion picture came out, how fait hfully did it represent your book? Of course, no motion picture can be perfectly faithful to the book. W: The picture attempted to follow the book pretty closely, and was a serious picture and in most respects well made. Certain bits of fictionalization were done not for any perverse reason, but only to compress the plot a bit. I would say the most glaring departure was that Wernher von Braun [scientist who led the development of V-2 missiles for Germany during WW II; later directed rocket research in the U.S.] becomes somehow almost the head of NASA in the movie, and he is the boss of the astronauts and bec omes this martinet with a heavy German accent who is going around telling the astronauts to do things they do not want to do. It is total fiction. V on Braun, in fact, got along very well with the astronauts, but never saw that much of them . Despite the fact that he was very well known, he was kept somewhat in the background by NASA. After all, he had been part of the Nazi war machine, and they did not feel like having this German as a prominent figure in NASA.

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AL 2 Page 7 G: In my recollection, he was more sit uated at Huntsville, Alabama, and oversaw the development of the rockets as such. W: That was entirely it in von Braun’s case. Also in the movie NASA in general is depicted as being made up of martinets and ki nd of bureaucrats out of M.A.S.H. or something like that, which is not t he case at all. NASA went through two phases. At the beginning, NASA looked like a very inefficient, almost farcically incompetent operation. This was just duri ng the early test stages of the rockets. By the time two or three Mercury f lights were underway, people began to realize that this was an extraordinarily efficient, highly motivated organization, which it remained right through the Apollo program. G: Was Webb the director at that time? W: Webb was the head administrat or in the early phase; then Thomas Paine was later head of ____. He was the administrat or during most of Apollo, and it was Paine who made one of the most courageous decisions in the history of the space program. And that was the decision to have the flight of Apollo 8 occur when it did. It was moved up without any rehearsals to Christmas Eve 1968. NASA believed, quite erroneously, that the Soviet Union was ready to go to the moon. This flight with Frank Borman, William Anderson, and James Lovell [flew Gemini 7, 12, Apollo 8, 13 space missions ] did not land, of course. They went around the moon and came back to Earth. And that was pretty much Paine's decision, although Frank Borman had a big hand in that too. G: It was a very successful flight. It wa s a tour-de-force for American public relations world-wide. W: In that year of 1968, everyt hing had gone wrong for the United States internationally: the Tet Offensive [the name given to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong massive surprise offensive against the South Vietnamese; launched on January 30, 1968] the Democratic Na tional Convention in Chicago, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, Martin Luther King was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis [wealthy sh ipping executive] (I do not know if that is a catastrophe or not), Andy War hol [pop artist and author] was shot. It really was a chaotic year. Although he stayed in office, Lyndon Johnson, in effect, resigned. The one triumph of that year was Apollo 8, and it was extremely risky because suddenly Paine was told by people in the government, what is it going to look like if we end up with three dead astronauts circling the moon forever on Christmas Eve while Silent Night, Holy Night plays in everybody's living room. But they went ahead and took the gamble. I think Paine, who was an old submarine commander in the Second World War, will go down in our history as a very courageous figure.

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AL 2 Page 8 G: This has been fascinating talking about brav ery, courage, “the right stuff,” human beings who are heroes of our time. Tom, thank you very much for being with me on Conversation . W: Thank you very much, I have enjoyed this. [End of the interview.]