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The Sciences

Who Puts the Right into "The Right Stuff"?

Tom Wolfe's classic account of the early days of spaceflight has migrated to TV, with help from some seasoned insiders.

Out There iconOut ThereBy Corey S. PowellOctober 11, 2020 2:00 AM
The Right Stuff, 1959 NASA press conference - Gene Page/National Geographic/Disney+
Does that look familiar? The creators of "The Right Stuff" did their homework in recapturing the look of NASA's famous 1959 press conference. (Credit: Gene Page/National Geographic/Disney+)

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I'm not generally a fan of reboots. I had no need for an updated version of Total Recall, and I'll be just fine if I never again have to watch Bruce Wayne's parents die so that he can grow up to become Batman. My feeling is: If you're going to return to familiar material, at least come at it in a fresh way — like the second Battlestar Galactica, or like each new rover that NASA sends to Mars.

Fortunately, the TV adaptation of The Right Stuff (whose first two episodes were just released on Disney+) is more Curiosity rover than Total Recall 2012. As the title tells you, the new series draws on Tom Wolfe's 1979 beloved book of the same name, which is still one of the most vivid accounts of the dawn of the space age. The book, in turn, begat a 1983 film adaptation, which has its own devoted following. But a lot has changed in the 37 years since then.

In its latest incarnation, The Right Stuff is structured as an 8-episode streaming season. Its episodic structure and vastly increased running time allow the series probe into details of history and character that simply could not fit into a feature film. The cultural context is also much different than it was in 1979 or 1983. Back then, the Space Shuttle program was starting up, promising a rebirth of NASA's adventurous spirit. Today, NASA shares headlines and public adulation with private startups, most notably Elon Musk's SpaceX.

The Right Stuff plays out quite differently as a result, and its creators seem well aware of that. They seem aware, too, that watching streaming video at home while waiting out a pandemic yields a vastly different experience than curling up with Tom Wolfe's gonzo prose or chomping over-buttered popcorn in the movie theater. Yes, there is now room for Mad Men-style nostalgia. More important, though, the new series uses its stretch-out running time to scrutinize the events and personalities behind NASA's triumphant Mercury project, applying an engineer's style of precision to both the visuals and the narrative.

That approach made sense when I spoke to the team behind The Right Stuff. I received an unusual level of access (a rare positive side-effect, perhaps, of doing these interviews at a time when so many people are idled by the pandemic), which in turn has allowed me to share an unusually extensive behind-the-scenes peek into the process of recreating the birth of the space age. Across the board, I was charmed and impressed by the creators' obsessive affection for the pioneers of human spaceflight.

I got so much commentary from these interviews that I'll present them in two separate posts. In this one, I'm sharing my conversation with pilot Carl S. Pascarell, who advised the show's designers and visual-effects team to help them get the flight sequences right.

Mercury 7 astronauts, April 9, 1959 press conference - NASA
The real Mercury 7 astronauts on April 9, 1959. Left to right: Deke Slayton, Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Gordon Cooper and Scott Carpenter. (Credit: NASA)

Pascarell is himself a very Right Stuff kind of guy. He has logged more than 41,000 flight hours as a civilian pilot on 727s, 737s and DC-9s; as a US Navy attack pilot; and as a test pilot for various companies. And you'd never know all of that just from talking to him. He is cheery, plain-spoken and distinctly old-school in his manners. Pascarell's comments here are lightly edited for style and clarity.

How did you get involved as a flight consultant for The Right Stuff?

My connection was a guy named Bud Davisson. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s executive producer Jennifer Davisson’s dad. Bud and I were friends in the civilian aviation world for years and years. I would often be at his house, and I met little Jennifer when she was just — 11? 12? Lo and behold, maybe 30 years later I get a call from Jennifer: “Hey I’m shooting a scene for a NatGeo special down in Orlando, would you like to come visit the set?”

I was pretty excited about it. I didn’t know anything about the movie business or sets. I said, "You bet!" It was a nice reunion. I drove down there, I was introduced to the people, and I had a million questions. Then I watched the little scene play out and made some comments about the aviation-oriented things. Toward the end of the day, Jennifer asked if I’d be willing to consult on the project an ongoing basis and I said, "Heck yeah!" That’s how I got involved.

What was the actual consulting process like on a show like this? COVID must have made it extra complicated.

Most of the consulting has been on Zoom, watching the preliminary scenes coming out from the visual effects people, talking with the visual effects people. I found it fascinating. Not just for me [and the aviation details], but also the story itself. I was completely unaware of how in-depth they were doing this [spaceflight history].

As a pilot you must have been familiar with the general history of the Mercury 7 astronauts and the early days of NASA. How much were you surprised by the specific details in The Right Stuff?

To be honest, pretty damn surprised. Like you say, everybody knows the veneer of the story, but I was unaware of all of the political machinations that went on. What really intrigued me was how they approached the characters. They were made out to be superheroes [in public during the 1950s and 1960s], and they were in a sense, but they were also regular people with all the warts and foibles and problems that normal people have. Being open like that was a great tack to take.

That’s what surprised me: How normal [the astronauts] were in everyday life, and yet how magnificent their accomplishments were in Time-LIFE life, as it were. [Note: LIFE magazine was the primary outlet that told the officially sanctioned version of the astronauts' stories.] Alan Shepard was kind of a womanizing carouser; that sort of behavior had to be somewhat hidden. John Glenn, on the other hand, made no pretense about wanting the [attention of the] camera. He wanted to be the leader.

These are the things you don't see in the standard history of the Mercury 7. It was great that [The Right Stuff] went into depth about these people — in a good way! — to show that these famous characters were basically normal people with normal problems.

1960 Mercury 7 astronauts - NASA
NASA's iconic 1960 publicity shot of the Mercury 7 astronauts, looking suited up and ready to win the space race. (Credit: NASA)

Did you recognize these warts-and-all portraits? Did they remind you of other pilot personalities you've encountered?

Absolutely. The one [cocky] aspect of their image was very stereotypical. I could say, oh I know 10,000 pilots like that. Maybe all test pilots behave a bit like that. I’d think, yes, I know that person, I’ve seen that person a thousand times. But again, it’s just one aspect of their personality that’s a common thread among higher-risk aviation people.

Tell me about your role as a technical consultant. What kind of problems did you spot, and how did they get addressed?

Excellent question! A lot of them are small things. [The visual effects team] would ask me: Tell us what’s wrong, tell us what doesn’t look right, tell us what’s inaccurate. I approached the way I would if I were watching this movie. I’m very picky, I’m going to pick apart everything if it’s not right.

It might be something as simple as referring to a C-131 [military transport plane] as a “131,” because an experienced pilot wouldn’t say it that way. There were a couple phrases like that. Or when they referred to the F-100 [fighter jet] as the “Hun.” That [nickname] really didn’t happen until later in the F-100s life, so it wasn’t era-accurate. On the aircraft themselves, the signage had to be era-appropriate, too.

Beyond that, I wanted the [actors playing the] pilots to look comfortable around the airplanes. To not look like this is foreign to them. It’s a very difficult thing for the actors to do, because they’re not comfortable around an aircraft. But I wanted them to look natural — have them pre-flight a light aircraft and look like they’d done it a thousand times before. Or I wanted to show them how to get in and out of the cockpit and look like they’d done it forever. That was the idea I was trying to get across.

Hangar S set - National Geographic/Disney+
Hangar S, NASA's original Manned Spacecraft Center, was meticulously recreated in Orlando, Florida, for filming "The Right Stuff." (Credit: National Geographic/Disney+)

There are some big aerial action sequences in The Right Stuff. What kind of input did you have there?

There was one particular scene: The majority of my input was on this F-104 crash scene [based on a real F-104 crash that involved Chuck Yeager]. There’s a lot to the scene. A lot of the visuals were easily diagnosed as inaccurate and fixed pretty easily. I'd tell them, "It wouldn’t look like that when it departed, it would look like this."

Trying to describe it in words was interesting to me. Zoom helped, and like every fighter pilot I used my hands. In the last go-around I saw of that scene, it’s fabulous. It worked out perfectly. The language is right, the scenes are right. I’m very impressed with all the visual effects.

What kinds of things did they get wrong? I'm wondering what a pilot notices that the rest of us might miss.

There were a couple simple things. One scene inside the [F-104] cockpit neglected to show one of the ejection handles. There’s two ejection handles, yellow and striped; they stick out near where the pilot’s head would be, and they were missing one. The visual effects team’s response was, "If it were there it would look funny, because it would make the pilot look like he’s got rabbit ears." That’s a decision they have to make. I’m just saying, in reality there’s two handles.

The other thing was the out-of-control maneuver that resulted in the crash, right after the airplane lets go and tumbles. It's difficult to explain [the issue] without using my hands, but the airplane didn’t initially look like what it would have looked like. I'd go frame by frame with the effects guys and say, "Right here, you don’t need to show that aileron deflecting, that would not play a role. Here, the airplane needs to pitch up more than you have it pitching up, and then immediately start yaw and rolling."

Wow, that's extremely specific! And the visual effects artists really incorporated all of your input?

Armed with that information, they’d go back and show me a re-cut. I’d say, “That's pretty good, but this has to have a much quicker pitch-down," for instance. I'd have a lot of nit-pick things. For the average viewer, the first cut would have been fine. But to anyone with knowledge about [piloting a jet], it would have raised a flag.

There are so many flying scenes in the movies, some of them must drive you nuts. Do you have movies that you enjoy just to hate-watch, like Top Gun?

Oh my gosh, I hate on it. I hate on it! [Top Gun] was to me was an … unrealistic set of circumstances! It was exciting, don’t get me wrong. The average person probably loved it, and that’s great. From an accuracy standpoint, there’s very few aviation movies that I really like.

Which ones do you like? Which movies show flying accurately?

I’ll give you a couple. I liked 12 O’Clock High, the original with Gregory Peck. Fabulously done. The Battle of Britain, some of the best aerial photography in any movie. A silly one that I thought was very accurate was The Great Waldo Pepper with Robert Redford. It has nothing to do with the kind of flying we’re talking about, but it was damn accurate, it was very good. [Note: Waldo Pepper is a fictional 1920s barnstormer.]

There’s a kind of obscure movie that's very good, it's called simply The Pilot. It stars Cliff Robertson, who’s first-class all the way. It’s about an airline pilot who’s an alcoholic. It's set in the 1960s. It was very well done, accurate from an aviation standpoint, probably because Robertson was an experienced aviator himself, so he could act as his own aviation consultant.

Before we go, I have to ask you about the old movie version of The Right Stuff: What is your verdict?

I like The Right Stuff movie, like it a lot. But the thing I like about this new treatment of [the material from the book] is that it goes into much greater depth character-wise. That's something a series allows that a movie does not. You have 3 hours of movie to build these characters. With the series, you can really dive into just who they were.


For more science news and commentary, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell