When the first Americans rocketed into space almost 60 years ago under NASA’s Mercury program, it was an all hands on deck, do-or-die mission for an elite squad of seasoned, active duty military test pilots. Now the Earth itself could use a dose of the same human energy and sense of purpose. The momentum for climate action is gaining force, and the only question now is whether or not the US will lead the vanguard or straggle behind.
Climate Action: Where Is The Right Stuff?
Spoiler alert: regardless of who wins the 2020 General Election, the table is set for the US to lead on climate action. The technology for decarbonizing the global economy is already at hand, the winning combination of public opinion and commercial opportunity has become a powerful counterbalance to the attempts of US President* Donald J. Trump to prop up coal, oil, and gas stakeholders, and the talent pool has ballooned far beyond the Project Mercury cadre of mostly white, mostly male scientists and engineers.
So, what’s missing from the climate action picture? Well, the right stuff. With that thought in mind, the timing is perfect for a new look at The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s epic tale of the Mercury 7 astronauts. Published in 1979, the book took movie form in 1983 and now it’s the basis for the 8-part series unspooling on Disney+.
The technical advisor on the new Right Stuff is Dr. James Hansen, history professor at Auburn University and author of intensely detailed, influential works chronicling the technology and the people driving NASA and other aspects of aeronautic history.
The Right Stuff digs into the seat-of-the-pants adventuring aspect of the first Americans in space, but Hansen is the author of the Neil Armstrong biography First Man, which focuses on the spiritual force that drives a person into a life-risking quest that has every chance of failing.
Hansen was also technical advisor on the film adaptation of First Man. So, he has some interesting perspectives on human endeavors of history-making proportions, and he spent some time on the phone exclusively with CleanTechnica to share them (following comments edited for clarity and flow).
A Feat Of History Making Proportions
CleanTechnica: How would you compare First Man and The Right Stuff?
Hansen: Armstrong was a unique character in a lot of ways. He was more cerebral, more introspective. It almost boggles my mind to think of him as one of the Mercury 7.
One thing about the Mercury 7 series is the eight hours of material. We can do a lot more with eight hours than two. With two hours you have to be very economical, so there was a lot of good stuff in First Man that we couldn’t push into the film.
The difference has a lot to do with the difference in experiences. The Mercury 7 project was making it all up as they went along. The astronaut corps had to be invented, and they didn’t even know who should be the astronauts.
By the time they went to the moon they knew you needed a more technical background.
And when the era of the space race opens, it becomes a more serious matter, especially after we lose some astronauts. It was high risk from the beginning, and things got more serious.
CleanTechnica: Can you talk about the hero factor in The Right Stuff, and how that played out in the media?
Hansen: In the aftermath of Sputnik, the arms race, and nuclear Armageddon the country was in need of heroes. So they put them in the same mold as the pioneering heroes of the past — thanks [partly] to Disney.
It was a lot about the persona and charisma, projecting our fears on to these men who were going to save us. NASA had a small public relations organization at the start but they did their best, and they had a Life magazine contract.
Life presented the astronauts and their families in a certain all-American way that added to the charisma.
The Right Stuff & Climate Action
CleanTechnica: In terms of climate action, is there anything we can learn from The Right Stuff?
Hansen: Bob Gilruth [Space Task Group director] and Chris Kraft [flight director] were engineers. They had to learn how to do something new. They are trained and working in a world of a certain sort and have to transition to a new way of doing things.
As we move toward green clean tech, people who are well educated, well trained and smart can move on to a new category of questions and in some ways do it in a superior way.
You just need to have a strong national drive and program to make the transition possible for people.
The Russians got a satellite up and all hell broke loose, and so all these guys who were engineers began going to libraries and they became very creative because they knew that they didn’t know what they were facing.
They were prepared in basic way but there was stuff that their education that didn’t prepare them for [this mission].
But, they were in an organization that encouraged them to retrain. Before NASA there was NACA [the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics], and their leadership was putting engineers into special programs to get them ready for the space program.
Let’s Science the S*&%$ Out Of This
If this is beginning to sound more like First Man and The Martian than a tale of action and adventure, that’s no accident. With thirty more years of additional research between the publication of The Right Stuff in 1979 and the launch of the 8-part series, there have been many opportunities for Hansen and other historians to dig in to the other stories behind the all-male, all-white Mercury 7 astronauts who made the cut — including the Mercury 13 women who outdid their male counterparts while training for space in the 1950s.
As one indicator of the seismic shift in the talent pool since then, consider that NASA astronaut, engineer, and medical doctor Dr. Mae C. Jemison is leading the broad span of talent behind the 100 Year Starship program, which aims to build a sustainable platform for interstellar travel.
Everyone Has The Right Stuff
That circles back around to that National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics mentioned by Professor Hansen.
Like NASA, NACA has its roots in militaristic competition and the fear of falling behind.
“Even though the Wright brothers had been the first to make a powered airplane flight in 1903, by the beginning of World War I in 1914, the United States lagged behind Europe in airplane technology,” NASA observes.
NACA was founded as an independent agency reporting directly to the President, by an act of Congress in 1915, as a rider to a military appropriations bill.
NACA started small but it expanded through the years and created R&D facilities that birthed a series of influential technology breakthroughs, before another act of Congress folded it into the newly hatched civilian agency NASA in October 1958.
“The foundations of NASA and the success of its many missions rest squarely on the cornerstone of NACA’s organizational and technical expertise,” NASA concludes.
The men who launched NACA as a 12-member unpaid committee with a single employee had no idea where things would end up 100 years later, but they had a vision. So do people like Dr. Mae C. Jemison, and so does everyone who envisions a future for the Earth that long outlasts the fears of the moment.
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Photo: NACA hangar circa 1931 via NASA.