Robert McCrum at the British newspaper the Guardian offers a series on the 100 best nonfiction books and selected Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff as number seven.
It was the right choice.
Newspapers and magazines often provide an indispensable patronage for writers. The Right Stuff is one of several great books in this list that derive from the interaction of high journalism and a higher literary ambition. In 1972, Rolling Stone commissioned its star reporter to cover the launch of Nasa’s final Apollo moonshot, one of many moments that marked the end of the 60s.
Tom Wolfe responded with what he later described as just “some ordinary curiosity”. What was it, he wondered, that would make a man “willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse?”
Wolfe decided, he says rather disingenuously, “on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out. So I asked a few in December of 1972 when they gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch the last mission to the moon, Apollo 17.”
The upshot was a four-part piece entitled “Post-Orbital Remorse”, which appeared in Rolling Stone during 1973. There was, however, an afterlife to Wolfe’s “ordinary curiosity”. He had stumbled on a “psychological mystery” – the motivation of the men involved, and his fascination with his own response. “I discovered quickly enough,” he wrote later, “that none of them, no matter how talkative otherwise, was about to answer the question, or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage.”
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