What's Left of the "The Right Stuff"?

by | Jul 5, 2011 | Creative Nonfiction

THE SPACE COAST, FLORIDA — The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. So noted Tom Wolfe in his concluding words in The Right Stuff, the book that popularized the early days of America’s manned spaceflight. Wolfe’s wry comment came to mind while sitting in a diner in downtown Titusville, Florida, within sight of the launch pads from which America took its first steps into outer space. There are plenty of reminders of the long-past glory days of American military missile might and political will to win the Space Race. Reminders of America’s achievements above earth and on the moon are found all along the Space Coast for those who look for it. The astronaut portraits and signed crew pictures are frayed along the edges and yellowing in their frames, the ink of their signatures fading. On the walls of diners and gas stations where the astronauts ate their meals and fueled their cars are signs that these gods who’d climbed the heights of Mount Olympus still had to grab a bite to eat and change their vehicle’s oil.

Titusville and other communities on the Space Coast are reeling in a second wave of shock and despair at the decision by the powers that be in Washington to end the space shuttle program and leave behind the dream of America being number one in the manned exploration of space. Yes, we still have robotic explorers winging their way through space beyond our own Solar System, and the images of the Hubble Space Telescope reveal the universe in  a way that many find hard, if not impossible, to conceive. Thank God (and Washington) for JPL and NASA’s unmanned efforts. But the fact is, as my professor in Space Studies at the University of North Dakota was fond of saying, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” Without a human presence aboard spacecraft, there is neither excitement nor significant political or economic commitment to space programs.

If, as the sages believe, history truly repeats itself, we should not be surprised at the demise of the space shuttle program or the lack of preparedness and commitment to continue American manned space programs under our own thrust. With the decline of patriotic fervor over the success of the Apollo lunar landing missions in the late Sixties to mid-Seventies, on top of economic woes, social disorder and the Vietnam War, our national leadership determined to forego other planned Apollo missions to the Moon, instead moving toward a “handshake in space” with our former rival the USSR and a half-hearted effort of a space station with the uninspiring name Skylab.



Today America is engaged in numerous wars across our planet. Our economy is in shambles and our spirits are sagging. We are socially dysfunctional and politically challenged. Our infrastructure is collapsing around us and we are making choices at which our country’s founders and pioneers would shake their heads in wonder. We have lost our determination to move toward outer space. We have forgotten our greatness as a nation and moved to mediocrity and second place.

The space shuttle, as successful and wonderful as it has been, helped signal that movement toward mediocrity and decline. When Nixon, Ford and Carter gave up the ground that had been won by America’s people with the right stuff – the scientists, technicians, and skilled workers who filled the offices and worked at the launch facilities on the Space Coast – the Apollo program came to an untimely end. The space shuttle began to take shape across the country in factories in California and in places such as Utah and Louisiana, because of political persuasion. The shuttle offered cheap access to orbit and was the first reusable ride into space, but it never was developed for missions other than orbiting Earth. These political choices (based on economic influence) led to the limit of near-space exploration by human crews and the disasters and demise of two space shuttle orbiters, Challenger and Columbia, as well as the brave crews who had undoubtedly shown their possession of the right stuff.

Tom Wolfe’s literary venture into the world of space exploration and the lives of the astronauts revealed the bravery and commitment of their wives, who offered their unflagging support and encouragement despite their deep-rooted concern. Living with the harsh realities of demanding schedules, constant travel and immediate danger, the families of America’s astronauts have proven throughout the years that they too have the right stuff.

As I prepare to watch the final space shuttle rise from Earth to rendezvous with the International Space Station for the last time, it saddens me and many here on the Space Coast who have relied on the manned space program not only for their economic livelihood, but also for the way that we defined ourselves as Americans. As independent, curious in nature, willing to pursue the seemingly impossible, filled with purpose and a commitment to excellence.  Atlantis will be the last space shuttle mission to the International Space Station. In the future, any American astronauts who make it there will be sitting aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, riding technology that is decades old and long since proven.

While my wife Elizabeth enjoys the sound of the surf and the feel of the sand at Cocoa Beach just a few miles away, I scour the antique stores, op-shops and consignment stores in search of items related to the American space program. I find a PAN AM CAPE CANAVERAL POLICE patch from the earliest days of the program, when Pan American had the contract for security services at the Cape Canaveral rocket launch facilities. Another relic: a piece of an Atlas Rocket made into a key-chain – old stock that once rode a revolving rack for early Space Coast tourists after its ride into space. The greatest find comes when I spot a consignment shop with a rocket engine rusting out in front of the store. With the American flags that have been attached waving in the wind, a sign notes that the selling price is $25,000 – a bargain considering how much it originally cost American taxpayers. Foregoing the rocket engine, I inquire within to discover that they have something more within my financial realm – a plaster of Paris mold for a Columbia tile from the portion of the Delta wing.

So, America’s manned space program has come to this – consigned to the trash bin or collector of space dreams. At this point in history, our national manned space program has been gutted by our politicians and deflated by our lack of political will.  NASA is a mere visage of its glory days, when Americans launched themselves atop great, powerful pillars of steel and fire, targeting the Moon.

Thousands of people will gather here shortly, marking the passing not only of the demise of the workhorse that the space shuttle has been, but also, perhaps unconsciously, the legacies of Project Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. When Atlantis achieves liftoff from the pad at the Kennedy Space Center and climbs into the sky to meet the International Space Station, America will jettison “the right stuff” that launched the United States into outer space and kept us there – our positive “can-do” attitude and a culture of national pride that landed twelve Americans on another planet. Lord, help us.


Photo Credit:
Feature Image, NASA
“The Shuttle Has Left the Pad–STS-131,” by Marc A. Wessels
“Rocket Dreams,” by Marc A. Wessels

About The Author

Marc A. Wessels

Dr. Marc A. Wessels was founder and director of the Space Exploration Archive, a non-profit organization committed to the peaceful uses of Outer Space for the benefit of life on Earth. Dr. Wessels passed away last month in St. Louis. He was the Associate Conference Minister for the Missouri Mid-South United Church of Christ Conference, and had recently been named the Conference Minister of the South Dakota United Church of Christ Conference.