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Series / The Right Stuff

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The Right Stuff is an eight-part limited series produced by National Geographic Channel and airing on Disney+. It is the second adaptation of Tom Wolfe's book of the same name, after the 1983 film. As with both the book and the movie, it follows the Mercury Seven astronauts as they and their families become instant celebrities during The Space Race.

Leonardo DiCaprio serves as an executive producer through Appian Way.

It debuted on Disney+ on October 9, 2020. Though Warner Bros. Television was interested in producing additional seasons, Disney+ cancelled the show in 2021, leading the studio to shop it to other outlets.

This series features examples of:

  • The Ace: All the Mercury Seven astronauts are amazing pilots but John Glenn and Alan Shepard are in a league of their own.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: Shepard can only laugh when Dee O'Hara completely crushes his attempts to flirt with her. Later, he smirks and chuckles when Glynn Lunney rants to Kraft that televising the launch could turn failure into the most expensive funeral in the history of TV.
  • Adaptational Jerkass:
    • The historical Glenn did write a letter to Gilruth protesting the peer assessment way Shepard was chosen in hopes the decision would be reversed - but never stooped to the letter-writing campaign against Shepard seen here (though as in the show, he did get a chewing out from Gilruth over it). By all accounts, once the decision was made Glenn threw himself into providing effective support for the mission, even if he still felt he deserved the spot.
    • While Shepard's father was far more reserved and less intense than his son, the two never had the adversarial relationship that's shown here. While Shepard Sr really did have reservations about his son being in the space program, it was more to do with his halting his prospects of promotion to admiral instead of the resentment Alan didn't choose the Army for his career.
    • While Von Braun's Nazi past made many of his colleagues deeply uncomfortable, as shown here, the real Von Braun was well-known for his immense charm and diplomacy among the various NASA branches contributing to Mercury and the programs that sprang from it - a far cry from the rude and openly arrogant portrayal here.
  • Adapted Out: The original book and its film adaptation devoted significant attention to Chuck Yeager, who wasn't selected to become an astronaut but still managed to prove he had his own "right stuff." He's absent in the series, specifically to let it stand out from the prior versions.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • When Glynn Lunney first meets Chris Kraft and Bob Gilruth, Gilruth outright states that the empty room with just the three of them in it is NASA. In truth, as an evolution of the previous NACA, NASA had over 8000 employees by this point, as well as three major research facilities and numerous smaller areas under their control.
    • Deke Slayton develops heart arrhythmia and is grounded from the space program. The series shows it happening in early 1961 before Shepard's mission. Slayton was actually grounded in 1962 after Glenn's mission and only two months before Slayton's own mission.
    • The gun scene in episode 4 was based on a real incident, but nothing like as dramatic as here. After the rocket failed, it was proposed by Von Braun's deputy Kurt Debus as a potential solution, but was rapidly shot down via radio when everyone realised how insane it would be.
  • Ass Shove: The many screening tests the astronaut candidates go through include a very large probe being inserted up the rectum.
    Doctor: We'll insert this into your rectum. Once your sphincters relax, most of the pain should subside.
  • Being Good Sucks: Shepard goes to Glenn to get help after he'd been caught out having a fling in Tijuana. Genuinely trying to help, Glenn manages to get the editor's number from Shorty Powers and kill the story. Then he tries to give a well-intentioned lecture about how they should be more alert to how their image and that of the project are seen by the public - accidentally letting on Powers was involved. A furious Shepard unfairly accuses him of intentionally letting NASA find out to improve his chances. Glenn's frustration boils over and he blasts them for being self-absorbed and ungrateful. Cue Gilruth deciding the first American in space will be decided via peer vote, and the unpopular Glenn sees his chances go up in smoke.
  • Broken Ace: Gordo is just as talented a pilot as the others, but has a rotten home life. He's separated from his wife, has a tendency to overdo it when drinking and has serious survivor's guilt from an incident where his wingman crashed and died during a test flight.
  • Career-Ending Injury:
    • Shepard has an un-diagnosed inner ear condition that causes him to temporary lose balance and hearing. It should disqualify him from the astronaut program and probably from flying at all. However, it is intermittent and Shepard is able to work his way through the attacks without NASA realizing that something is wrong. note 
    • Chris Kraft badly burned his hand as a child. When he applied for flight training, the damage was deemed too extensive and he was rejected.
    • Subverted with Deke Slayton who lost a ring finger in a farm accident as a child. That finger is deemed non-essential for a pilot and he was accepted for pilot training. He was later diagnosed with heart arrhythmia but it was not deemed serious to ground him. It was then double-subverted when NASA changes its mind and grounds him due to the arrhythmia after all. note 
  • The Casanova: Alan Shepard is picking up beautiful woman wherever he goes and is not deterred by the fact that he is already married.
  • Casting Gag: This isn't Kraft actor Eric Ladin's first experience with the Flight Director role; he played Gene Kranz (a real-life protege of Kraft) in For All Mankind.
  • The Confidant: Dee rapidly becomes this to Shepard after they meet. She knows something is medically off with him but likes and respects him enough to keep it quiet unless it could affect the program.
  • Cutting Corners: Gordon Cooper has a history of skipping important pre-flight checks and flying while injured.
  • Demoted to Extra: With extra screentime for the astronauts' wives and other figures like Kraft, Grissom especially has far less prominence than in the film.
  • Desk Jockey: As the series begins both John Glenn and Alan Shepard are facing the prospect of being relegated to desk jobs. Glenn is 38 years old and deemed to be getting too old for a test pilot. Shepard was deemed too reckless and Kicked Upstairs to a supervisory position where he was promoted but gets little flying time. It is lampshaded that both men would excel at any non-flying job they are given but they would not be personally satisfied with it.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • John Glenn is first shown in his Marine uniform addressing a newstand attendant by name and having his picture displayed on the cover of a magazine. He declines the offer of a free magazine copy and instead pays extra so the attendant can have his own copy. We then cut to a colleague reading from the magazine and Glenn getting angry because the writer described him as being too old. Glenn then gives a speech about he wants to be the first man in space because it would secure his place in history. Glenn is Nice to the Waiter but also a Glory Hound.
    • Alan Shepard is first shown naked in bed with a beautiful woman, charming her with his poetic description of flying a plane. She says that she does not mind that he is married but he still refuses to tell her his name. We then see him in the officer's club trying to talk his commanding officer more flying time and being told that he should accept that his promotion out of a flying job is a good thing. Shepard is The Casanova who cheats on his wife, an adrenaline junkie who doesn't know what to do with himself when not taking some kind of risk, and resents being Kicked Upstairs.
    • Gordo Cooper is shown in a bar with his fellow pilots talking how he plans to invest in oil and make a fortune. We then cut to the next morning where he wakes up lying face down on his living room floor and his hand is bleeding from a shattered glass. Cooper is a dreamer whose personal life is a mess.
  • Every Man Has His Price:
    • This is lampshaded and addressed early on. The astronauts are all dedicated patriots but they are also family men trying to support a family on a military pilot's salary. While the possibility of espionage is not considered, NASA is worried that the astronauts might be tempted to sell their stories to newspapers or otherwise engage in business deals that could embarrass the space program. The solution is to cut a deal with Life Magazine. Life gets exclusive access to the astronauts and their families and the astronauts get a hefty payday as long as they behave appropriately.
    • John Glenn is a Democrat and supports Kennedy in the presidential election. He is told that if he publicly endorses Nixon, it will guarantee his spot as the first man in space. Glenn is tempted but instead doubles down on Kennedy.
    • Several of the astronauts are appalled at the prospect of cozying up to a senator known for supporting racial segregation. Unfortunately, said senator also occupies a seat on the Appropriations Committee, so without his support the program has no future.
  • Foil:
    • Glenn and Shepard are this to each other. Glenn is a dedicated family man while Shepard is The Casanova who cheats on his wife. Glenn is image conscious and very confident at all times. Shepard lacks discretion and has a lot of self doubt when it comes to matters not involving flying or picking up women. Glenn comes off as a politician in the making while Shepard comes off as flawed but honest.
    • Cooper is presented as a contrast to both Glenn and Shepard. The straight-edge Glenn and philandering Shepard seem to have happy marriages while Cooper's marriage is a wreck. Glenn is a dreamer who goes to great lengths to make his dreams come true while Cooper talks big but does not follow through. Shepard is reckless with his own life while Cooper's recklessness puts others in danger.
  • Foregone Conclusion:
    • The first episode's cold open tries to build tension around who will fly the first American mission into space, with the astronaut being shot from the back and news commentators remarking that no one will know until the last possible moment. Of course, history tells us that Alan Shepard became the first American in spacenote .
    • Chris Kraft and Robert Gilruth talk about how vital it is for an American to reach space before a Russian. Despite NASA's efforts, Yuri Gagarin would become the first man in space, an event that's actually shown at the end of episode 6.
    • A big deal is made about the fact that President Kennedy is not a big fan of NASA and might cancel the space program altogether. Obviously, this does not happen and Kennedy is the one to order NASA to work on the moon missions.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes:
    • Wernher von Braun is crucial to the US space program but he quickly rubs most people at NASA the wrong way. It does not help that many at NASA know about his Nazi past.
    • John Glenn develops into this in his pursuit to be the first man in space. Everyone respects him as a professional but he rarely socializes with the other astronauts outside of work. Everything he does seems to have a self-serving undertone (even when he doesn't intend it to) and even his wife calls him out for going too far when he tries to get Shepard booted from his history-making flight.
  • Glory Hound: John Glenn is accused of this but he sees it more as accomplishing something so remarkable and worthwhile that it will secure his place in history.
  • Graceful Loser: Despite his inner struggles and conflicts with Shepard, John proves to be this when Alan goes to space. Until the very last moment he is hoping that Shepard will be somehow disqualified and Glenn will be asked to step in as backup. However, as soon as the rocket starts, Glenn accepts that this will not happen and switches to cheering Shepard on and praying for his safe return. Holding a grudge will not change what happened so he moves forward looking for the next challenge. note 
    Glenn (to Annie): It's like you said in Cocoa, it's easier now that people know. Al went to space and I didn't, so what?
  • Happily Married: John and Annie Glenn are shown to be utterly devoted to one another. Alan and Louise Shepard are trickier; they love each other but Alan's indiscretions (and Louise finding out about it second-hand) cause major tensions by series' end.
  • Happy Marriage Charade: L. Gordon Cooper begs his wife to come back to him because he knows only men with stable home lives will be considered for the astronaut program. She agrees, but is clearly uncomfortable with the arrangement.
  • High Turnover Rate: Kraft and Gilruth lampshade the fact that military test pilots do not tend to have long careers. When they are given a list of the top test pilots in the US Armed Forces, they point out that the list is out of date. Test pilots have a professional "quirk" of getting killed and they can spot how old the list is by how many people on it are now deceased. Glenn, Shepard and Cooper were about to fall off the list for various non-fatal reasons. Glenn was about to age out, Shepard was Kicked Upstairs and Cooper wanted to quit after he witnessed the death of a fellow pilot.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Before telling Deke that he's grounded, Kraft serves himself a glass of liquor. He then offers one to Deke, who replies that it's a little early. Kraft insists.
  • Insufferable Genius: Wernher von Braun is the best rocket engineer the Americans have and clearly thinks that he should be in charge of NASA.
  • Interservice Rivalry: Alan Shepard, a proud Navy man, shares a rivalry with John Glenn, a proud Marine. John Glenn was not even on the first list of top pilots in the US Armed Forces because the list was compiled by a Navy officer.
  • It's All About Me: After his jokes about female astronauts on live TV finally cause Trudy to leave him for good, he pleads with her that her going could affect his place on the space program. Disgusted, she shoots back that she wishes he'd worry about how it affects her for once.
  • Jerkass Ball: Glenn grabs it pretty hard after Shepard (completely unjustly) accuses him of undermining him by letting NASA know about a story of his indiscretions. Once he realises that he could still be first in space if Shepard (the top pick) is removed from the flight, he starts a letter campaign to get Shepard removed - which ends up both almightily pissing off Shepard and Gilruth and alienating his own wife.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Wernher von Braun is pretty vocal in his dislike of the way NASA does things and rubs a lot of people the wrong way but he is not always wrong. NASA still has not figured a lot of things out and they are amateurs learning on the job.
    • He's a massive prick about it due to his dislike of his son joining the Navy instead of the Army, but Shepard's father is correct that his son's family have renamed poor Judith without bothering to ask her what she thinks about it. Shepard noticeably tries to make her more a part of the family after this, allowing her to be renamed Alice.
    • While the holier than thou way he does it backfires, Glenn's insistence that they need to think of their image and that of the program is shown to be quite accurate - especially given that the reason they were in that situation was Glenn having to intervene after Shepard got photographed after a one-night stand, which he feared could could cripple his chances of being first up if it got out.
    • Shepard gets Carpenter removed from his position in Mission Control which gets Carpenter really angry. When he tries to find an ally in Glenn, Glenn agrees with Shepard. Shepard was undiplomatic in the way he handled the situation but Carpenter made too many critical mistakes that could endanger the mission.
  • Jumped at the Call: Of the 100+ pilots invited to the NASA presentations only two declined to apply for the program.
  • Kick the Dog: Cooper's harsh dismissal of the idea of female astronauts at a press conference is what finally spells the end of any chance he had to get back together with Trudy (who had been approached on just that score). Even worse, it leads to her being disqualified from the potential astronaut group she aspires to on account of being married to someone who'd say that.
  • Kicked Upstairs: Alan Shepard was deemed to be too reckless so he was promoted to a supervisory position where he gets little flying time. He is very good at the job and is likely to get promoted even higher no matter how much he complains about it. The astronaut program is his last chance not to become a Desk Jockey
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": This is the reaction at NASA after they hear Kennedy's speech and realize that the President has just committed them to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. They have barely just managed to get a single man into Earth orbit and do not know if a moon landing is even physically possible.
  • Not a Game: While preparing for a launch, Chris Kraft starts butting heads with a subordinate at mission control. Then, during a game of volleyball, the same man spikes the ball and hits Kraft in the face and breaks his glasses. Right before the launch Kraft fires ... the guy who has been trying to defuse the situation by suggesting that it was just a game and they should take it easy. Kraft can tolerate someone who pisses him off because he takes things too seriously. He cannot tolerate someone who does not treat their job seriously and considers the training they are doing as just a bunch of games.
  • "Not So Different" Remark:
    • Shepard invokes this on Glenn at the end after they've made peace, reasoning that both of them always have that hunger to do something greater than what they've done before. Glenn is visibly discomfited by it.
    • Trudy Cooper is pulled into the world of NASA is to improve Gordo's public standing, as a divorced astronaut isn't likely to be considered given the intense public scrutiny they'll be under. At the end, once she publically separates from him, one of the reasons Jerrie Cobb rejects her on is that a divorced astronaut won't be a good look for her proposed new female astronaut corps.
  • One Judge to Rule Them All: NASA goes through a long process of determining which of the astronauts will be the first to go into space. However, it becomes clear that President Kennedy will have the final say on whether NASA's decision will stand or if someone else will be chosen.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Alan Shepard almost misses the big NASA meeting because a colleague accepted the invitation letter on Alan's behalf and forgot to tell him about it until it is almost too late.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Glenn tries to get Shepard disqualified from the space program for petty reasons. Shepard should have been disqualified because his medical condition made it dangerous for him to fly.
  • Rule of Drama: A huge amount of this - the show takes numerous real life aspects of the Mercury programs and ratchets up the drama surrounding them. Among other things, the relationship between Shepard and Glenn, Shepard's tense relationship with his father, the feuding between Kraft and Von Braun and Cooper's strained relationship with his wife were all considerably less fraught than seen here.
    • Probably the best example is when Cooper and Grissom have a nasty public fallout over an incident where Gus claims Gordo didn't bother with the pre-flight check and nearly got them both killed when the plane crashed. While the crash happened, it was ruled a mechanical failure, and had nothing to do with anything the pilots did. In his autobiography Cooper even wrote that Grissom was his best friend among the Mercury Seven.
  • Slave to PR: NASA is beholden to the US Congress for its funding and requires massive amounts of money. The politicians will not commit so much money unless they are convinced that's what they voters want. As such NASA has to keep itself and its astronauts constantly in the public eye and keep feeding the public's fascination with space exploration. This means that the astronauts have to maintain a squeaky clean image and their dirty laundry has to be kept secret at all cost. While this is tough on the men, it is really bad for their wives who have their lives directed by Public Relations officials and any deviation from the script could have really bad repercussions.
  • Survivor Guilt: Cooper's wingman died during a test flight pushing his experimental aircraft too far. Cooper was piloting a similar aircraft next to it but his hand injury prevented him from performing the same maneuver. This probably saved Cooper's life but he still feels guilty about surviving while his friend died.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Gus Grissom is not a fan of Gordon Cooper. When Gus gets tired of Gordon's stories, he tell his own Gordon Cooper story. They flew a test flight together and Cooper told Grissom that he completed the pre-flight check of the plane. The flight crashed on takeoff and it was a miracle that both men did no burn to death. Turns out Cooper was Cutting Corners and never did the pre-flight check. Cooper laughed the incident off while Grissom never forgave him for nearly getting him killed.
    Grissom: You're not the best Gordo. Not even close.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Once Shepard is chosen as the first American into space, the relationship between him and Glenn (his flight backup) deteriorates massively, with both men's complaints about the other (Shepard's arrogance, Glenn's self-righteousness) turning vicious. The two reconcile just before the flight, however.
  • Truth in Television: Glenn's insistence they all be aware of their image and the program's is presented as overly self-righteous, but government organizations like NASA really are extremely publicity-conscious for fear that negative headlines or a scandal raise questions in Congress that could affect their funding. A messy public divorce was considered one of the reasons Donn Eisele never received another mission after Apollo 7, while the postage stamps scandal on Apollo 15 really did result in a Senate investigation against both the crew and NASA management.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Shepard explodes at Glenn for getting Powers involved in quashing the newspaper story about his fling - a story Shepard was responsible for, had specifically asked Glenn to get involved with, and which Glenn couldn't have stopped without getting the editor's details from Powers.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Glenn is on the receiving end of a number of these as he starts going further and further in trying to secure the "first man in space" role for himself. He gets an undeserved one from Shepard for informing NASA of a scandal involving Shepard which triggers him to actively start campaigning against Shepard. His wife gives him a short speech when she discovers the letters he is planning to send out and gives him the cold shoulder when he disregards her advice. Gilruth then comes in furious that Glenn's actions are jeopardizing the space program itself and tells him exactly what he thinks of him.