This month the book club takes to the skies with the Tom Wolfe classic The Right Stuff, a behind-the-curtain look at the 20th century's most famous test pilots--including Chuck Yeager. Yeager joins the club to talk about his long career, and what he considers "the right stuff."
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IRA FLATOW, HOST:
Up next, the SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club is back. We've got a modern classic this time: Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," one of my favorites. The book came out in 1979 and won the National Book Award. It was made into a movie starring Ed Harris, Sam Shepherd. And here with me are the book club regulars: Flora Lichtman, the multimedia editor, and Annette Heist, our senior producer.
FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira.
FLATOW: Welcome. One of the reasons I love this book so much is because I actually met the man with the right stuff, General Chuck Yeager, years ago, and spent time with him when the first shuttle launch happened back in, like...
LICHTMAN: Yes, I've heard.
FLATOW: And I understand the general is on the line with us right now.
GENERAL CHUCK YEAGER: Was that on the first shuttle landing on a lake bed out there?
FLATOW: It sure was. Remember that?
YEAGER: I remember that very much, yeah. You all were hyping about how great it was to land on a lakebed, and I said, hell, we've landing on this lakebed for 50 years.
FLATOW: There we were, and our little card table, and I remember the - I remember the secretary of the Air Force driving by to shake hands with you, and we had a great time.
YEAGER: Yeah. Yeah I had fun.
FLATOW: Let's talk about what has happened in those years and about "The Right Stuff." How much did the book get you as a real person, your personality and who you are?
YEAGER: I think it did a good job. When they wrote the book, you know, that clarified a lot of stuff that came out in the movie. And it was fun doing it, and I think, like, Sam Shepard, he was the perfect guy to portray me.
YEAGER: It worked out pretty good.
FLATOW: How do you define the right stuff? What does that term mean to you?
YEAGER: That answered your question?
FLATOW: I guess if you have the right stuff, the term means nothing.
YEAGER: Yeah. Basically, that's just a, you know, basically a phrase that Tom Wolfe coined that sold books, and that's about as simple as you can put it.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. It's 65 years this year since you broke the sound barrier. Boy, that - time must have flown by very quickly for you.
YEAGER: Yeah. It was - it did. On exactly - on the anniversary, I went over to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas by the - an F-15 from them and came back to Edwards and boomed the place and - to commemorate the anniversary. So I still fly quite a bit.
ANNETTE HEIST, BYLINE: General Yeager, this is Annette Heist. I'm senior producer for SCIENCE FRIDAY, and I want to ask you about a part in the book. Tom Wolfe describes how every airline pilot in America sounds the same when they come over the intercom when you're sitting on the plane, a particular drawl, a particular folksiness. And he says that they've all gotten that voice from you. Is that true?
YEAGER: Well, I don't know. Tom Wolfe says it is.
YEAGER: I didn't. No, it's basically a lot of the guys, a lot of the pilots out there at Edwards - test pilots, mainly - kind of pick up the down-home phrase, you know, like I was raised so far up the hollows, they had to pipe daylight to me in West Virginia. So I don't have - I don't speak the king's language very good.
FLATOW: What do you think about the way pilots don't fly planes these days? I mean, we now have drones. They're not - the pilots have a joystick.
YEAGER: Well, that's - hey, that's technology. You know, 50, 60 years ago, we just used 50-caliber bullets, like I flew Mustangs in World War II against the Germans, and basically it's a matter of progress. And today, everything is done, in airplanes, is done with missiles, and it takes all the training away and makes it pretty easy to shoot a guy down in front of you.
FLATOW: Hmm. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. We're talking about Tom Wolfe's book on our book club, "The Right Stuff," and we're talking about the man who is the star of "The Right Stuff," General Chuck Yeager.
What - are you going to continue to fly, general, keep going on and continue to fly, or you think of retiring anytime soon?
YEAGER: No. I still fly, and I'll be - here in another couple of months, I'll be 90 years old, but basically I don't have any problem passing the physical, so...
LICHTMAN: How much time did Tom Wolfe spend with you for this book?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How much time did Tom Wolfe spend with you for the book?
YEAGER: He - Tom - quite a bit, really. When we got into the technical stuff, we're always - had an accident, the spinning and airplane and bailing out of it. It was hard to make him understand really what you have to go through to bail out of an airplane. And he's not a technical guy, but he's a very good writer.
LICHTMAN: Yeah, that part appears - I think it's the last chapter. He closes the book with that amazing scene. It's so terrifying.
HEIST: I knew you were coming on today, so I knew what happened, that you're obviously alive, but my heart was pounding.
YEAGER: Well, basically, you got to expect things, like I've bailed out three times now. I got shot down and then had a problem when I re-entered the atmosphere above 100,000 feet with the NF-104. And those are the things that you have to train yourself and also know your equipment, like your ejection seats, your pressure suits and things like that. And, you know, I didn't just jump in an airplane, take off and fly. I tell you, I knew exactly what I was doing.
FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, with Annette Heist and Flora Lichtman, talking with General Chuck Yeager, who, 65 years ago, broke the sound barrier.
You, according to the book and according to history, you had to keep that secret, did you not?
YEAGER: The Air Force didn't release the fact that we had exceeded the speed of sound, you know, for a few months, and basically that was good because what it did, it had let us develop flying tails on our fighters. And it took the British and the French and the Soviet Union, you know, about five years to solve their problem with flying tails. And we did it in the old days in - because that was our job.
FLATOW: Did - there was fear at that point. What were you feeling? As you got close to Mach 1 and got close to the sound barrier, what might happen?
YEAGER: Hey, you're busy. But - you know.
HEIST: What do I do next?
YEAGER: You really don't have any feeling at all. You just - you know, that's your job, and you do it.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you did it very well. And were you disappointed about not getting the acclaim you might have had had you done something like this today or years ago?
YEAGER: No, no. Basically, what I was doing, there's one word to describe. That's duty. I was a military pilot. I had a job to do, and I did it. And, you know, they blow a lot of the crap out of shape today, like, you know, on the national program. It's really - I was just thinking back on the first shuttle landing on a lake bed when I was sitting there with - was it Ira?
FLATOW: That's me.
YEAGER: Oh, OK. You remember that?
FLATOW: I certainly do.
YEAGER: OK. You know, I said to myself, you know, we - time has passed. I wonder how many trillions of dollars NASA has wasted since that first landing. That's my attitude.
FLATOW: Still your attitude? Has NASA wasted a lot of money, do you think?
YEAGER: Yes. A lot of money.
YEAGER: Well, let's - it was easy.
YEAGER: It's like the last, I think, the last three guys that walked on the moon, and, you know, it was waste of money.
FLATOW: Should we go - should we not waste money going to Mars, do you think?
YEAGER: I, not only, will say yes, I'll say hell yes.
FLATOW: Well, General Yeager, I want to...
YEAGER: The day come, as you know.
YEAGER: Let me tell you for a moment. How long does it take you to get there when we've already got rovers on Mars? We know what it is and why do you think, what? Four months to get a guy there? And then to me it's a pretty bad waste of time and money.
FLATOW: Well, General Yeager, I want to thank you very much for taking time to be with us today. Congratulations on the 60th - 65th anniversary of breaking the sound barrier. And...
YEAGER: Yeah, I'm lucky enough that I still get to fly and in fact, I was - on that day on the anniversary, I was flying an F-15 down at Edwards, so.
FLATOW: Yeah. Well, many more years. We'll talk to you later. Thank you very much and then good luck to you. General Chuck Yeager, first man to break the sound barrier. One of the central characters in "The Right Stuff." That's what we're talking about on our SciFri Book Club. If you'd like to talk about it, 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us, @scifri. Stay with us. We'll talk more about "The Right Stuff" right after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow. If you're joining us, we're right in the middle of a break from our book club today. We're talking about "The Right Stuff." And if you're just joining us now, you just missed a really interesting conversation with General...
HEIST: Book club highlight.
FLATOW: ...General Chuck Yeager. You can catch it on a podcast later. And he has never been afraid to say what's on his mind. He's told us when he went - when he - he, you know, he sort of said that NASA was a waste of money but he wanted us to make sure, he called back and said I don't mean all of NASA. The unmanned stuff is great. Make sure again, you know, the unmanned stuff is great and you can follow Chuck Yeager on his website, it's chuckyeager.com, right. And in the book, he's a central figure.
HEIST: He is.
LICHTMAN: Well, how cool to have one of the characters from the book you're reading at your book club?
HEIST: I feel overwhelmed.
FLATOW: He's a man of few words, but when he says them, he says them.
LICHTMAN: Well, I'd like that part about "The Right Stuff," what does the right stuff mean to him, nothing. I mean, the thing that seems to be brilliant about Tom Wolfe's book is the way he constructs it. So he opens it up and he's like, I'm curious. What makes, you know, an astronaut an astronaut? And then he says, no one will talk about it. He says this quality, this it was never named. It wasn't talked about in any way, that's from the book. And then, you know, of course, you fell privy to the secret club where Tom Wolfe tells you what it is. what the right stuff is.
HEIST: And in a lot of different ways he tells you what the right stuff is. I think there are a lot of ways to interpret that. And I thought that was one of the most interesting parts about the book.
LICHTMAN: How so?
HEIST: Well, for these - for the Mercury 7, the right stuff was be a man. Be a white man. Be patriotic, at least have that appearance that you were family-oriented, happily married. And tow the line is the right stuff, in a lot of ways.
LICHTMAN: Be an astronaut.
HEIST: Yes. Be an astronaut.
LICHTMAN: Which was different from what Chuck Yeager was, you know.
FLATOW: A flier.
LICHTMAN: A pilot.
HEIST: A pilot.
LICHTMAN: A pilot. yeah.
FLATOW: A pilot. Pilot is not spam in a can.
HEIST: Monkeys can't do what pilots do.
FLATOW: Right, you know. They'll fight about - just putting a window in the space capsule because for pilots to see something.
LICHTMAN: Right. the very first one. The very first Mercury capsule had no window.
LICHTMAN: Can you imagine going up?
FLATOW: They found out they...
HEIST: I can't imagine going up with a window.
LICHTMAN: Yeah. Very.
FLATOW: Oh, spending six hours like Alan Shepard waiting to get to launch, you know.
LICHTMAN: I loved it.
FLATOW: And in a phone booth.
HEIST: The insight that Tom Wolfe gives us into the minds of the astronauts when they're waiting on the launch pad to go, you know, to get popped off like the pop of champagne bottle. The cork. And he can only imagine the fear - it's not really they're thinking about I really need to use the bathroom or one of them fell asleep. It's just this amazing look inside the capsule, makes you feel like you're in there.
FLATOW: And he has such detail in the book that you wonder if Tom Wolfe was really actually in some of the situations, he says. You were reading before a spot about that someone's face in such detail.
HEIST: Great. So...
FLATOW: How can he have been there?
HEIST: ...Tom, this is a part of the book were John Glenn is meeting Joe Kennedy, the father of President Kennedy, in the White House. And Joe Kennedy had had a stroke and Tom Wolfe was describing this. And he's describing Joe Kennedy's face and he says that his eyebrows curling down over his eye the way it does when your really bawling, and the tears are streaming out of the crevasse where his eyebrow and his eye and his nose come together and one of his nostrils is quivering and his are lips are riving and contorting on that side and his chin is all pulled up and pitted and trembling. And you could - it seems like you could only write that if you were standing right there looking at the man, but he wasn't there so it - this is the style of the book. And it's literary journalism, a new journalism where he uses these literary techniques but tells a fact-based story.
LICHTMAN: Yeah. It's interesting to read because there are no quotes unless they come from speeches.
LICHTMAN: Yeah. it's all sort of through the lens of - through the Tom Wolfe lens.
FLATOW: But it's such great story-telling. that's what...
HEIST: It is.
LICHTMAN: It's great.
HEIST: It seems like he's there in every scene.
FLATOW: Yeah. You know, I wonder what he would do if he were to rewrite the book today. Would he write at the same way? Would he - would people demand to have quotes and, you know?
LICHTMAN: Yeah. It's interesting an interesting question.
FLATOW: But it's it would've see different or are we so just enamored with the first seven astronauts that, you know. Even in the - when we went to the moon, people got tired after Apollo - Apollo 13 was the big one that, you know, never made it to the moon. And people were yawning already by that time, and they had more - more missions to go.
HEIST: I think it would be a totally different story today, because of - it seems like the press agreed to go wrong with the story in a lot of ways, that these were happy family men. And none of their - none to the extracurricular activity, shall we say, that are alluded to in the book came out during that time.
FLATOW: Well - yeah. That's through the whole Kennedy administration.
HEIST: Great. There was no TMZ.com, you know, where they were going to get the dirt and it was going to be up on the Internet.
FLATOW: Could - and that's interesting question. Could these astronauts have remained as squeaky clean as they were? Although we did see in the book the bars they went to, the things that they did in their spare time that showed a little bit of the other side of their lives.
HEIST: Yeah, for some of them.
FLATOW: Yeah, for some of them. 1-800-989-8255, if you would - if you like to join us in a conversation. Let's see if we can get some tweets or phone calls in. A lot of people would like to talk to General Yeager, but he's not here.
FLATOW: Sorry you missed that. But let me see if we can get a call to - about him. Let's go to Parker in Gainesville, Florida.
FLATOW: Hi, Parker. Hi, there.
PARKER: Hi. How are you?
PARKER: Great to talk to you guys.
FLATOW: Thank you. Have you got a question for us?
PARKER: Well, I have a comment. My grandfather's name is Seymour Rosing, and he was a test pilot for Bell Laboratories on the X-1 project. He was the guy that they dropped off the bottom of the big plane and had to land the X-1 as a glider, with no engine. Later on in the process, a gentlemen named Slick Goodlin, who was the lead pilot for Bell Laboratories, was flying the X-1 in a test, and as he passed over the area where all the scientists were, they heard a loud bang, but no one really knew what it was.
So my grandfather's contention is that Slick broke the sound barrier several years before General Yeager did, and when the Air Force took it over, of course, for public relations, they had General Yeager as the man on the record books. Not to take anything away from General Yeager. He's a great pilot, you know, and a credit to the pilots in history, but he may not have been the one that break sound barrier.
FLATOW: Have - do you know - has ever been asked about this?
PARKER: There have been conversations. I know my grandfather was talking with Katie Couric for a little while about doing a story, but it kind of fell flat. But Seymour Rosing is alive and, you know, he's - I'm really proud of my grandfather. I think it's a cool thing to be that part of history.
FLATOW: That's interesting. It's too bad. We could have gotten them both on the show.
FLATOW: Did your grandfather read the book? Do you know if he read "The Right Stuff"?
PARKER: He did, yeah. And, you know, he's probably not General Yeager's biggest fan.
FLATOW: Well, I'm sure they - you know, we have people tweeting, wanted me to ask General Yeager if they could pass him a Beemans, you know, that line from the movie about the gum. And I wonder if that - some of those little details really happened. Thank you, Parker, for - you know, send us a little note about that. Maybe we could follow up.
PARKER: I'd love too.
PARKER: Thanks for having me on.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Have a good weekend. That's what's great, is if - we're contemporary historians. And people call up, right, and they add a little bit of the history. And, you know, and one of my favorite parts about the history is that just when you think you found the first person, there's always the third person who comes up with the first in...
LICHTMAN: I have a history question for you, Ira.
LICHTMAN: So the way this time period is described, people are just in love with the astronauts, and sort of riveted by the story. Was that your experience covering it?
FLATOW: Yes. Yes, because this was a time of - when the Kennedy's were in the White House. And the - they used to call this period Camelot. You know, this was the Camelot, because this was the perfect first family. There where records made about the first family, comedy records, and people were in love with the Kennedys. Well, a great population was in love with the Kennedys. He only won by the squeakiest of, you know, 50, maybe few hundred thousand votes over Richard Nixon. But there was a new period in Washington of just being in love with the Kennedys.
HEIST: There's a part in the book where the - he talks about one of the astronauts. I forget which one goes to the White House and gets to meet the president and the first lady. And I don't know if this is true. But when that person comes back, the first question that the astronaut - have is tell us all about Jackie.
HEIST: They want to know.
FLATOW: Jackie gave us all a tour of the White House on - I think it was Charles Collingwood on CBS. Gosh, I'm going way back in the WABAC Machine here.
FLATOW: But that - so that whole era and the space race and the ability to basically have the technology and the know-how to do whatever we'd like to do, or we - we could do it. You know, we - and the whole idea of this space period covering a decades, through different administrations, something - we think about big projects now that would never last now. Back then, you know, it started out with Kennedy and went to Johnson. It went through Nixon, and they - and to think that people could either get so tired of it in that short period or run out of money because of the Vietnam War, that we just canceled the last three moon missions.
FLATOW: We just canceled, you know.
LICHTMAN: Have we seen excitement about science in that way since?
FLATOW: I think the Mars rover...
LICHTMAN: The rover.
FLATOW: ...stuff, you know, people get into that.
LICHTMAN: Yeah. That was really exciting.
FLATOW: It's exciting.
FLATOW: It's exciting now that the Curiosity is on Mars and you're wondering...
LICHTMAN: To watch that landing.
FLATOW: Was that scoop of dirt going to show on it?
FLATOW: We keep hearing something's going to be coming from it. But I think people in space, man space(ph), in those pioneering days, there was really nothing like it. Even though people are in the International Space Station, we never hear anything about that. That's sort of old hat, and we take it for granted. But we had a great heroes like Chuck Yeager, and we had comic books about them and TV shows and things were, you know - "Lost in Space" was a TV show. People were - everything about space was - you know, the Space Needle was created in that time in Seattle. Anything that had a space theme to it, "The Jetsons," stuff like that.
HEIST: It's the future, yeah.
FLATOW: It was the future. And maybe someone will write a book about - or a hundred about those. What did - were you - now, you did not live through it. What did you think about that, Flora? Was that captured enough for you in the book, did you think?
LICHTMAN: It came through as a really exciting time. It made me nostalgic for something I never experienced.
LICHTMAN: And I - you know, one thing that I was interested in as a modern follower of the space program was how the scientists - the science sort of got snuck into the astronaut program. So you see the origins of astronauts and these pilots and this divide between pilot and astronaut, and then science sort of creeped in in there. And Scott Carpenter, right, was - the astronaut, he sort of did a little science, but was - people sort of turned up their nose at that idea.
FLATOW: Well, what's really interesting about the space race, starting with Sputnik, is that it really was not about science. It was - the whole thing was about technology. You know, the German scientists - who were all - scientists came from Germany, from the war, the V-2 rockets. And some of them came to the U.S., Wernher von Braun, and some of them went to the Soviet Union, and there were basically German scientists playing with each other again. And that was, you know, that was just technology.
We knew how to get into space. We knew how to put rockets up there, and let's make better technology. Some of the science that happened was James Van Allen, one who looked at the, you know, the Sputniks, he looked at the - our own satellite and noticed there was a radiation belt. There was real science - that was - that's - finally some science was happening that came out of the space race. Talking about "The Right Stuff" and all kinds of trails...
FLATOW: ...leading for directions...
HEIST: It's the Book Club.
FLATOW: ...on the Book Club on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.
HEIST: So this book was written 33 years ago, Flora. Do you think it holds up? I was reading a criticism of it in The Guardian. We're not going to mention any more of that, but what do you think about the writing style?
LICHTMAN: Oh, I mean, I thought it was masterful. I thought the writing was really, really masterful.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to - see if we can get a quick phone call in before we have to go. Phil in - is it Clark, Wyoming?
PHIL: That's correct. How are you doing?
FLATOW: I'm sorry?
PHIL: Actually, I wanted to make a comment. I haven't read the book, but I saw the movie. And I was very disappointed in one respect. I went through - started Navy flight training in 1962, and I had the great good fortune to have both Ed White and Gus Grissom in my helicopter ground school. I thought the movie portrayed Gus Grissom as sort of a whining buffoon, and he was anything but. He was a highly intelligent man. He was funny. He was the class cut-up. He would - I was a cadet, and he would sneak, occasionally, cadets into the officers' club, which is was pretty much against the rules, but he would do it.
But it he was anything but portrayed in that movie. He was a fine man, very intelligent, knew more about aerodynamics than any other 10 people I ever knew. And that is something that's stuck in my crawl since 19 - or since the movie came out, and I'm glad to have a chance to air myself. Thank you for taking my call.
FLATOW: Well, what are - yeah. Well, what a personal tragedy this must have been for you at Apollo 1 then, when...
PHIL: When both of those men were killed, it was a personal tragedy, and it was a great loss for the program. Ed White was - is much quieter, more low-keyed individual than Gus Grissom was, but he was extremely sharp, sharp as a military man and sharp in his knowledge of aerodynamics and just basic flying knowledge. And he - they were both terrific men. But Gus Grissom was - I think he - it was a great dishonor the way he was portrayed in that movie. I don't know how he was portrayed in the book, because I didn't read the book, but the movie did him a great dishonor.
FLATOW: Well, I'm glad we could give you an opportunity to get it off your chest all these years.
PHIL: Well, thank you. I appreciate that.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
PHIL: And I'm enjoying your program.
FLATOW: Thank you very much, and have a good weekend.
PHIL: Thank you. You, too. Bye-bye.
FLATOW: Book was not terribly kind to Gus, was it?
HEIST: Mm-mm. Well, he was the second to go in the capsule, is that right?
HEIST: And he lost - well, the capsule was lost.
FLATOW: There were a lot of phraseologies that came out of the book. They said he screwed the pooch with something. We also have the right stuff that came into the vernacular. What other kinds of...
LICHTMAN: Pushing the envelope.
FLATOW: Pushing the envelope came into the vernacular, all kinds of stuff that we take for granted. Probably people don't even know where it came from. It came from the book.
LICHTMAN: Mm-hmm, right.
FLATOW: Have we got a choice for our next Book Club?
LICHTMAN: Not yet. Send your submissions. Comment on our page.
HEIST: And it's going to be hard to top having General Yeager...
HEIST: ...the main character from the book. Send your suggestions, and your guest suggestions, too.
FLATOW: Up on our website at sciencefriday.com. Thank you...
HEIST: Slash book club.
FLATOW: Slash book club. Thank you, Flora. Thank you, Annette.
LICHTMAN: Thank you.
FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.