The first season of "The Right Stuff" comes to an end with the flight of the first American into space.
But "Flight," the title of the eighth and final episode of the National Geographic series' inaugural run, now on Disney+, seemingly refers to more than just the Mercury astronaut's mission. It may also be a nod towards a different horizon, one that extends beyond the source material in Tom Wolfe's 1979 best-selling book, "The Right Stuff."
Warning: What follows contains spoilers for the eighth episode, "Flight." Skip ahead to the end if you only want to read about the space history portrayed.
Episode 8: 'Flight'
May 5, 1961.
Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), suited in his silvery Mercury astronaut pressure suit, is walking out of NASA's crew quarters. He passes by nurse Dee O'Hara (Kaley Ronayne) and the other medical staff in the infirmary and is led outside through the large doors of Hangar S by astronaut Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter).
As Shepard exits the building into the dark of night, he is met by a bevy of camera flashes until he enters the waiting trailer that will take him to the launchpad.
Back inside Hangar S, O'Hara and Dr. Vance Marchbanks (Christopher Mann) talk about what is about to transpire. "I hope he doesn't blow up," says O'Hara.
As the countdown strikes T-minus 2 hours and 44 minutes, flight director Chris Kraft (Eric Ladin) arrives at his console in the Mercury Control Center. He receives a weather report for the recovery area off the coast of Great Bahama Island from flight controller Glynn Lunney (Pace Jackson). "We are green for LOX loading," says Lunney, referring to liquid oxygen, the oxidizer used by the Redstone rocket.
"It is a good day for a launch," Kraft says to Space Task Group director Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler).
At Launch Complex 5, the trailer arrives with Shepard. Pausing briefly to look up at his ride into space, he passes by NASA and McDonnell Aircraft personnel on his way to the elevator that lifts him up to the "white room" and his waiting Mercury capsule. John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), Shepard's backup, greets him. "Al, she's all yours."
A quick montage of scenes from prior episodes show some of the past interactions between Shepard and Glenn as they competed to become the first American in space. Back in the present, Shepard shakes Grissom's hand and then climbs into the spacecraft, assisted by Glenn.
Once seated inside, Shepard looks up at his capsule's control panel only to see a photo of a scantily-clad woman and a small sign, "No Handball Playing," partially covering her body. "You?" asks Shepard of Glenn, handing him the photo. "Well, I can get you the whole magazine if you want some reading material while you are up there," replies Glenn with a smile.
Shepard shakes hands with Glenn. "John, see you soon," says Shepard.
"Happy landings, commander," says Glenn.
Technicians install the capsule's hatch, sealing Shepard inside. Another series of prior scenes shows Shepard is thinking about his family, his wife Louise (Shannon Lucio) and their daughters.
The service gantry slowly pulls away from the rocket, leaving it poised for liftoff as dawn breaks on the horizon.
"We're about to push into the second hour of delay, the wait stems from a small technical problem and I am being told there is nothing to be concerned about," NASA public affairs officer John "Shorty" Powers (Danny Strong) tells the waiting crowd of spectators and those listening in over the airwaves.
Inside the control center, Kraft paces, as Glenn, back from the white room and out of his clean room garb, sits in the back of the room. Deke Slayton (Micah Stock) mans the capcom (capsule communicator) console. The countdown is holding at T-15 minutes.
"How long? How long does it take to get a damn inverter swapped out!" Kraft yells at no one in particular, clearly frustrated.
At the Shepards' home in Virginia, Louise is monitoring her husband's status on TV, together with her family and LIFE magazine reporter Loudon Wainwright (Josh Cooke). She is annoyed by the press camped outside. "They want him to blow up, that's what they want. That's the big story," she tells Wainwright.
Back on the launchpad, the sun is now high in the sky and Shepard draws close a filter on his periscope to reduce the glare in his eyes. That works, but now he has another problem.
"Al's gotta go pee real bad," astronaut Gordon Cooper (Colin O'Donoghue) tells test conductor Wernher von Braun (Sacha Seberg) inside the blockhouse. Von Braun offers two options: delay the countdown to let Shepard urinate or scrub the launch. In mission control, Kraft, Gilruth, Lunney and Roy Hutmacher (Joshua Ritter), another member of the flight control team, consider the risks if Shepard's suit and medical leads get wet, but "you know the problem with playing it safe?" asks Kraft.
"You don't get to send a man into space soaked in his own urine?" replies Gliruth.
"Tell him to go in his suit," instructs Kraft. They shut the power off to the capsule to let Shepard do his thing and then power it back up after. "I'm good," says Shepard.
With that resolved, Kraft polls his flight team for a "go" or "no go" to launch. "We're go," reports Kraft to von Braun.
"Let's go on and light this candle!" says Shepard from aboard the capsule.
On the beach, Glenn's wife Annie (Nora Zehetner), Grissom's wife Betty (Rachel Burttram) and astronaut Scott Carpenter's wife Rene (Jade Albany Pietrantonio) stand together to watch the launch. Cooper's wife Trudy (Eloise Mumford) and their two daughters also watch on television from Cooper's home in Virginia.
"3, 2, 1..."
The Redstone ignites and lifts off the pad. "Roger, liftoff and the clock has started!" radios Shepard. After a shaky ascent, the engine cuts off and the Mercury capsule separates from the rocket. Shepard deploys the periscope and takes over manual control to roll the spacecraft.
"And astronaut Shepard is acting like a real test pilot now as he flies the capsule manually," announces Powers.
Shepard tries to retract the filter he extended over the periscope, but it does not move, partially blocking his view of Earth below. He gives up and rather than tell the ground of the issue, reports, "Damn, what a beautiful view."
Following his mission's suborbital flight plan, Shepard begins preparing for the capsule to return to Earth. "All three retros fired," he radios to mission control. The capsule plunges into the atmosphere, as the Gs — forces of gravity — increase. With plasma enveloping the spacecraft, his contact with the ground is cut off.
Louise holds her daughters as she anxiously awaits word that Shepard is safe. "Freedom 7, do you copy?" calls Slayton, without a reply.
After a pause, the radio crackles and Shepard is heard: "This is 7, I'm OK."
The capsule's parachutes and landing bag deploy and Shepard, tucked inside Freedom 7, splashes down. Shepard lets out a hearty laugh in relief and celebration.
The flight controllers in Mercury Mission Control erupt in applause and cheers, as do Louise and her family at the Shepards' home, the team in the blockhouse and the spectators in the NASA viewing stands. Glenn is relieved, but not elated. "Don't worry, you'll go up soon enough," Gilruth tells Glenn.
"Well, you can leave the aircraft carriers out there and set up a new rocket for me," deadpans Glenn.
At the Grand Bahama Auxiliary Air Force Base, Shepard — now back on land and in regular clothes — is greeted by his chase team, Wally Schirra (Aaron Staton) and Carpenter (James Lafferty), as well as the other Mercury astronauts, Grissom, Cooper, Slayton and Glenn.
"Couldn't have done it better myself, congratulations Al," Glenn tells Shepard.
Later, Kraft informs Slayton that a position has been found for him on account of him being grounded due to his heart arrhythmia (as shown in Episode 107). "We would like you to be a liaison between the astronauts and the rest of the Space Task Group. Like capcom, but all of the time." Slayton wants to know what his job title will be, to which Kraft adlibs, "astronaut communicator."
"Ass-com," replies Deke.
"Okay wise guy, you come up with something," Kraft says.
Meanwhile, Grissom is peppering Shepard for details about his flight, asking what it felt like to be weightless. Shepard begins to explain how he was strapped in and could not feel anything, but then pauses and replies, "Spectacular, just you wait."
Grissom leaves the room as Glenn arrives. "Oh, come on, don't tell me the bloom's already fallen off the rose," says Glenn.
"There wasn't much bloom to begin with," replies Shepard. "You know the traffic jam I got stuck in this morning was longer than my actual flight? Fifteen minutes. You go up and then come back down."
Glenn is skeptical. How could Shepard not have been excited by the launch, being weightless and seeing the stars?
"I didn't see any stars. I didn't see pretty much anything. I knocked the goddamn neutral density filter over the periscope and couldn't get the bastard unstuck," says Shepard. "Everything was just a big grey blur."
Glenn is not having it, though. He thinks Shepard is just coming down from a high.
"The truth is, the simulator felt more real than the real thing," says Shepard. "And yeah, it is a big accomplishment, but I bet it looked a whole lot better on television than inside the capsule."
"What did you expect to feel up there, Al?" asks Glenn.
"I don't know. Not nothing," Shepard replies.
"Nothing?" asks Glenn, incredulously. "Al, you went to space. You're the first American to do it, not to mention that you came home to a wonderful wife and three sweet girls who love you. That's a hell of a lot for one man. A hell of a lot. That's not nothing. That's not just something, either. I mean, that's everything. What else is there?"
"The next thing, whatever that is," says Shepard, adding that he was wrong when he said (in Episode 105) that his "appetites" for women and flying controlled him. "I think I am my hunger and if you take that away, there is not much left."
Glenn rejects that, explaining that is no way to go through your life. "It is not the kind of thing you can choose," replies Shepard. "Remember when you said you didn't want to be me? It doesn't matter what you want, John, you are me. You are your hunger and you know it. Stop kidding yourself."
The scene switches to Cooper, who upon arriving at his house, discovers Trudy is packing her things and she and the girls are leaving. "Because of the press conference?" asks Cooper, referring to his remarks comparing launching a woman to flying a chimpanzee (as shown in Episode 107).
"How do I explain to my daughters why I stay with a man who disrespects me so much?" she says. "You just play to whatever room you are in, and Gordo, that is the problem. That is why you say dumb stuff on television or you end up in a cheap motel with Lurleen [see Episode 104]. All I wanted, all I asked, was for this, you and me, to be the one constant. I would have gone anywhere with you."
"Trudy, this could affect my place in the program," pleads Cooper.
"I wish for one moment you would finally worry about how it affects me," replies Trudy. "This is real. I am leaving. I am going to join Jerrie Cobb's program and I am going to make my girls proud. And I am sorry if that complicates things for you, but I guess I will just have to live with that."
At his home, Shepard tells Louise that he didn't know if she would be there when he got back from space. "I'm sorry. That is what I should have said in Canaveral and I am sorry I didn't," he says, referring to the last time they talked when Louise confronted him over his being caught in an affair (as shown in Episode 107).
"I'm proud of you Alan, but you also hurt me," says Louise as she leans into his embrace. "You know if I left, I think it would probably kill me. But it doesn't mean I would never do it."
Building Project Mercury: Test flight photos of NASA's first spaceship
May 25, 1961.
President Kennedy is addressing a joint session of Congress about the events of recent weeks. "Now it is time to take longer strides — time for a great new American enterprise — time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth."
Gilruth, Kraft, Shepard and the Glenns watch the speech at their respective offices and homes.
"I therefore ask the Congress, above and beyond the increases I have earlier requested for space activities, to provide the funds which are needed to meet the following national goals: First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
Glenn and Shepard lean forward in their seats. Kraft's eyes grow wide.
"No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space — and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish," says Kennedy.
Kraft and Gilruth are stunned. "He just promised to do by 1970 something we don't know if we can do until 1980, or even '90," says Kraft.
"We don't know if we can ever do it," replies Gilruth.
Later in Washington, D.C., Glenn meets with NASA Administrator James Webb (Michael McCauley) to appeal to him to move up the schedule for Mercury-Atlas orbital missions. Webb pushes back, saying it is too soon and accuses Glenn of just chasing after his own glory.
"No, sir," says Glenn. "I am a god-fearing American and this country is made up of people just like me. People who are told they're crazy for wanting more, that it is folly to keep trying, to keep pushing to do the impossible. People who are hungry, Jim. People who stay hungry. Not my glory. My glory is just this nation's glory. My success is its success."
"The Redstone is a toy," adds Glenn. "It is not big enough, it is not fast enough. If Kennedy wants to go to the moon in eight years, it means we need to go faster. The Atlas is faster. We need to pull up the orbital flights. We need to start flying the Atlas, now. The country deserves it, the marching orders from our president demand it and I am the one to do it first."
Webb insists that it cannot be done. The Atlas keeps blowing up and "we'll never get to the damn moon if they shut down this program because all our astronauts are dead. It is just too damn dangerous."
"I know, and I don't care," says Glenn.
Another scene change, this time to Trudy and her daughters arriving at a diner, where famed aviator Jerrie Cobb (Mamie Gummer) is waiting. "Trudy, I have to rescind the invitation, you can't be a part of the program."
Trudy is confused. She has passed all of her flight evaluations that are needed to join Cobb's group of female astronaut-hopefuls. Cobb explains it is not about Trudy, but about Cooper's comments denigrating the idea of launching a woman. "You understand we have to distance ourselves from that type of thinking," says Cobb.
Trudy tells Cobb she has left Cooper, but that is not acceptable either. "What would NASA think of that?" asks Cobb. "There is no way they are going to allow the first woman in space be a divorcée."
"I am a good pilot, that is all that matters," protests Trudy.
"I wish that were true," replies Cobb. "I'm sorry Trudy, it is not fair but it is the world that we live in. It is part of what I am trying to change. We're just not there yet."
Cooper, meanwhile, is standing in his kitchen in his underwear. Taking a drink of orange juice, he looks down at the empty glass, thinks for a moment and then throws it against the wall, smashing it into pieces. A woman (Aviva Sevilla) walks in wearing only a button-down shirt, wondering what Cooper has done. "Come back to bed," she says.
The Glenns are in their kitchen. Annie is surprised at how well Glenn is accepting not being first into space. "This is what makes it all easier, coming home to you and the kids. There is nothing I could find in space that compares to what I have here," Glenn tells her before turning up the radio and slow dancing with his wife.
At his home, Shepard pours himself a drink and is flipping through his fan mail when a ringing in his left ear (also experienced in prior episodes) knocks him to the floor. Louise runs into the room, unaware of what is wrong.
Elsewhere, Grissom gifts Slayton with a bottle of whiskey. As he closes the door to Slayton's new office, the stenciling on the window reads "Chief of Astronauts."
The episode — and season — ends with Trudy and her daughter Cam (Chandler Head) in the cockpit of a bright blue, single-wing prop plane. Trudy is explaining what each control and dial does. "Why are you telling me all of this stuff?" asks Cam. "So you can get the controls when we go up. Would you like that?" replies Trudy. Cam nods enthusiastically, before asking if they are going to move back in with Cooper.
"I don't know," says Trudy, who after a pause encourages Cam to focus on flying. "Hey, let's get up there…"
The propeller starts, the plane taxis down the grass runway and, lifting into the air, Trudy and Cam take flight towards the horizon.
In Photos: Yuri Gagarin, first man in space
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 eighth episode portrays:
- Shepard's walkout from Hangar S began at 3:55 a.m. EDT on May 5, 1961. He exited the building already suited for his launch, as depicted in the episode, but through a doorway on the side of the facility, not through the large hangar doors at its front.
- Shepard's Mercury pressure suit as seen in this episode was provided by Global Effects, a costume and prop house that also furnished the Mercury capsule set pieces. The suit is missing the NASA insignia patch and name tag that Shepard wore, but otherwise is authentically detailed.
- As previously noted in connection with Episode 101 where it was first included, the scene showing Shepard's arrival at the launchpad was filmed at the real Launch Complex 5 where the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. A full-size replica of a Mercury-Redstone rocket stands on the pad today.
- Kraft (Ladin) is seen in the Mercury Control Center wearing a small pewter Mercury capsule on his lapel. The pin, a match to the one that the real flight director wore in 1961, came from the personal collection of Robert Yowell, a former space shuttle flight controller who served as a technical advisor on the series.
- Glenn did surprise Shepard with a pinup and a sign taped to the control panel inside Freedom 7. The real sign read "No Handball Playing in this Area."
- According to Shepard's biographer, Neal Thompson ("Light This Candle," Crown Publishers, 2004), Shepard and Glenn did shake hands and Glenn wished "happy landings" in the white room, as depicted. "This New Ocean," NASA's history of Project Mercury (SP-4201), attributes both actions to spacesuit technician Joe Schmitt, citing a report on the pilot preparation for Mercury-Redstone 3.
- Shepard was originally scheduled to launch at 7:20 a.m. and ultimately lifted off at 9:34 a.m. EST. The delay was the result of a combination of factors including the time needed to replace an inverter in the electrical system of the Redstone rocket, as referred to in the episode, which accounted for 52 minutes. The remaining time was spent waiting for better weather conditions and re-checking the calculations of an IBM mainframe computer in Maryland.
- Shepard did urinate in his pressure suit while waiting for his delayed launch. According to a 1998 NASA oral history interview, Shepard called down to Cooper in the blockhouse, who in turn checked with von Braun, as depicted (though von Braun was in Alabama, not in the blockhouse). The concern over shorting the medical leads and rectal electric thermometer was addressed by cutting the power to those specific systems, not the entire spacecraft as shown.
(After peeing, Shepard made a joke about becoming the "world's first wetback in space," which was part of a running routine throughout the countdown where he imitated comedian Bill Dana's character "José Jiménez, the reluctant astronaut." The episode omits all of these jokes, but this particular one was also incorrect: Shepard's undergarment absorbed the urine and the flow of oxygen left him dry before he left Earth.)
- "Let's go on and light this candle!" Shepard's actual words were, "Why don't you fix your little problem and light this candle?" which he said after becoming frustrated about a last minute issue with the Redstone's liquid oxygen pressure.
- The other astronauts' wives did watch Shepard's launch from the beach. A LIFE magazine photo captured Betty Grissom, Jo Schirra, Rene Carpenter and Marge Slayton looking up as Shepard climbed towards space.
- Shepard took manual control of his spacecraft, as shown, though "when he moved his hand to yaw, the wrist seal bearing of his suit bumped into his personal parachute." In order to make the proper displacement, "he had to push hard," according to "This New Ocean."
- Shepard did exclaim "What a beautiful view!" despite his actual view being dulled by a gray filter that he had used to block out the sun while on the launchpad. As depicted, Shepard tried to roll back the filter once he was in space, but his reason for giving up is left out of the episode. When Shepard reached for the filter knob, a pressure gauge on his left wrist hit the abort handle. Deciding better than to risk it, he withdrew his hand and continued on with making observations through the partially-obstructed periscope.
- In the episode, Shepard (McDorman) sees a washer float by his face and then catches it. In real life, it was a washer that signaled to Shepard that he was in microgravity, but when he grabbed for it, he missed, according to "This New Ocean."
- The episode skips from Freedom 7 landing to Shepard being on Grand Bahama Island. What is not shown is how he got there. After being raised out of the water by helicopter pilots Wayne Koons and George Cox, Shepard and his capsule were flown to the USS Lake Champlain, where they touched down on the aircraft carrier's deck just 11 minutes after the mission splashed down. Shepard spoke to President Kennedy by phone and then, about an hour later, he left by plane for Grand Bahama Island.
- Shepard was greeted on Grand Bahama by Grissom, Slayton, Glenn and Schirra, as well as by NASA Administrator Jim Webb.
- As noted as part of the Episode 106 recap, Slayton was not grounded until March 1962, 10 months after Shepard's launch. Slayton's first title as a NASA manager was "Coordinator of Astronaut Activities." He later became assistant director and then director of flight crew operations. The title "Chief Astronaut" (or Chief of the Astronaut Office) was not established until late 1963, when Shepard took on the role.
- Shepard was not indifferent to his spaceflight experience. "Al's reaction was exuberance and satisfaction," wrote Glenn in "John Glenn: A Memoir" (Bantam, 1999). "He talked about his five minutes of weightlessness as painless and pleasant. He'd had no unusual sensations, was elated at being able to control the capsule's attitude and was only sorry the flight hadn't lasted longer."
That said, what Shepard (McDorman) tells Glenn (Adams) about telling stories for the benefit of the press is not without some truth. According to Thompson in "Light This Candle," Shepard told Schirra that his "beautiful view" line about Earth was something that he had come up with in advance. "I had to say something for the people," Shepard said.
- Though they had been separated before Cooper was selected to become an astronaut in 1959, Gordon and Trudy did not split again until 1970, after Cooper had flown twice into space.
- "You know if I left, I think it would probably kill me." Alan and Louise Shepard remained married until Shepard's death in July 1998. She died five weeks later of a heart attack.
- Kennedy's challenge to land a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth before the decade was out came as a surprise to many at NASA. Gilruth's (Fischler) line in this episode, "We don't know if we can ever do it," is close to what Gilruth later said was his reaction. "Frankly, I was aghast … I wasn't at all sure it could be done."
- Glenn did not lobby Webb to move up the Atlas orbital flights or to assign him as the pilot of the first American orbital mission. Glenn was already in line to either be the second or third U.S. astronaut to fly, and with the launch of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit, Gilruth and the Space Task Group were already cutting back on their initial plans for each Mercury astronaut to fly a suborbital mission first. With the August 1961 launch of a second Soviet cosmonaut (Gherman Titov) into orbit and with the data in hand from both Shepard's and Grissom's suborbital flights, the decision was made to move on to Atlas.
- Trudy Cooper's ambition was to fly in the Powder Puff Derby, an annual transcontinental air race for women pilots, not to become an astronaut like her husband. Though she may have been aware of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs), an unofficial group of 13 women — including Jerrie Cobb — who had undergone and passed the same physiological tests as the Mercury astronauts — Trudy was not among them. She did however, fly in the derby in 1970.
- The Glenns' devotion for each other, as depicted, was genuine. The two met when they were toddlers and were high school sweethearts. Married in 1943, they remained together for 73 years until Glenn's death in 2016.
- As first noted in the Episode 103 recap, Shepard was diagnosed with Ménière's disease, an inner ear disorder, in 1963. Though he may have experienced early symptoms before and around the time of his Mercury flight, he did not seek treatment until the next year.