'The Right Stuff' lifts off on Disney Plus, takes flight from book, film

National Geographic's "The Right Stuff" on Disney+ is based on the previous works of the same title, including journalist Tom Wolfe's 1979 best-selling book and director Philip Kaufman's 1983 feature film.
National Geographic's "The Right Stuff" on Disney+ is based on the previous works of the same title, including journalist Tom Wolfe's 1979 best-selling book and director Philip Kaufman's 1983 feature film. (Image credit: Disney+/Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Warner Bros.)

Patrick J. Adams discovered his passion for space exploration within its pages. Michael Trotter found he was drawn into the test pilots story in the movie. Jake McDorman only dove into it after joining the production.

Like the Disney Plus series in which they appear, the cast of National Geographic's "The Right Stuff" drew inspiration from Tom Wolfe's 1979 bestselling book by the same title and director Philip Kaufman's 1983 film adaptation of the same. The new show, which premieres Friday (Oct. 9), builds upon both to delve into the lives of NASA's original Mercury 7 astronauts.

"This is an opportunity to really tell the full story, which is why I am told Tom Wolfe gave his full blessing," said Aaron Staton, who portrays astronaut Wally Schirra in the television show. "He was really thrilled, because he always wanted more of that story to be told."

Before his death in 2018, Wolfe signed off on the series, which was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way Productions and Warner Horizon Television. It is National Geographic's first scripted series for the Disney Plus premium service.

Related: These astronauts read 'The Right Stuff' and flew in space

Personal 'stuff'

Adams, who portrays first American in orbit John Glenn, was given Wolfe's book by his father, who like the author was a journalist.

"He gave it to me, mostly because it was about space and incredible characters and an important part of history, but also because Tom Wolfe's writing as a journalist. Here was this really impeccable piece of not totally pure journalism, but coming at it with that point of view," Adams told collectSPACE.com during a visit to "The Right Stuff" set last fall. "That book was easily my favorite growing up. It was really the only book I had actually read when I was 14 — I mean fully through and loved."

"Then I watched the film and became obsessed with space, as any little kid can," Adams said.

Trotter also received Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" when he was a boy.

"As I remember it, my dad said there are a lot of lessons in this to learn. For me, as a kid, it was like, yeah it's about space, so forget the lessons, just tell me about astronauts," said Trotter, who portrays astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom in the series. "Ironically, I remember watching the movie and being drawn more to the Chuck Yeager story, as I thought that was so cool."

Related: The Mercury 7 Astronauts: NASA's First Space Travelers
Project Mercury, NASA's first crewed space program

Three takes on the Mercury 7: The real astronauts that Tom Wolfe wrote about in 1979 (at top), the cast of Philip Kaufman's 1983 film (at center) and the cast of National Geographic's "The Right Stuff" streaming on Disney+.  (Image credit: NASA/Warner Bros./Disney+)

The new show focuses solely on the astronaut side of Wolfe's narrative, allowing more time to explore each of their experiences.

"Being kind of a history buff, it was fun to learn a lot more about Gus and the depth that he had that I don't think has necessarily been given the time and the space in the other productions to flesh out," said Trotter.

"What struck me," said Colin O'Donoghue, "is that the book is so different than the movie and even this version of what we're doing, it is more along the lines of the book and not just about the space program. It is more about their home lives and what it meant to suddenly become the seven most famous people in America."

O'Donoghue, who plays astronaut Gordon Cooper, got his copy of "The Right Stuff" at an unrelated meeting with Appian Way, even before they began developing it as a project. "It was just like, 'Here you go, take a look at this, it is a great book,' and so I had read most of it," he said. "I said to my manager and agents, if this ever becomes something, this is something I want to be a part of."

Jake McDorman had never heard of Alan Shepard, let alone read Wolfe's book, when he was cast as the first American to launch into space.

"Until I got the script, it was actually a world I wasn't very familiar with, so there was a lot of research I had to do," he told collectSPACE. "At the time I was only really familiar with the Apollo program — Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. I had heard of John Glenn, but not Alan Shepard, and not really the Mercury 7."

"Obviously, reading the book and getting into it, I became immersed in that world," he said.

Related: What it's like to become a NASA astronaut: 10 surprising facts

National Geographic's "The Right Stuff" devotes more time to the Mercury astronauts' personal lives, as seen in this behind-the-scenes photo of Colin O'Donoghue (Gordon Cooper, at left), Nora Zehetner (Annie Glenn, at left), Patrick J. Adams (John Glenn) and Eloise Mumford (Trudy Cooper) sharing a meal together.  (Image credit: Disney+)
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe | Save 43% on Amazon

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe | Save 43% on Amazon
Read the book that inspired a generation of engineers, scientists and astronauts and retells the early days of human spaceflight.

Off the page and movie

The extra hours of screen time afforded by a television format allowed the National Geographic production to dive further into the stories behind the astronauts and their wives, going beyond what Kaufman's movie and even Wolfe's book was able to cover.

"The commonality is the basic story itself, but I think where we differ right from the start is that we took the approach to tell a character-driven drama that was really about the internal lives of these guys," said Mark Lafferty, executive producer and showrunner. "Getting to know these characters in a really intimate way and getting to see the small turns that they have in their daily lives gave us access to a different side of each of these men and women."

What was really important, said executive producer Jennifer Davisson of Appian Way, was "getting under the hood" of who the individual seven guys were.

"They were complicated, with complex decisions and the complex times that they were living in, so we felt fortunate that we could tell the type of unvarnished truth of who they really were, both the good and the bad. Ultimately, I think we do it with a lot of reverence," said Davisson.

"Hopefully then," added Lafferty, "if you put that against the backdrop of this huge endeavor that they were all working toward, it makes us feel all that more closer to them then maybe you get in the [film]. The movie is fantastic, but the movie is also limited by its time. We have, thankfully, an entire television series to stretch it out."

The series' writers also had more material to pull from, said technical advisor and historian James Hansen.

"I think the writers were aware of a lot of things about this history that Wolfe or Kaufman were not aware of, because there has been 30 years more scholarship and writing about this period," Hansen said. "This production had a lot more to draw from than what they had in 1979 and 1983."

Adams reached the same conclusion.

"The only problem with the film is that it can't contain everything that is in the story. And the book, honestly, the book can't contain it. There is so much history," he said. "I knew, because I had become obsessed with space after reading 'The Right Stuff' for the first time that there was so much more to the story that could be told than in the book and the film."

"It is an amazing opportunity to tell a story that quite literally has never been told," Adams said.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.