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316: This Week: The Pride of the Yankees, Gods and Generals, The Right Stuff

In this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in these movies: The Pride of the Yankees, Gods and Generals, and The Right Stuff.

Events from This Week in History


Birthdays from This Week in History


Movies Released This Week in History

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

April 30th, 1939. New York, New York.

Our first movie this week fades up from black to show the entrance of Yankee Stadium. Immediately we can tell the film is in black and white, and a huge crowd of people are outside the stadium. They’re walking away as if a baseball game just ended in the stadium, and everyone is heading home. To do that, they’re taking cars in front of the stadium that look like cars you’d expect to see in 1939.

The camera cuts closer to one of the cars as two guys, both in suits and donning different colored fedoras. They’re talking about the game.

“You call that baseball?” the shorter man says to the other.

He scoffs, “Gehrig booted the game. Threw it right down the drain!”

They both continue chatting about how terrible the game was as they get into the car.

The movie cuts to inside the Yankees locker room just as the players start filing in. Similarly, they’re disappointed in the game. It’s probably safe to say the game was a loss.

As the players enter the locker room, the camera focuses on one of the men who says the same thing as the guys outside, about how the game was just booted away. This must be the pitcher who is upset at the loss, because he’s talking about how he didn’t get any support out there.

The camera is focused on the pitcher, and next to him is another man. The locker room says the name Bill Dickey and even though the movie doesn’t mention this at all, if we hit pause on the movie for a moment we know from history that Bill Dickey was a catcher on the Yankees. And the man playing Bill Dickey in the movie is also Bill Dickey—the real person playing himself in the film.

The pitcher, though, is hard to identify because something else we know from history is that in April of 1939, the Yankees played eight games to start the baseball season. They lost three of those games, and we can assume from the reaction in the film this is one of those losses. In those three games, Lefty Gomez lost one of the games while Oral Hildebrand lost the other two. But none of those characters are cast in the movie.

When we see the back of the Yankees’ pitcher, we can see he’s wearing #16. In 1939, #16 on the Yankees was a pitcher named Monte Pearson. Pearson is also not in the credits for the movie. And we know from history the real Monte Pearson had only pitched in one game for the Yankees in April of 1939. That was against the Philadelphia Athletics on April 24th. And the Yankees won that game by a score of 2-1. Sure, Gehrig went 0-3 that day, but the Yankees overall only got three hits. So, it wasn’t a great day at the plate for anyone on the team…but they still pulled away with the win, which was credited to Monte Pearson.

So, I suppose, we can consider that to be the first historical inaccuracy.

When we hit play on the movie again, though, that bit of nitpicking on accuracy doesn’t really matter to the storyline because when Pearson starts talking about the old man on first base needing crutches, Bill Dickey punches the pitcher.

Just then, Harry Harvey’s version of Yankee’s manager Joe McCarthy and Gary Cooper’s version of Lou Gehrig enter the locker room to see the commotion. They don’t tell him why they got into an argument, but Gehrig tells his teammates to save their fight for the field.

The camera focuses on Gehrig as he walks across the locker room. A closeup on Bill Dickey as he watches his teammate sit down at a small wooden stool in front of his locker on the far end of the lockers. Sitting on the stool, Gary Cooper’s version of Gehrig has a concerned look on his face as he puts his left hand up to his left ear. Does he sense something is wrong?

He reaches down to untie his left shoe. After a moment, he falls over to the ground. His teammates all stand up as if to help, but before they do Gehrig gets back up onto the stool. The other players go back to what they were doing, as if they’re pretending like nothing happened. Sitting on the stool again, Gehrig looks around as if he’s trying to see if anyone noticed what just happened. No one is looking at him anymore.

The movie fades to a newspaper headline that reads: “Baseball World Mystified By Lou Gehrig’s Slump.”

Then it transitions to a montage sequence now. There are five different shots of unnamed people around the city of New York going about their daily life. One man getting a shave, another in a taxi as he and the driver are listening to the radio report about Gehrig, and so on. They’re all talking about how Gehrig will break out of the slump soon. He’s made of iron!

The montage ends with a pennant flying in the wind that says, “Detroit.”

We’re at another baseball stadium as the New York Yankees are visiting the Detroit Tigers. The scoreboard shows the bottom of the fifth inning just ending, and the score is 4-2 in favor of the Yankees. In their away uniforms, the Yankees are coming up to bat in the top of the sixth. Lou Gehrig is in the dugout as he’s clenching and opening both hands. No one else seems to notice, but the camera focusing on him shows there’s clearly something wrong. He holds his hands together and looks down, and while this is my own interpretation of the film it looks like what happens when your hands fall asleep and you’re trying to get them to wake up and have feeling again.

The batter, who we can see is #29, takes a ball. Quick side note, but no one had #29 on the Yankees in 1939.

Oh well, minor nitpick. That unknown Yankees player takes another ball and walks. He goes to first base as the next batter steps into the batter’s box at home plate. Gehrig walks out of the dugout and onto the field. He picks up two wooden bats to swing in the on-deck circle. It’s almost his turn to bat—wait, no, he tried to pick up two bats—but only managed to grab one of them. The other one slips through his hand and falls back to the ground. Gehrig reaches back down to get it, holding onto both bats now as he feels the weight of them in their hand.

From the on-deck circle, Gehrig watches the player currently at bat. We can see the #15 on the back of his uniform. #15 on the Yankees in 1939 was a pitcher named Red Ruffing. Another quick side note, but pitchers actually did hit back then. That day, the real Red Ruffing actually had six at bats. Two hits, too. But he didn’t bat in the lineup in front of Lou Gehrig. He actually batted ninth in the lineup, meaning the leadoff man, shortstop Frankie Crosetti, would’ve been in the on-deck circle while Red Ruffing was hitting.

But, again, I’m nitpicking.

Back in the movie, Lou Gehrig is in the on-deck circle for a moment. Strike two is called. Gehrig looks down at the bats in his hands. At the plate, the batter swings and misses for strike three. That’s the third out, so end of the inning. Gehrig will lead off the next inning. Both teams switch sides and Gehrig walks back to the dugout.

When he gets there, he asks manager Joe McCarthy to take him out of the game. He simply says, “I can’t make it anymore.”

McCarthy asks if he’s sure that’s how he wants it. Gehrig says he is. So, McCarthy calls down to another player on the bench named Dahlgren to go play first base. As the two players pass each other, Gehrig wishes Dahlgren good luck. With that, Gehrig walks along the dugout bench to an empty spot and sits down as the announcer says over the PA, “Your attention. Dahlgren now playing first base for New York, replacing Gehrig.”

The stadium filled with fans start to murmur at the news. The movie focuses on one men in the media box. He says, “2,130 games. 14 years.”

Then, a closeup cut on Lou Gehrig on the bench as the umpire on the field announces, “Play ball!”

His head hangs, focusing on the Yankees logo on his ball cap as the movie fades to black.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie The Pride of the Yankees

That sequence comes from the classic film from 1942 called The Pride of the Yankees, and it shows us a couple events that happened this week in history: Lou Gehrig’s final game in a Yankees uniform, which happened on April 30th, 1939, as well as the first game with Babe Dahlgren replacing Lou Gehrig, which is the game in Detroit that we see. That was May 2nd, 1939.

As you can probably guess, though, the movie is a little unclear about some of the details. It goes from what seems to be a loss with players complaining in the locker room, then it shifts to showing news of Gehrig in a slump before showing the game in Detroit where he takes himself out of the game.

So, let’s unpack what really happened.

The 1939 season started for the Yankees on April 20th against the Boston Red Sox. Starting at first base for the Yankees was Lou Gehrig, just like he’d done since his streak of consecutive games started on June 2nd, 1925. So, the movie was correct to mention that Gehrig played 2,130 consecutive games over the span of 14 years—of a total 17 in his career.

The streak survived some big injuries, like being hit in the head by a pitch on April 23rd, 1933. He was almost unconscious, but Gehrig stayed in the game anyway. Or, in June of 1934, when he was again hit in the head by a pitch during an exhibition game. That time he was unconscious for about five minutes. Having already played up until that point, he left that game but was right back on the field the next day.

That’s why the movie references things like Gehrig being made of iron. Because of his amazing streak, he earned the nickname “the Iron Horse” from sportswriters in the early 1930s, and that nickname stuck with him. Up until that point, the record for consecutive games played was 1,307. Gehrig smashed that and left a record of consistency that lasted for 56 years until Cal Ripken Jr., broke it on September 6th, 1995.

So, back to the 1939 season, when the Yankees started the year at home against the Red Sox on April 20th, it was no surprise to find Gehrig in the starting lineup just as he’d done 2,122 times. That day, Gehrig went 0-4. Not a great day, at all, but it’s just one game so not a concern.

After that, the Yankees went to Washington D.C., to play against the Nationals for a three-game series from April 21st to the 23rd. They won the series, two games to one. In that series, Gehrig went 1-10. No doubt that point, people started to wonder what was happening with their star player. Everyone goes through slumps, but during his career, Gehrig hit .340, so people weren’t used to seeing him go nearly hitless for long.

The reason I point this out is because the film shows the montage of Gehrig’s slump and how people reacted to it—and it is true he was in a slump to start the year.

April 24th and April 25th, the Yankees were back at home against the Philadelphia Athletics for a two-game series. In the first game, Gehrig again went hitless at 0-4. But then there was a glimmer of hope that he’d be breaking out of the slump in the second game as he went 2-4, and his first RBI of the year.

The Yankees won both games, giving them a record of 5-1 so far.

On Saturday, April 29th, 1939, the Yankees again played against the Washington Nationals. This time in New York. They lost that game 1-3, and Gehrig went 1-3 with a walk. On Sunday, April 30th, the Yankees lost the game 2-3, marking the first time in the young season they’d lost back-to-back games. Gehrig went 0-4, dropping his average to .143 on the year.

And this is where the movie deviates from the true story.

It is true that the Yankees played in Detroit against the Tigers next. As I mentioned earlier, that was on May 2nd, 1939, and it was the start of 12 games on the road through the first half of May.

What the movie got wrong, though, was to show that game on May 2nd being in progress when Lou Gehrig was coming up to bat only to take himself out of the game in the middle of the sixth inning.

For one thing, up until that point, Lou Gehrig had been in the starting lineup. He had been hitting fifth in the lineup, although in the movie it shows the game in the sixth inning which means three outs per inning, no matter what that’d mean the lineup would’ve gone all the way through at least once.

And that did happen sometimes in Gehrig’s streak, where he’d join the game as a pinch hitter to keep the streak alive.

But the movie also makes a point to show manager Joe McCarthy calling Babe Dahlgren off the bench to go in for Gehrig. There’s the announcement over the PA saying Dahlgren is replacing Gehrig, and all of that implies that Gehrig has been in the game up until that point. Which means he would’ve been in the field at first base through the first five innings and, since there are only nine players in baseball and a minimum of three of them get to hit each inning for each team—in other words, there’s no way Gehrig would’ve just been going in the game for the first time in the middle of the sixth inning unless the movie was trying to imply he was going in as a pinch hitter.

So, the movie got that wrong.

But, that’s not all the movie got wrong, because in the true story Gehrig didn’t even start that game on May 2nd. After a travel day on May 1st, and on the morning of May 2nd, Gehrig approached manager Joe McCarthy at the Book-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit where they Yankees were staying for their series against the Tigers. Citing his slump and not feeling like he was holding his weight on the team, Gehrig asked his manager to bench him for the game.

McCarthy later told reporters, “I told him it would be as he wished. Like everybody else I’m sorry to see it happen. I told him not to worry. Maybe the warm weather will bring him around. We’ll miss him. You can’t escape that fact. But I think he’s doing the proper thing.”

It is true that Babe Dahlgren went in for Gehrig—he just did so as the starter that day. Gehrig became a spectator of the game for the first time in 14 years, officially ending his streak at 2,130 games.

After the game, reporters clamored to talk to Gehrig about why he wasn’t in the lineup. He was matter of fact about it, saying, “I haven’t been a bit of good to the team since the season started.” But he didn’t expect to be out long, he said he’d be back in a couple games.

And at the time, no doubt fans thought he would be back. It was just a slump. Even the best players have slumps sometimes, right?

The movie was correct to show Eleanor Gehrig being Lou’s wife. As the rest of the baseball world expected to see Gehrig back in the Yankees lineup again soon, she suspected it was more than just a slump. So, she reached out to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. After six days of tests, the doctors determined he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or, ALS, or, as we know it today, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

It’s an incurable disease that leads to paralysis and death. On June 21st, 1939, Lou Gehrig’s retirement from baseball was officially announced with a ceremony held at Yankee Stadium on July 4th, and Lou Gehrig passed away on June 2nd, 1941, at the age of 37.

If you want to watch the event that happened this week in history, check out the 1942 film called The Pride of the Yankees. We started our segment at about an hour and 44 minutes into the movie.


May 2, 1863. Chancellorsville, Virginia.

“It’s confusion, sir!”

An officer delivers this news to his general.

The two men talking to each other are each on horseback, as are the other half-dozen or so men in the background watching the conversation. Everyone is wearing the grey uniform of the Confederates during the United States Civil War. They’re surrounded by green trees, although it’s also obvious the sun is starting to go down as things are getting a little dark in the early hours of twilight.

One of the men, Stephen Lang’s character, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, tells the other officer that he’ll tell General Hill to push forward to keep driving the enemy. Then, a moment later, General Hill rides up and General Jackson does exactly that—he tells Hill to take his division forward. Hill replies that it’s late in the day and they don’t know the ground.

That’s not a good enough excuse, Jackson calls on someone else to help get used to the area and find the rear of the enemy’s position so we can cut them off!

General Hill and a few others ride off while General Jackson and the remaining soldiers turn their horses off the road and go into the woods nearby.

In the next shot, it’s almost pitch black. It seems to be full night now, or maybe part of that is because we’re inside the woods now and the trees are blocking out what little remaining light of the day is left.

Regardless of the reason, it’s dark, but there’s just enough light to see General Jackson and a few other men on horseback walking slowly through the woods. With pistols drawn, look around them carefully—on guard and at the ready in case they encounter the enemy.

Then, they stop. The camera switches to up ahead.

It’s impossible to see anything, but through the dialogue, they’re thinking it’s Federal soldiers who are digging in. Since these men are Confederate soldiers, that’s the enemy. General Jackson points out that sound carries at night, which lets us know they’re not seeing anything but they’re hearing something. Jackson also thinks they might be a ways off. But, they might be closer. It’s hard to tell.

It’s also not worth the risk.

Then, one of the men points out that they’re behind enemy lines.

“This is no place for you, sir.”

Jackson agrees. They’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

“Gentlemen, let us return to the road,” Jackson says, and they all turn their horses around to head back to where they came from. After a moment of retracing their steps, the camera cuts to a row of soldiers raising their rifles.

Then, the silence of the night erupts into a hail of gunfire.

The men on horseback are taken by surprise, many of them falling to the ground under the barrage of fire. Immediately, one of the men on horseback yells at the soldiers shooting at them to stop firing.

“You’re firing at your own men!” he yells. Another yells something similar, alerting the firing soldiers to the fact that they’re shooting at their own men.

Someone yells back, “It’s a lie! Pour into them, boys!”

For a while, the gunfire continues. More men are hit.

When they finally stop shooting, General Hill arrives to see what has happened. It was their own men. Confederate soldiers shooting at Confederate soldiers.

Among the wounded is General Jackson.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie Gods and Generals

This scene comes from the 2003 movie called Gods and Generals, and it shows us an event that happened this week in history when, on May 2nd, 1863, “Stonewall” Jackson was fatally shot by his own men in something that many historians believe might’ve altered the course of the entire war.

We’ll circle back to the reason for that in a moment because the movie actually does a pretty good job of showing the event we’re talking about today.

The battle we see happening in the movie is now known as the Battle of Chancellorsville because it was located around the town of Chancellorsville, Virginia. For some geographical context, the closest large city nearby is Fredericksburg, Virginia, which is about 10 miles or 16 kilometers, to the east of Chancellorsville.

United States General Joseph Hooker was leading a force of about 130,000 men, which he planned to use to trap the 60,000 or so troops commanded by General Robert E. Lee, who was the overall commander of the Confederacy.

On May 1st, 1863, the two sides fought for a few hours before Hooker ordered his men back to Chancellorsville. Faced with a larger force, that evening, Generals Lee and Jackson devised a plan to face the larger force. That plan involved taking their smaller force and dividing it up even more so Lee’s men could keep Hooker’s attention on them while Jackson’s force would flank them.

So, on May 2nd, General Jackson took about 28,000 men and secretly made their way behind enemy lines to swing around behind Hooker’s soldiers. It took most of the day for Jackson’s men to make it around the other side without being noticed, something that surely was helped by Lee’s 14,000 or so remaining men holding their focus the opposite way.

At about 5:00 PM on May 2nd, only two of Jackson’s three divisions were in place for their surprise attack on the right, rear flank of the Union position. The sun would go down soon and it’s not like they had night vision in 1863, so when the sunlight ended so, too, did most of the major fighting.

Jackson had to make a decision about whether or not to launch his attack before the sun goes down or wait until the next day.

In the movie, we see Jackson’s decision to attack being a wild success for the Confederates. And that is true. This is a quote from a military report written by General Robert Rodes of the Confederate States Army about what happened as a result of that decision:

“So complete was the success of the whole maneuver, and such was the surprise of the enemy, that scarcely any organized resistance was met with after the first volley was fired. They fled in the wildest confusion, leaving the field strewn with arms, accouterments, clothing, caissons, and field-pieces in every direction. The larger portion of his force, as well as intrenchments, were drawn up at right angles to our line, and, being thus taken in the flank and rear, they did not wait for the attack. On reaching the ridge at Melzi Chancellor’s, which had an extended line of works facing in our direction, an effort was made to check the fleeing columns. For a few moments they held this position, but once more my gallant troops dashed at them with a wild shout, and, firing a hasty volley, they continued their headlong flight to Chancellorsville.”

What slowed the Confederates more than any resistance from the Union army was nature. Although it’s not that way today, in 1863 that area around Chancellorsville was filled with dense bushes, thorny vines and trees that were some 30-feet tall. That’s over nine meters.

In the movie, we see the darkness of how it looked inside the woods at night, and in reality there were some soldiers who said even at the brightest point of the day the sunlight couldn’t penetrate to the ground—that’s how dense it was.

Between the retreating sun and the dense vegetation in the area, the Confederate army was forced to slow their assault on the Union army. By dawn, the element of surprise would be gone. That’s why, in the movie, we see Stephen Lang’s version of General Jackson urging his men to continue the pressure.

He thought he could use the nearby road, called Plank Road, and the better visibility it provided to continue the pressure on the Union soldiers to keep them on the run. If he stopped the attack, he knew the Union soldiers would fortify their positions overnight and in the morning, they’d be facing a much more difficult task against well-defended positions.

Would Plank Road provide the visibility he needed overnight? He wasn’t sure.

Another man in the cavalry who grew up nearby was called on to give a recommendation. That man, a Private named David Joseph Kyle, told General Jackson there was a smaller road nearby that might work. It was the kind of road in the backwoods that only someone local would know—it wasn’t on any maps. That’d be the perfect place for Jackson’s men to use to pull yet another surprise on the Union army.

Just like we see in the movie, General Jackson and some other soldiers rode ahead. The movie doesn’t mention that they were riding ahead to check out whether or not the place Private Kyle recommended would work or not, but we do see them riding ahead to scout the location—so the basic idea is kind of there.

And similarly, there were some other differences with the details of what happened compared to what we see in the movie.

For example, in the movie, they hear a noise. That really did happen. It was so dark they couldn’t see for sure who or what it was, but it sounded like they were digging in and knowing the Union soldiers were nearby they decided to turn around.

Remember when earlier I mentioned that two of the three divisions under General Jackson’s command were ready for the assault before the sun went down that surprised the Union soldiers? Well, the third of those divisions was under the command of General Hill.

And as it would so happen, General Hill’s men were getting close and with the darkness upon them they also decided to do some scouting around. But unlike General Jackson, Hill and his men didn’t have someone who had grown up locally. So, they didn’t know about the little road that Private Kyle told Jackson about.

Meanwhile, as fate would have it, there actually were a few Union soldiers who got lost in the thick woods. They were found and captured by the Confederates, which left them on high alert for anyone else who might be in the area. When another Union soldier on horseback happened to appear, the Confederates opened fire. But it wasn’t like they opened fire on just that one soldier on horseback. They didn’t know how many there were, so a bunch of Confederates started firing. The more that shot, the more joined in the shooting down the line of Confederates.

Most of the men with General Hill who were scouting were caught in the fire and killed. General Hill himself wasn’t killed, though. Just like we see in the movie, they started shouting for a cease-fire—you’re firing into your own men! But the Confederates in the line had seen the Union soldiers pull a lot of tricks, and since they’d seen a soldier on horseback just moments ago they knew was a Union soldier as well as the others they captured, they thought this was just another trick. So, just like we see in the movie, they shouted back that it’s a lie and more gunfire ensued.

General Jackson’s scouting party got caught in the barrage. He and others were hit. Interestingly, even despite this coincidental turn of events, many historians still think the likelihood of General Jackson himself being hit was very small. After all, it’s not like the muskets of the time were extremely accurate with a great line of sight. And that’s far from what they had in the dark of night in the middle of woods so thick it was reportedly pitch black even in the brightest part of the day.

The movie was also correct to show that Jackson didn’t die immediately, although it doesn’t mention how long it took. After being shot on May 2nd, Jackson was being treated for his wounds and thought to be recovering despite having to have his left arm amputated as a result of his injuries.

He also developed pneumonia as a result of those injuries, which ultimately took his life on May 10th, 1863, at the age of 39.

So, circling back to what I mentioned earlier, why was this event considered a turning point in the Civil War?

The reason for that can be summed up in a single line from an article published in The New York Times back on May 14th, 1863, which said the “rebels have unquestionably lost by far their greatest military leader.”

His military skill was something acknowledged by soldiers on both sides of the struggle, meaning not only did the Confederacy lose his leadership but it was also a massive blow to their morale. As is the case with any war, you’ll never get every historian to agree that there was a single moment to change the course of the entire war. And that’s certainly the case for the death of “Stonewall” Jackson, too, but it certainly did have a major impact on the war.

The overall commander of the Confederate States Army, Robert E. Lee, said of Jackson’s death that he “lost his right arm” leaving historians since then to mark this event as one of the “what if” moments that could’ve changed the shape of history had it gone a different way.

Oh, and that little quote is something the movie shows, albeit the sources I saw mentioned Lee said that after Jackson’s death while in the movie we saw Lee mention it after Jackson lost his left arm.

If you want to watch the event that happened this week in history, check out the 2003 film called Gods and Generals. The event we talked about today starts at about the 4-hour mark in the movie.


May 5, 1961. Florida.

There’s text on the screen telling us we’re at Cape Canaveral.

It’s nighttime. Some lights are being powered on.

There’s a sequence of shots to give us some more context. In the first, we can see a rocket dimly lit against the night sky. Then, a white truck with the words “NASA Transfer Van” written on the side drives by.

Meanwhile, as these shots continue, we hear some voiceover that says it’s been three weeks since Yuri Gagarin’s flight surprised everybody. He goes on to say many people question whether or not we’re ready to send a man into space.

Now we can see who is talking, and it’s a news anchor sitting behind a desk as he’s speaking into the camera. He’s not in a newsroom, but he’s out here in the dark along with everyone else at Cape Canaveral.

He goes on to say that despite the questions, out here in the night sits a rocket. Soon, one American astronaut will climb atop that rocket. Then he points out a new question that everyone is asking: Which astronaut will be first?

Behind him, we can see the white steam from the rocket being highlighted by the lights against an otherwise dark, night sky.

The camera cuts to the astronaut. We can’t see who it is yet, though, because the camera is looking from behind him. All we can see is his helmet and suit as he walks toward the rocket to the claps of the men around him. The camera work cleverly conceals his face, even though we can see his visor is up, as he walks up the red scaffolding surrounding the rocket. NASA workers and people on the ground continue to clap as the elevator takes him up.

Once at the top, the camera focuses on his feet as he climbs into the capsule at the top of the rocket. Inside the capsule, we can see a note taped to the control panel. The note reads:


The astronaut takes it down. Just then, another man peers inside and takes the note with a smile. This is Ed Harris’ version of John Glenn. Now we can tell who the astronaut inside the capsule is: Scott Glenn’s version of Alan Shepard. He laughs about the note. It’s not funny, John, but I do appreciate it. John Glenn shakes his colleague’s hand and smiles.

Then, they close up the capsule and the launch process continues.

From outside, the sun is starting to come up. It’s a beautiful scene with the sunrise in the background and the rocket in the foreground.

The news reporter mentions there’s another hold from NASA. Another delay as Alan Shepard is patiently waiting in the capsule.

Just then, the camera cuts to Alan Shepard who informs the command center of something very important: “I have to urinate.”

Inside, one of the scientists questions this. We didn’t plan for this, it’s only a 15-minute flight! But, he’s been up there for hours waiting. Can he just do it in his suit? That might be dangerous to introduce liquid into the pure oxygen environment. It could cause a short circuit; it could start a fire. No, he cannot urinate.

This is passed on to Shepard.

The movie doesn’t indicate how much time has passed, but from outside we can see the sun is fully up now. Back inside the capsule, Shepard starts fidgeting in a way that I think we’re all familiar with when you have to go but can’t.

The camera cuts to shots of liquid in other areas. The coffee being poured by Alan’s wife and friends. The water cooler in the NASA control center, bubbling up. The sound of the toilet flushing as another NASA scientist exits the restroom.

Shepard can’t hear any of this, of course, but when the camera cuts back to his face we can tell it’s getting more and more difficult to hold it in.

He radios back to the control center: “Request permission to relieve bladder.”

Then, the camera cuts to the control center as they look around at each other.

A brief pause and we can hear Shepard’s voice.



Dennis Quaid’s character, Gordo Cooper, is sitting behind the mic that communicates with Shepard in the capsule. He relays the obvious. Either they let Shepard go, or we get out the lug wrench and pry him out.

The movie doesn’t mention it, but it’s obvious this would cause even more delays.

Finally, they get permission to go in the suit. Cooper relays this to Shepard and we can see a smile crossing Shepard’s face as he relieves himself in the suit. Sensors start going off as the temperature changes in the suit. They ignore the alarms and resume the countdown.

From outside now, we can see the observers turn to watch the rocket as it’s T-minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…ignition!

The rocket blasts off from the ground as NASA ground and command crew cheer the successful launch. We can see the atmosphere outside the capsule window go black as Shepard enters space for a brief moment. Inside the capsule, Shepard counts the G-forces he’s feeling as he re-enters the atmosphere: Eight. Nine. “I’m okay! I’m okay!” he grunts as the capsule shakes and rattles violently.

Then, a band plays triumphant music as we see the capsule peacefully descend to the ground underneath a parachute.

The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie The Right Stuff

That’s a sequence from the 1983 movie called The Right Stuff and it’s depiction of an event this week in history: Alan Shepard becoming the first American to enter space, which really did happen on May 5th, 1961.

And the movie is also true to suggest this was as a direct result of the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin traveling to space. That happened on April 12th, 1961 when he did a single orbit around the Earth, meaning the Soviet Union won what’s commonly been known as the “Space Race.”

That drove the United States to do something as a response. And on April 18th, the U.S. performed their first simulation of a launch for their own spacecraft—the one we end up seeing in the movie. The capsule Alan Shepard was in was called Freedom 7, the number at the end to commemorate the original group of seven NASA astronauts.

Freedom 7 sat on top of what’s called a Redstone rocket—something the U.S. Army first used as a missile.

There’s a lot of the true story the movie doesn’t mention, though. For example, the mission was first planned for May 2nd. Bad weather pushed it back a few days, though, which is partially why they didn’t want there to be any further delays. Not only that, but the movie was also correct to show people watching the launch. There were about half a million people gathered around beaches in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral to watch it and another 45 million or so watching it on TV—including then-President John F. Kennedy.

But, things don’t always go according to plan, and the movie was correct to show that there were delays of the launch on May 5th.

It doesn’t really go into the details of them, though.

The original launch was supposed to happen at 7:20 AM. No doubt eager to make history, Shepard entered the Freedom 7 capsule at 5:15 AM. That’s why it was so dark in the movie.

Oh, and that funny “NO HANDBALL PLAYING IN THIS AREA” sign that we see in the movie? I’m pretty sure that happened based on anecdotal evidence, but it’s also the kind of thing that wasn’t officially documented by NASA. Nor were there any photos of that exact moment, and a sign like that wouldn’t last long—like we see in the movie, it gets taken down pretty fast.

But, the idea behind that joke from John Glenn was that he knew Alan Shepard loved to play the game handball. So, it was intended to relieve the stress of the situation.

If you’re wondering why John Glenn was there when we just learned about seven NASA astronauts, for this particular mission, Alan Shepard was assigned as the primary pilot while John Glenn was the backup—so they both prepped for the flight. That includes the steak and eggs breakfast with coffee and juice they had beforehand, something that would become a tradition for astronauts afterward. They ate that breakfast at about 1:30 AM.

Then, as we just learned, Shepard was in the capsule at 5:15 AM.

Fifteen minutes before the launch was supposed to happen, at 7:05 AM, they decided to postpone the launch to let some clouds pass by. While the rocket could obviously go through clouds, they wanted to photograph Earth from a perspective no American had ever seen before, and clouds would block that. You can find the photo that Shepard took on NASA’s website, something I’ll add a link to in the show notes.

When the clouds passed, a power supply had to be fixed. Another short delay. Then a computer had to be rebooted at the flight center, causing another delay—computers in 1961 didn’t reboot quite as fast as they do today.

By this time, Alan Shepard had been in the cramped Freedom 7 capsule lying on his back for about three hours.

So, that whole sequence with Shepard needing to urinate? Yup, that happened. The original plan was for the flight to last between 15 and 20 minutes, so no one even thought about building anything into the suit to allow for him to relieve himself.

While this is purely my speculation, since they only started the tests and final plans for Shepard’s launch in April, adding the ability for him to urinate in his suit would add extra space, extra weight, extra time to develop, extra everything. So, in my mind, this is the result of the rush in the Space Race.

Alan Shepard had to go.

At first, he asked if he could leave the capsule to hit the restroom. Well, I’m sure he didn’t phrase it like that. But just like we see in the movie, they denied his request.

The reason for that was because leaving would mean they’d have take the time to open the capsule. I saw something in my research that suggested there were 70 bolts sealing the hatch shut, each one having to be opened with a wrench. That would take quite some time. On top of that, they’d also have to redo what essentially amounted to a clean room around the spacecraft. Basically, that would cause another delay.

There had been enough delays.

No, you can’t leave.

So, there was a problem. Without being able to leave, there only seemed to be one solution. Shepard said he’d have to go in his suit.

They didn’t factor this into the equation either. But…what are you going to do?

In the great words of Jeff Goldblum from the movie Jurassic Park: “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

And Alan Shepard went.

Soon after, the countdown resumed and at 9:34 AM, the Redstone rocket with Freedom 7 atop lifted off.

Fifteen and a half minutes later—well, 15 minutes and 28 seconds to be precise—Alan Shepard had experienced an altitude of 116.5 miles at a velocity 5,134 miles per hour.

To convert that to metric, that’s an altitude of 187 kilometers at a velocity of 8,262 kilometers per hour.

In the movie, we see Scott Glenn’s version of Alan Shepard mention the G-forces of eight and nine. In truth it didn’t stop there, because Shepard experienced a maximum G-force of 11.

If you want to watch the event that happened this week in history, check out the 1983 movie called The Right Stuff and the text on screen starting the events of May 5th, 1961 start at an hour, 46 minutes and 40 seconds.

And once you watch that, you can learn even more about the Space Race when we compare The Right Stuff with history on episode #75 of Based on a True Story.



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