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Scott Kelly: How Tom Wolfe Changed My Life

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Tom said that knew the moment he heard that phrase that he had found the title for his book. Not long after, his wife suggested that — though his original plan had been to write about Mercury, Gemini and Apollo — he had done enough by telling the story of Mercury. He had documented America’s first steps off our planet in a unique way. And he’d found his title. He submitted the manuscript to his publisher not long after, and the book was published in 1979. It’s never been out of print since.

“Whenever I tell people how inspired I was by ‘The Right Stuff,’” I said, “they always assume that I was inspired by the idea of space travel. But the truth is, I was captivated by your descriptions of the test pilots, before any of them were chosen as astronauts. The idea that their job was to get into an experimental airplane and struggle to stay alive just by their wits — I wanted to do that.”

“Even with the way the book starts?” Tom asked.

The book begins with a test pilot getting smashed to bits when his airplane malfunctions; a few pages later, another dies when a catapult on an aircraft carrier fails, and “his ship just dribbled off the end of the deck, with its engine roaring vainly, and fell 60 feet into the ocean and sank like a brick.” A pilot “rolls in like corkscrew from 800 feet up and crashes”; another passes out when his oxygen system fails; another let his airspeed fall too low before extending his flaps and loses control of the airplane.

Tom was right to sound incredulous: This part of the book was not exactly an advertisement for flight test. A career Navy pilot faced a 23 percent likelihood of dying from an accident — and this statistic did not include deaths in combat, since those could not be classified as “accidental.”

All this was meant to create a sense of the kind of courage these men had to possess in order to simply do their jobs every day. Before Tom’s readers could understand the concept of “the right stuff,” they had to understand the risks those pilots faced (and still face). But, I tried to explain to Tom, as a college freshman I saw something in those opening pages that spoke to me. I told him that seeing the risk of death brought


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