In his 1979 bestselling book "The Right Stuff," journalist Tom Wolfe wrote about the Mercury 7 astronauts as being the last of the single-combat warriors.
"The men chosen for this historic mission took on the archaic mantles of the single-combat warriors of a long-since-forgotten time. They would not be going into space to do actual combat ... [but] they were risking their lives for their country, for their people, in 'the fateful testing,'" Wolfe wrote.
The third episode of National Geographic's "The Right Stuff, which debuted Friday (Oct. 16) on the Disney Plus premium streaming service, borrows the phrase for its title, "Single Combat Warrior." The eight-part series is based on Wolfe's book and he signed off on the Appian Way and Warner Horizon Television production before his death in 2018.
"What drama! Terrific cast. As my father would have said, "You've got yourself a show!" Alexandra Wolfe said after seeing the first episodes of "The Right Stuff."
Warning: What follows contains spoilers for the episode "Single Combat Warrior." Skip ahead to the end of the article if you only want to read about the real space history portrayed on screen.
Episode 3: 'Single Combat Warrior'
"You're about to kill an astronaut, son. Are you sure?"
Chris Kraft (Eric Ladin) is presiding over Mercury Mission Control when, just seconds into a launch, the rocket goes awry. Range safety officer Roy Hutmacher (Joshua Ritter), seated at a console to Kraft's left, announces he is going to send the destruct command to avoid the vehicle from impacting a populated area, but hesitates after Kraft questions his call.
The Mercury-Atlas 1 rocket fails, breaking apart 10 miles downrange. "Hope no one has family in Titusville," another flight controller says.
Kraft is furious.
"Do not hesitate in this room! I ask you a question, you give me an answer. Yes, no, go, no go. That's it. You're a machine," he yells.
Missile telemetry monitor Ryerson (Chris Mayers) tries to defuse the tension.
"Guys, this is a sim. It is just a game, right?" Ryerson says as work to complete the control center continues in the background and an on screen caption reads that they are still 80 hours out from the actual launch of the test mission.
Glynn Lunney (Jackson Pace) explains to the flight controllers that the sim was designed to test the team's response to multiple corrupted feeds brought on by "large birds" causing physical damage to the comm link.
"We'll keep running this simulation until we get it right," says Kraft. "We have a public launch of a test rocket in four days. The press will be there, representatives of your federal government will be there, the wives and children of our astronauts will be there. If we don't get these procedures down cold, we really could blow up Titusville, or Orlando, or Tampa. We will get this right."
Hangar S is spinning.
The scene changes from mission control to the point of view of Gordon Cooper (Colin O'Donoghue) riding the Multiple-Axis Space Test Inertia Facility, MASTIF or "gimbal rig," a three-ring metal contraption that simulates the roll, pitch and yaw motions that a Mercury astronaut may encounter in space.
"Compared to what we do," Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman) tells LIFE magazine writer Loudon Wainwright (Josh Cooke) while waiting his turn on the machine, "it is a carnival ride. The average fatality rate of a Navy test pilot is 23 percent, but any pilot you're talking to is still alive, which means he isn't average."
But when Shepard straps into the rig and starts tumbling, he becomes disoriented and nearly passes out.
The scene cuts to the seven Mercury astronauts recovering from their rides on the MASTIF, some better than others, with Shepard appearing to be faring the worst. The men have been training for months and yet they still have no insight into how NASA will decide who will the first to launch into space.
Shepard is hearing a ringing in his ear and cannot make out the conversation in the room. He comes around long enough to tell the resident nurse, Dee O'Hara (Kaley Ronayne), that he is okay, but it takes time for his hearing to clear, which he tests by snapping his fingers near his left ear.
Back at the Starlite Motel in Cocoa Beach, where the astronauts are staying while in Florida, John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams) tells Wainwright that while they may be competitive, all of the men are dedicated to the cause, "for our country we love and for this grand adventure we are all on." As depicted in the episode "Goodies," the astronauts have been compensated by LIFE for exclusive access to tell their life and families' stories.
Glenn reveals to Wainwright that he plays the trumpet, an instrument he calls "his mistress."
Shepard calls home to his wife Louise (Shannon Lucio) and admits he is concerned about his performance, though he does not go into details about what happened on the MASTIF.
Cooper tries to get Glenn to come hang out with the others at the hotel pool. "It's really not my thing, early to bed and all that," Glenn replies, alluding to what some of the other guys do with their time off. Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter) walks by. Glenn picks up on some tension, which Cooper dismisses to old Air Force stuff. Cooper encourages Glenn to "live a little" before their families arrive for the launch that weekend.
On the phone, Glenn's wife Annie (Nora Zehetner), who talks with a stutter, tells her husband about the blue dress she has picked out for a LIFE photoshoot. Glenn confides to Annie that "it's not his world down here," hearing the guys down in the pool, and both affirm their love for each other.
In Hangar S, the seven astronauts check out the seat molds for their spacecraft, which have been laid out on the floor. "Where are the controls going to be if we are on our backs like this?" asks Deke Slayton (Micah Stock), to which a tech replies that a capsule prototype is arriving the next day, when they will be able to see for themselves.
Outside in his car, Glenn lays down on the front passenger-side chair, supporting his legs on the backrest, in the same position he was in the seat mold. "Mercury capsule to Mercury Control, clock is running and we are underway," he says to himself, pretending to be in flight. "Well, this is one beautiful ride," he says with his eyes closed until he is startled upright by an alligator.
Wally Schirra (Aaron Staton) has pulled a joke on Glenn, holding a plastic gator through the open car window. "Kiss me Major Glenn," says Schirra in a high-pitched voice, as he moves the toy reptile to peck at Glenn's cheek. The other guys laugh in the background as they head off to get a bite to eat. Glenn stays behind.
Shepard is back on the MASTIF but is still unable to get it under control, despite multiple runs.
In Space Task Group director Bob Gilurth's (Patrick Fischler) office, Kraft asks why they are testing the "dangerous" Atlas rocket. "You are on Air Force property. The Air Force wants to fly an Atlas," Gliruth says of the modified ballistic missile. Kraft still objects, as it is not the rocket they are sending to space first.
Taking Gilruth's advice to "try to relax" and in effort to build teamwork, Kraft and Lunney organize a volleyball game among their fellow flight controllers. Minutes into the match, though, Hutmacher pegs Kraft in the face with the ball, breaking Kraft's sunglasses and leaving a bloody gash across his nose.
Glenn chats with Kraft's secretary, Eunice (Jordan Blair Mangold Brown), while waiting for the flight director to return from the game. Picking up on him mentioning god in his LIFE interview, she invites Glenn to come by her church.
Glenn wants Kraft to let him lead a private tour during a congressman's visit for the Mercury-Atlas 1 launch. Kraft rejects the idea, encouraging Glenn to instead "be part of the team."
At the Starlite Lounge, Slayton, Schirra and Grissom dance and flirt with a crowd of young women. Cooper is approached by one of the ladies, Patricia (Rachel Comeau), while Glenn sits alone in his room. Remembering the invite, he heads out to the church.
Shepard, leaving a young woman in his bed, heads to Hangar S and the MASTIF.
Patricia leads Cooper out to the pool, where she strips down to her underwear despite Cooper's objections that he is a married man. Still a tad reluctant, Cooper disrobes and joins her in the water, where she removes her bra. The two appear to be about to kiss when Grissom, Slayton and Schirra, along with another woman jump into the pool.
Glenn, meanwhile, arrives at the "church," which turns out to be inside a local bowling alley. A pastor preaches to the small group as others continue to throw spares and strikes in the background.
Nurse O'Hara, napping at her desk, awakes to the table shaking. Walking down the hall to see what is going on, she discovers Shepard on the floor, having fallen off the MASTIF and unable to orient himself.
Poolside, Cooper boasts to Patricia about being "one of the best pilots around," recounting how he recovered from a rough takeoff of an F-100 jet. "Wow, Gordo, that really is something, dangerous," says Grissom, who with Schirra and Slayton are also listening to the tale. Grissom then shares his own story.
"Turns out, Gordo and I have flown together before ... yeah, at Lowry Field," Grissom says. "I come out on the tarmac, there's Gordo smiling ear to ear. T-33 is all gassed and goosed, tells me he's done the pre-check, which of course he has, because it is his job. So anyway, we're just barely off the runway when we lose power. Yeah, smack down, hard. Collapsed the gear, burst into flames, boom. Talk to the ground crew later, they said Gordo didn't do a pre-check. Hmm. I don't know how I got out alive. I mean, there I am, doused in two tons of foam and this idiot is all 'aww shucks' and saying 'What a story, huh Gus? Skin of our teeth ..."
Cooper, clearly angry, tackles Grissom, throwing them both back into the pool.
"You're not the best, Gordo, not even close," Grissom says, pinning Cooper on the wall of the pool.
Glenn, still at the bowling alley, talks with Dot (Courtney Halverson) after the church group has left. Like him, she is a redhead and is just visiting the area. She sought out the group because she was "a bit lonely."
O'Hara tends to Shepard's injuries in the infirmary. "If you were to examine one of us and found something, what would you do?" asks Shepard.
"I would make sure that you understood that anything you told me in confidence could remain private, unless it jeopardized you or the project," O'Hara replies, before continuing her medical check and asking Shepard a series of questions.
"Any dizziness? Hearing loss?" she asks, to which Shepard shakes his head no.
Glenn drives Dot back to her place. Dot hints at Glenn and her hooking up, but he rejects her advances. She kisses his car's driver-side window before leaving.
O'Hara is now at the operator's station for the MASTIF, as Shepard takes another ride. This time, he is able to bring the rig under control. "Yeah, I am okay," he tells O'Hara. "I just needed to practice."
Standing at the entrance to Hangar S, Shepard sees a truck pull up with a Mercury capsule.
The next day, engineers from McDonnell Aircraft Corporation present the capsule to the seven astronauts. Looking inside, Cooper asks "Where's the window?"
"Window, uh, there are two small portals on either side," says an engineer.
"How are we supposed to fly if we can't see?" Cooper asks.
"You don't," replies Shepard. "You just sit there, with thermometers in our asses."
"It's controlled from the ground," says the engineer.
At the Starlite Lounge, the wives of the Mercury astronauts meet Henri Landwirth, the hotel manager. The men soon arrive, still trading barbs about the capsule. "It's like they said — spam in a damn can."
As the men greet their wives and children, the Glenns share an intimate moment in his room.
Later, the wives have gathered around another Mercury capsule for the LIFE cover photoshoot. They are each in solid pastel color dresses, as instructed, except for Rene Carpenter (Jade Albany Pietrantonio), who arrives in a white dress with bold red flowers.
On Launch Complex 14, the countdown is on to the launch of Mercury-Atlas 1, the first attempt at putting a Mercury capsule in space. Mercury Mission Control is up and running, when Kraft arrives.
"Listen up, I don't care if your nerves are frayed to a nub or you hate my guts, what matters to me in this room is that you care," he says. "Mr. Ryerson, get your stuff together and clear out. I don't play games, son. You think a sim doesn't matter? You don't think teamwork isn't the real thing? I sure as hell don't trust you in a launch. Get out."
Lunney takes Ryerson's place.
In the viewing stands, Glenn introduces himself to Congressman Hollings while the other men and their families take their seats. They all watch as the rocket lifts off the launchpad and climbs into the blue sky.
Alarms go off in mission control, as the spectators outside see the Atlas explode in a fireball.
"What the hell just happened?" yells Kraft.
The astronauts embrace their families. Shepard leans forward to hide from Louise that he is snapping next to his ear, hearing the ringing again.
The right, wrong and real stuff
At the start of each episode, a disclaimer appears on screen: "This dramatization, although fictionalized, is based on actual events. Dialogue and certain events and characters have been created or altered for dramatic purposes."
Here is a look at some of the right, wrong and real stuff the first two episodes portrays:
- The episode begins with Chris Kraft and his flight control team in Mercury Mission Control practicing for the Mercury-Atlas 1 (MA-1) launch. In reality, NASA's first mission control was not ready for the July 29, 1960 test flight, so MA-1 was flown out of the U.S. Air Force's range control center. Kraft did not serve as flight director for the mission; instead he was seated with the range safety officer.
- The first time that Mercury Mission Control was used for training sims and for a launch was for Mercury-Redstone 1 (MR-1), four months later.
- Roy Hutmacher and Ryerson are fictional names created for the series. Glynn Lunney (who is real and was the youngest among the 45 members of the Space Task Group), did begin work in mission control planning the simulations.
- The Mercury astronauts did use the MASTIF, or "gimbal rig," to train for maneuvers they might need to make in space, but it was not located inside Hangar S at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Rather it was built in a wind tunnel at NASA's Lewis Research Center (today John H. Glenn Research Center) in Cleveland, Ohio.
- The MASTIF, as built for the series, has two cages, a yellow pilot station and a green outer cage. The real rig had one more, a red outer cage. The prop version did move, but not as fast as seen in the episode.
- The dizziness and ringing experienced by Shepard in this episode is likely a reference to an inner ear disorder called Ménière's disease, which he was diagnosed with in 1963 and led to his being temporarily grounded after his Mercury suborbital flight. According to biographer Neal Thompson in "Light This Candle" (Crown Publishers, 2004), Shepard's doctors later wondered if the symptoms he had after his MASTIF run had been an early indicator of the disease.
- Shepard did initially get sick riding the rig, but he did not sneak off to use the machine at night. Ultimately, he was the first of the seven astronauts to master controlling the MASTIF, according to Thompson.
- Glenn did play the trumpet. Adams is not really playing in the episode, but according to an interview with Entertainment Tonight, his finger positions are correct for the song.
- The Mercury capsule seat molds were not cast for the actors' bodies. "We were sitting on top of the mold, basically, because we did not fit," James Lafferty, who portrayed Scott Carpenter, told collectSPACE.com about his and Aaron Staton's (Wally Schirra) experience filming that scene. "And we were like, 'Yep! We don't have the right stuff.’"
- The joke Schirra plays on Shepard with the toy alligator is representative of the "gotchas" he pulled on his fellow Mercury astronauts and others. Several of the men played pranks on one another, but Schirra led them all with his gags.
- Grissom and Cooper were in a T-33 accident on takeoff from Lowry Field in Denver, Colorado, on June 23, 1956. As described in the episode, the aircraft lost power and slammed back down on its nose gear. The T-33 then crashed at the end of the runway and burst into flames. The accident was not Cooper's fault, as implied on the show, and it was not the only time the two friends flew together.
- No Mercury capsule was delivered to Hangar S the night before the July 29, 1960, launch of the Mercury-Atlas 1 test mission. A spacecraft was delivered to the Cape, though, on July 23 for the Mercury-Redstone 1 (MR-1) flight that fall.
- The scene showing the Mercury astronauts inspecting the capsule may be an homage to the 1983 Philip Kaufman movie by the same title. As in the series, it is Gordon Cooper (in the film played by Dennis Quaid) who asks about seeing out of the spacecraft. "Uh, where are you planning on putting the window?" (In real life, a window was added, replacing two portholes, beginning with Grissom's capsule, Liberty Bell 7.)
- The use of the phrase "spam in a can" as a derogative used by other test pilots to describe the Mercury astronauts is cited by Tom Wolfe in his 1979 book and is repeated in the 1983 film adaptation.
- The photoshoot with the astronauts' wives posing next to a red and white Mercury capsule is based on a real LIFE magazine cover. The women are dressed in the correct color dresses, including Rene Carpenter, who wore a very similar flower-pattern. The photo, though, was not taken in Florida, but at Langley Research Center in Virginia.
- The spectators who gathered in real life to see Mercury-Atlas 1 launch, including the astronauts' families, did not see it explode. It was rainy and overcast that day and the rocket flew into the clouds less than 30 seconds after it lifted off. The failure occurred at 58 seconds into flight. It was later determined that the Atlas buckled under the weight of the Mercury capsule and needed to be fortified for future missions
New episodes of National Geographic's "The Right Stuff" will begin streaming on Disney+ every Friday through Nov. 20. Return to collectSPACE.com for weekly recaps.
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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.