They said that a demon lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would shake violently and then disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, where the air could no longer move out of the way. The demon lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass.
They called it the sound barrier.
It is 1947. A man rides silhouetted against the horizon, and then reins in his horse to regard a strange sight in the middle of the Mohave desert. A new rocket plane.
Just like the fabled cowboy, our original American heroes were loners. Chuck Yeager, the legendary lone-wolf test pilot stares at the experimental X-1 like it‘s a coffin. In an era when the horrifying death rate among test pilots sometimes exceeded more than 50 in a single month, it was suicide to face the demon.
Chuck Yeager faced that demon and put the spurs to it. He had the right stuff. He had that special quality beyond bravery, beyond courage, and he embodied the kind of rugged, weary masculinity that defined American exceptionalism.
On the ground, no one had ever heard a sonic boom before. It rattled the photographs of the pilots who had died facing the demon and it was assumed that Yeager had exploded and there would be another funeral for another forgotten test pilot. It took a few moments for everyone to realize the sound barrier had finally been broken and the space age had arrived for mankind.
So begins the movie I’m watching tonight. Chuck Yeager is the heart and soul of The Right Stuff. His real life heroism frames the movie. The man who ushered the world into supersonic speed, the mythological outcast hero who knew more and could do more than others, so confident in his own skills that he had no need for validation in the eyes of others.
Which is why, ten years later, when the Russians sent up Sputnik and America hustled into the space race, Chuck Yeager, the ace of aces, never batted an eye when he was passed by for astronaut training due to his lack of a college degree.
The seven astronauts who eventually rode the first Mercury capsules into space idolized Yeager, as they should have. And they may not have been that much different from him. These men, Glenn, Shepard, Grissom, Carpenter, Cooper, Schirra, and Slayton, they had the right stuff too. They were the first Americans in space, battling the Russians for control of the heavens, and they did it individually, putting their lives on the line every time we strapped them to an explosion and fired them like bullets into the void. And that void is a vast and frightening thing. Space is an extreme and murderous absence. It is the closet physical metaphor we have for the disturbing unknown that follows death.
These were our heroes. And no time in history better captured the insanity, beauty and existential terror of mankind’s progress than the space race in the 1960‘s.
I remember seeing this film when it opened in 1983. No need to wait in a line because nobody else was interested in it. Everyone was going to see Return of the Jedi instead. Americans were more interested in furry ewoks than in the reality of astronauts risking their lives for knowledge.
It’s only a movie, right? That’s the cliché. The Right Stuff is absolutely a movie. One hell of a movie, one of the scattered handful of truly great American movies in the first half of the 1980s.
But this movie came out at a time when it was becoming unfashionable to contemplate American heroism. America still felt like we, as a nation, had the right stuff, but we were changing our idea of what that stuff was. That uniquely American ideology that separated us from other cultures was slowly vanishing.
Thirty years later, I’m saddened by that loss.
The movie is still great. But America no longer has a space program.
Astronauts used to reign as the unquestionable rulers of badass, but somewhere over the years, cultural opinion shifted, and somehow wrapping a man in a giant metal bullet and firing him into the face of God became thought of as stuffy and boring. The space program didn’t die because of budgetary concerns. It died because America forgot how goddamn awesome it was. Human beings, so tiny and fragile that we can die if we swallow a pretzel wrong, can also possess the right stuff to strap their ass to a rocket and then take an untethered walk in space:
And that’s something we have no excuse forgetting. We need to fix this. You’ll have to forgive me for getting angry just now and slapping at the button that calls James Bond into my office.
Our current leader, President Obama, has a different vision for today’s space mission. He wants to use it to expand our international relationships. He wants to reach out to other nations and help them feel good about their own scientific contributions.
Huh? That’s not a space mission, that’s psychobabble. That’s farcically turning the exploration of space into a self-esteem enhancer.
America put a man on the moon. We led the information revolution. We‘ve won more Nobel Prizes than any other nation by far. But the way Obama sees it, third-world nations are just as important because a thousand years ago the Muslims gave us algebra.
Growing up, I watched twelve different astronauts walk on the moon. Space travel was the dominant mindset in our culture. We were all full of visions of missions to Mars and space hotels. In the future, we were all going to colonize space where mankind would be walking, talking, living and sexing in fancy space apartments like we saw on The Jetsons. I was personally going to have a space apartment with shag carpeting and a robot called Mr. Bixby who made me martini’s when I got home.
We drank Tang and ate TV dinners, not because Mom was too lazy to cook, but because frozen compartmentalized foil pressed trays of food felt like something straight out of a science-fiction show. And Americans sat in front of their flickering television sets, eating their TV dinners on clanky metal TV trays, watching Space Patrol and My Favorite Martian and The Invaders and The Outer Limits and Space: 1999 and Land of the Giants. We watched Star Trek and waited for the future of space travel to get here, a future of huge, comfortable starships hauling us to other planets where adventure awaited. If Star Trek taught us anything, it’s that starships are like the Love Boat, filled with lots of counterproductive human sexual drama, and it was perfectly natural for the crew to spend their time having space romances, or as I like to call it: “Boldly going where Kirk has already gone before.”
None of us could have guessed that the Soviet Union would forfeit the space race because it was scared of American exceptionalism. We didn’t know our enemy would eventually finally collapse like a little girl. This deprived us of the fruits of competition. No starships. Hell, if the Soviets hadn’t turned into such wimps, we’d probably be turning the cosmic ballet into a glow stick rave on Saturn by now.
Obama says that America can’t get to Mars without international assistance. That’s pure bullshit, of course. And that attitude certainly contrasts with the self-confidence of President Kennedy’s pledge in the early 60’s that America would land on the moon within a decade.
That contrast is not a surprise though.
Kennedy believed in American exceptionalism. Obama does not.
During Obama’s first year, he was asked by reporters at a NATO summit in France if he believed in American exceptionalism. He answered that he did. Then he added that he believed in it just the same as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
This statement dumfounded me. It was nonsense. Because if everyone is exceptional, then no one is.
Then he gave more speeches to other nations, essentially telling them the same crap. That America is no better than they are. Shrinking and contraction, demolishing the foundation of American dominance. This was going to be current foreign policy of the United States.
I mean, holy shit, this was our President doing this. Telling the world that America is only exceptional in guilt and arrogance. He was apologizing for us, whether we wanted him to or not, and saying this newly humbled America was seeking a more modest place among the nations, not above them. The fundamental consequence of his actions has undermined any claim that America might have to world leadership and the moral confidence our nation needs to assume that leadership. The international community system is now in crisis because of it.
Why did he do it? Because we shuffled into the voting booths like dummies and elected him to do it. He isn’t saying anything now that he wasn’t saying ten years ago. His whole presidency is a testament to our country’s silly commitment to multiculturalism and all it’s warm and fuzzy feelings.
Multiculturalism. It will be the ruin of us.
Other traditional “isms” like capitalism, fascism, nazism, communism, socialism, etc., were, almost, by definition, designed to provoke an argument. They were designed to be oppositional. But not multiculturalism. It says there’s no point to having an argument. It basically says that if everything is of equal value, then what’s the point of talking about it. It kills critical thinking and it kills national identity.
If the purpose of your culture is to celebrate multiculture, you’re in effect saying, “Our bedrock belief is that we believe in everything.” Which is the same thing as saying “We believe in nothing. Our core value is that we have no core values.”
And that’s getting taught in schools these days. Our kids are indoctrinated into this bullshit philosophy and that’s why Obama gets elected to go around apologizing for America’s greatness.
Damn it, I’m going to hit the James Bond button again. Or even better, the Chuck Yeager button. Because he’s a real person. And he’s still alive. He was the mythological pioneer of supersonic flight, the guy who got passed up to be an astronaut, so after watching the Mercury Seven get all the glory at the end of The Right Stuff and his test program facing closure, he decided one day to get in a training jet and fly it straight up into the stratosphere, into zero gravity, just to experience, for a brief moment, the space age he created.
Yeager is 89 years old now and just itchin’ to prove Obama wrong. Here he is. Go ahead, kiddies, tell Chuck all about your bitter self-entitlements and how everything is mommy and daddy’s fault.
Okay, I grew up during the space race. It was badass. But I’m an adult now, and I understand that we can’t keep funding something just because it’s bitchin’. That’s not how budgets work. And we didn’t fund these missions just because they were cool. We did it because we had to get to space before the Russians, and because we had to establish a sense of national identity in a conflicted period in our nation’s history. In a nutshell, we went into space because nothing brings people together like shoving something in somebody else’s face.
So in the interest of that, I heard Europe talking the other day, America, and I mean, I don’t want to start anything here, so you didn’t hear it from me, but they were saying we don’t go into space anymore because we’re scared little bitches. Then they said that Italy had a much bigger landwang than Florida, and Africa made some crack about how the Gulf of Mexico must be cold this time of the year, and then all the other continents started laughing.
Are you really gonna take that? Does America still have the right stuff?