75: The Right Stuff
The 1983 film The Right Stuff is considered by many to be an epic masterpiece. Set before the Apollo program, The Right Stuff tells the story of the first astronauts in the United States and the race to get into space.
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- The Right Stuff (film) – Wikipedia
- The Right Stuff Movie Review & Film Summary (1983) | Roger Ebert
- The Right Stuff (1983) – Box office / business
- The Right Stuff (1983) – Synopsis
- The Right Stuff (1983) – Full Cast & Crew – IMDb
- The Movie Timeline: The Right Stuff
- An Oral History of the Epic Space Film The Right Stuff | WIRED
- ‘Hidden Figures’: ‘The Right Stuff’ vs. Real Stuff in New Film About NASA History
- The Right Stuff: authenticity that’s out of this world | Film | The Guardian
- The Right Stuff: Tom Wolfe: 9780312427566: Amazon.com: Books
- Meet Chuck Yeager, an American legend
- 6: “The Right Stuff” – 10 History Movies That Mostly Get It Right | HowStuffWorks
- Thoughts on ‘The Right Stuff’ movie and it’s historical inaccuracies : space
- Crashed and burned: The legacy of The Right Stuff | Books | The Guardian
- ‘THE RIGHT STUFF’ – FROM SPACE TO THE SCREEN – NYTimes.com
- Amazon.com: Yeager: An Autobiography (9780553256741): Chuck Yeager: Books
- Breaking the Sound Barrier with an Aircraft
- Chasing The Demon In The Sky – On Autopilot | Science 2.0
- Supersonic Speed Demons: Breaking the Sound Barrier – ABC News
- Chuck Yeager – the first person to break the sound barrier. And he did it with two broken ribs
- Chuck Yeager – Pilot, Military Leader – Biography.com
- Chuck Yeager – WW2 Mustang ace who later broke the sound barrier
- ACE IN A DAY
- 12 October 1944: Chuck Yeager downs five – becomes an “Ace in a Day”
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- Chuck Yeager: First Person to Break the Sound Barrier
- Chuck Yeager Press Conference, 1953 | Air & Space Magazine
- Astronaut Bio: Gordon Cooper
- Gordon Cooper – Wikipedia
- L. Gordon Cooper Oral History
- Astronaut Gordon Cooper Witnessed UFO Land | UFO Research Network
- Maj Leroy Gordon “Gordon” Cooper, Jr (1927 – 2004) – Find A Grave Memorial
- NASA – Gordon Cooper Memorialized
- CNN.com – Space pioneer Gordon Cooper dies – Oct 4, 2004
- Astronaut Bio: Gordon Cooper
- Astronaut Gordon Cooper Witnesses UFO Landing at Edwards AFB
- Gordon Cooper – Cooper’s Treasure Cast | Discovery
- Gordon Cooper | American astronaut | Britannica.com
- Gordon Cooper: Record-Setting Astronaut in Mercury & Gemini Programs
- Astronaut Bio: Gordon Cooper
- Sputnik 1 – Wikipedia
- Astronaut Bio: Virgil I. Grissom
- The Mercury Astronauts | NASA
- Project Mercury – Wikipedia
- Project Mercury – America’s First Astronauts | NASA
- Clipped from:
- Gus Grissom: 2nd American in Space
- Gus Grissom vs. the Media: Victim or Hero?
- Gus Grissom – Wikipedia
- Gus Grissom – Astronaut – Biography.com
- Pancho Barnes – Wikipedia
- Post Launch Report for Mercury-Atlas No. 1 | Project Mercury | Instrumentation
- This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury
- Mercury Crewed Flights Summary | NASA
- Mission Transcripts – Mercury
- Mercury 4 transcript starting at 00 00 11 42 on Spacelog
- CNN – Liberty Bell 7 capsule raised from ocean floor – July 20, 1999
- The Story of Pancho Barnes
- Gherman Titov, First Human to Spend Over 24 Hours in Space – Sputnik International
- Gherman Titov – Wikipedia
- Chuck Yeager and the NF-104 Starfighter crash – Framework – Photos and Video – Visual Storytelling from the Los Angeles Times
- Lockheed NF-104A (56-0762)
- 6 December 1963 – This Day in Aviation
- Crash of the NF-104A
- Yeager & the NF-104
- Launch of Mercury-Redstone 3 Freedom 7 With Alan Shepard – YouTube
- Liberty Bell 7 – Full Mission – YouTube
A couple weeks ago, Harrison Ford reprised his role as Rick Deckard in the new film, Blade Runner 2049. Of course, that’s the new film in the universe established by his classic film from the 1980s, Blade Runner.
That’s not the first time Harrison Ford has brought a role from earlier in his career back to the big screen. In 2015, he reprised his role as Han Solo in the resurrection of the Star Wars franchise with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
But even that wasn’t the first role Harrison Ford brought back an older role. And since you’re a movie fan, I know you already know what other Harrison Ford franchise I’m referring to.
In 2008, Harrison Ford brought Indiana Jones back to the screen in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Love it or hate it, Crystal Skull was a reunion of sorts of the original Indiana Jones crew from the 1980s classic films we all know and love.
Well…not the entire original Indiana Jones crew.
2008’s reintroduction to the clever archaeologist to the silver screen was written by a combination of George Lucas, of course, along with Jeff Nathanson, who wrote the screenplay for another movie we’ve looked at on this podcast, Catch Me If You Can. Jeff and George worked on the story while it was developed into a screenplay by David Koepp—he’s the guy who wrote the screenplay for the original Mission Impossible and Jurassic Park films.
Neither Jeff Nathanson nor David Koepp worked on the original Indiana Jones movies.
In fact, the story for the very first Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark was written by two men. One of them was, of course, George Lucas. The other was Philip Kaufman.
When Raiders of the Lost Ark was released in 1981, it was an instant success. But even though the next Indiana Jones film used many of the characters Philip helped write with George Lucas, he didn’t work on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Instead, Philip went to work on adapting a book by Tom Wolfe to the big screen—a movie that Philip would direct himself.
1983’s The Right Stuff was made for only about $27 million. That’s about $9 million more than the first Indiana Jones movie cost.
So let’s blast off into the cosmos as go behind the stories we saw in The Right Stuff.
The true story behind The Right Stuff
The Right Stuff is essentially a collection of different stories strung together to tell the overarching story of the United States’ race to get into space.
It begins with black and white footage flying through the clouds. Levon Helm’s narration explains that there’s a demon in the sky. It appears when you hit Mach 1, or 750 mph and makes your plane disintegrate—they call it the sound barrier.
750 mph is about 1200 km/h, by the way.
This first story told on screen is the story of Chuck Yeager, who’s played by Sam Shepard in the film.
According to the movie, in October of 1947, Chuck Yeager was already an ace pilot. There’s a shot in the movie as we see Sam Shepard’s version of Chuck Yeager at a bar as a couple of the patrons mention that Chuck shot down five German pilots in a single day during World War II.
That’s true, but there’s more to the story.
In fact, Chuck Yeager’s story is one that could be an episode in and of itself—actually, you could easily make an entire podcast series of Chuck Yeager stories—but before we get to the story of Chuck Yeager becoming an ace pilot, though, it’s helpful to clarify some pilot terminology.
A “flying ace”, or just “ace” is a term for pilots that’s been around about as long as aerial combat. It was first coined during World War I, around 1915 or so. Initially, it just meant what you’d think—someone who was a really good pilot. In particular, the first reports we have of it being used were for the French pilot Adolphe Pégoud.
He was also the first pilot in history to have five confirmed enemy kills in the air.
Slowly, as more and more pilots came into the picture, the term “ace” started being used only for those who rose to the top…the pilots who made the papers time and time again due to their victories in the air.
Because of its unofficial origins, the term “ace” is something that’s typically reserved for a pilot who manages five or more confirmed enemy kills in aerial combat—the same number Adolphe had when he was called an ace by the papers.
A kill, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean the enemy pilot actually died. Although the percentages of surviving being shot down while you’re thousands of feet in the air are very slim, a kill as far as a pilot is concerned basically means the plane goes down. It’s not like one pilot shoots down another one and then stops to check and make sure he’s dead.
Not an easy feat by any means, but that’s a rough outline of how the term came about.
With that in mind, it makes sense for Chuck Yeager to be called both an ace pilot as well as mentioning the downing of five German pilots—the number he’d need to be called an ace.
Except, according to the movie, Chuck Yeager didn’t only down five enemy pilots during World War II—he did it in one day.
And that is true. Chuck Yeager joined a short list of pilots in history to become an “ace in a day” when he had five confirmed kills on October 12th, 1944. Two of those kills happened without even firing a shot when they collided with each other after Yeager’s movements scared the German pilot into flying into his wingman!
This happened as the newly promoted Lieutenant Yeager was flying along with the 363rd Squadron, escorting a bombing raid over Bremen, Germany. While another squadron stayed behind with the bombers to provide protection, it was the job of Yeager’s 363rd to fly ahead as scouts and also to try to clear the air as much as they could before the bombers got there.
Yeager was flying his P-51D Mustang with the name “Glamorous Glenn II” scrawled on the side, named after his wife, Glennis. This is a description that Chuck Yeager gave in his official after-action report. It was classified as secret, but has since been declassified:
I was leading the Group with Cement Squadron and was roving out to the right of the first box of bombers. I was over STEINHUDER LAKE when 22 Me. 109s crossed in front of my Squadron from 11:00 o’clock. to 1:00 o’clock. I was coming out of the sun and they were about 1½ miles away at the same level of 25,000 feet.
I fell in behind the enemy formation and followed them for about 3 minutes, climbing to 30,000 feet. I still had my wing tanks and had close up to around 1,000 yards, coming within firing range and positioning the Squadron behind the entire enemy formation.
Two of the Me. 109s were dodging over to the right. One slowed up and before I could start firing, rolled over and bailed out. The other Me. 109, flying his wing, bailed out immediately after as I was ready to line him in my sights. I was the closest to the tail-end of the enemy formation and no one, but myself was in shooting range and no one was firing.
I dropped my tanks and then closed up to the last Jerry and opened fire from 600 yards, using the K-14 sight. I observed strikes all over the ship, particularly heavy in the cockpit. He skidded off to the left. I was closing up on another Me. 109 so I did not follow him down. Lt. STERN, flying in Blue Flight reports this E/A on fire as it passed him and went into a spin.
I closed up on the next Me. 109 to 100 yards, skidded to the right and took a deflection shot of about 10°. I gave about a 2 second burst and the whole fuselage split open and blew up after we passed.
Another Me. 109 to the right had cut his throttle and was trying to get behind. I broke to the right and quickly rolled to the left on his tail. He started pulling it in and I was pulling 6″G”. I got a lead from around 300 yards and gave him a short burst. There were hits on wings and tail section He snapped to the right 3 times and bailed out when he quit snapping at around 18,000 feet.
I did not blackout during this engagement due to the efficiency of the “G” suit. Even though I was skidding I hit the second Me. 109 by keeping the bead and range on the E/A. To my estimation the K-14 sight is the biggest improvement to combat equipment for Fighters up to this date. The Me. 109s appeared to have a type of bubble canopy and had purple noses and were a mousey brown all over.
I claim five Me. 109s destroyed.
Ammunition Expended: 587 rounds .50 cal MG.
Charles E. Yeager, 1st Lt, AC.
This might’ve made Yeager an ace in a single day, but it hardly was the first confirmed kill for Chuck Yeager. Throughout his career in World War II, he had a total of 11.5 confirmed kills in his P-51 Mustang.
And that’s not even to mention the time he got shot down over enemy territory, managed to make it back to the U.K. and then spoke to the Supreme Allied Commander directly, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and convinced Eisenhower to let him once again fly missions over enemy territory. You see, at the time there was a rule against letting pilots who had been shot down over enemy territory from flying missions over enemy territory again.
But let’s not get too sidetracked from our story. As I mentioned Chuck Yeager could be an entire podcast series—I’d highly recommend you pick up Chuck Yeager’s autobiography simply called Yeager: An Autobiography to learn more about his fascinating life.
Stay tuned to the end to learn how you can win the copy I bought for researching this episode.
Going back to the movie, there’s a moment where Chuck Yeager is riding horses with his wife, Glennis, when he falls off the horse. Then, the text on screen says it’s October 14th, 1947 when Chuck Yeager—with broken ribs from falling off a horse—makes history by becoming the very first person to break the sound barrier.
That is true, even down to many of the side stories shown in the film. The first one being back in the bar we talked about before when we saw some guys from the Army Air Force trying to convince another pilot they just refer to as “Slick” to fly. Slick wanted $150,000 to fly the X-1, but Chuck Yeager volunteered to do it for free—or at least his normal salary—so they went with Chuck first.
Slick’s real name was Chalmers Goodlin and in the film he’s played by William Russ. He did actually ask for $150,000, which is about the same as $1.68 million dollars today.
Seems like a lot to fly a plane, but of course this was a test plane—the chances of landing safely were slim. So some test pilots had the idea of, at least if they wouldn’t come back their family would be set up for life.
Anyway, that didn’t matter because Chuck Yeager ended up being selected after he volunteered.
Oh, and as a quick little side note here. I couldn’t find a date for when this actually went down—if the selection process between Slick Goodlin and Chuck Yeager happened on the same day or not. But it’s important to point out that there’s a chance it wasn’t guys from the U.S. Army Air Force trying to find a test pilot because on September 18th, 1947, the U.S. Army Air Force officially dissolved at the same time the U.S. Air Force was formed as a separate branch of the military.
Another of the details the movie gets right is when Chuck Yeager tried to cover up the fact that he had broken ribs.
Just like the movie shows, Chuck didn’t want to tell anyone out of a fear that they’d scrub the flight. So he only told his wife along with one of the other pilots in the program, Jack Ridley, who’s played by Levon Helm in the film. Although the movie doesn’t show that in the time between the fall and the flight, Chuck went to a doctor who taped his ribs in an attempt to help with the pain.
It didn’t really help, because by the time Chuck got in the pilot’s seat, he was in excruciating pain. And just like the movie shows, Jack Ridley kept Chuck’s secret and even helped by sawing off a broom handle so Chuck Yeager could close the hatch on the X-1 airplane.
They tested it a couple times on the ground and it seemed to work, so they went with it.
Yet another detail the movie gets right is when it shows the orange Bell X-1 airplane with the name “Glamorous Glennis” on the side. As with all of his planes, and just like the movie shows, the real X-1 was named after Chuck Yeager’s wife, Glennis.
In the movie, Glennis Yeager is played by Barbara Hershey.
And on October 14th, 1947, Chuck Yeager made history by becoming the first person in history to break the sound barrier and go Mach 1—or 750 mph.
Although technically, Mach 1 changes depending on how high you are, but at sea level it’s about 760 mph.
As a little side note, the movie implies that after Chuck Yeager broke the speed barrier, the government tried to keep it a secret. This happens when we see one of the officers stop a phone call from going out to the newspapers to report on Chuck Yeager’s feat.
Initially, the military tried to keep the fact that they’d managed to break the sound barrier secret. It wasn’t until the following year, in 1948, when reports of the event were leaked to the press. Then, faced with insurmountable evidence, the government acknowledged the feat and instantly Chuck Yeager became a household name.
But anyway, if you’re listening to this on the day it’s released then, of course, you’ll probably be able to guess why I decided to tackle The Right Stuff this week. Two days ago was the 70th anniversary of Chuck Yeager’s historical flight.
And, to be honest, I wanted to make this episode special. So I actually reached out to Chuck Yeager—who, as of this recording, is still alive at the age of 94—to see if he’d be willing to come on the show to talk about what it was like.
I really didn’t expect to hear anything back. But I was shocked when I heard back the very next day! He respectfully declined, so I won’t be having him on.
In my own mind, maybe he even listened to an episode or two of the podcast to decide if he wanted to come on the show…not sure what that means since he declined, but I still consider it an absolute badge of honor that I was declined for an interview by Chuck Yeager and maybe…just maybe, he’s listened to the show.
Sorry, if you can’t tell, he’s someone who I read about as a child so I get star-struck simply with a declined interview—haha!
OK, going back to the movie, after seeing Chuck Yeager break the sound barrier, we see Dennis Quaid’s version of Gordon Cooper arrive at Edwards Air Force Base with his family.
While the movie doesn’t really focus on this point, it’s worth pointing out that Edwards Air Force Base was indeed where Chuck Yeager’s flight took place, but in 1947 it was actually called Muroc Army Air Field. That name was just the name of a nearby town, Corum, reversed. In 1949, Muroc Army Air Field was renamed Edwards Air Force Base to honor Captain Glen Edwards, a test pilot stationed out of Muroc who died when his Northrop YB-49 crashed near the base on June 5th, 1948.
As a little side note, if you’re not familiar with the Northrop YB-49, it was a prototype bomber that was basically a flying wing. Have you ever heard of or seen a B-2 bomber? Well, the YB-49 was the precursor to the B-2…and they were flying it back in the 1940s.
…and right now, all of the conspiracy theorists are yelling at me saying, if the Air Force had the technology in the 1940s to develop a flying wing that looks a lot like the triangle-shaped UFOs people have seen, what sort of technology do they have now?
Well, that’s a podcast for another day…haha!
Anyway, the character that Dennis Quaid plays in the movie, Gordon Cooper, was indeed a real person and someone who those UFO fans are probably familiar with…after all, the real Gordon Cooper claimed to see UFOs over his career and went to his grave in 2004 holding onto the belief that the U.S. government was covering up facts about UFOs.
As a fun little side note, Gordon was born in 1927, just a few minutes away from where I live in Shawnee, Oklahoma—just outside my hometown of Oklahoma City.
But the movie’s timeline seems to be a little bit off. We can clearly see the text on screen as Dennis Quaid’s version of Gordon Cooper arrives at Edwards saying that it’s 1953.
However, according to NASA’s biography of Gordon Cooper, he didn’t arrive at Edwards until a few years later.
This is straight from NASA’s bio:
Cooper, an Air Force Colonel, received an Army commission after completing three years of schooling at the University of Hawaii. He transferred his commission to the Air Force and was placed on active duty by that service in 1949 and given flight training.
His next assignment was with the 86th Fighter Bomber Group in Munich, Germany, where he flew F-84s and F-86s for four years. While in Munich, he also attended the European Extension of the University of Maryland night school.
He returned to the United States and, after two years of study at AFIT, received his degree. He then reported to the Air Force Experimental Flight Test School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, and, upon graduating in 1957, was assigned as an aeronautical engineer and test pilot in the Performance Engineering Branch of the Flight Test Division at Edwards. His responsibilities there included the flight testing of experimental fighter aircraft.
That acronym—AFIT—that the bio mentions is the Air Force Institute of Technology. That’s located at the United States Air Force headquarters at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.
But Gordon Cooper isn’t the only one that the movie shows at Edwards before they actually got there.
Remember that scene in the film where Dennis Quaid’s version of Gordon Cooper is grilling out with some other pilots? Then an airplane soars overhead and they mention it’s Scott Crossfield flying a D-558 phase 2.
The other pilots at the cookout with Gordon are Deke Slayton and Gus Grissom. Deke is played by Scott Paulin in the film and Gus is portrayed by Fred Ward on screen.
Like Gordon Cooper, the timeline of NASA’s official biographies for Deke Slayton and Gus Grissom don’t really line up with this. Deke Slayton was assigned to Edwards in 1955 with both Gordon Cooper and Gus Grissom arriving the following year.
Oh, and neither Gordon Cooper or Gus Grissom trained at Langley Air Field—so Dennis Quaid’s version of Cooper in the film would be incorrect in remembering their time together at Langley.
But the movie is correct in showing that Scott Crossfield flew his Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket airplane more than twice the speed of sound, Mach 2, at Edwards Air Force Base. That was another record-breaking moment as it was the first time someone had flown Mach 2. It happened on November 20th, 1953. So that part did happen, it’s just that the three test pilots weren’t watching at the time.
By the way, Mach 2 is about 1,290 mph or about 2076 km/h.
As a fun little trivia fact for you, after this moment in the movie there’s a scene back at the bar where we see Scott Crossfield celebrating his achievement. There’s a guy who comes to Scott’s table with a plate of food. He says it’s compliments of Pancho’s—the name of the bar…we’ll get to that later—to which Scott Wilson’s version of Scott Crossfield says, “Thank you, Fred.”
Well, the guy playing Fred in The Right Stuff is none other than the real Chuck Yeager. It’s a brief cameo, but if you look closely at about 36 minutes and 50 seconds into the movie, you’ll see him. Then you’ll see him again a minute or so later as Sam Shepard’s version of Chuck Yeager dances with his wife in the bar. You can see the real Chuck Yeager in the background.
Of course, you’d have to know it was him to know where to look. And now you do.
The next major plot point happens, according to the movie, also in 1953. December 12th, 1953, to be precise. Chuck Yeager is again flying to become the fastest man alive by breaking the Mach 2 record set by Scott Crossfield only about a month before. To fly Mach 2 and beyond.
The movie doesn’t show exactly how fast Chuck Yeager went this time, but we see the Mach Meter near 2.5 before Chuck blacks out and the plane starts to fall from the sky.
That’s very accurate.
In truth, Chuck Yeager, who was a Major at this point, flew an updated version of the X-1. This was the Bell X-1A rocket plane that had a theoretical top speed of Mach 2.3. Of course, no one had flown it that fast—that’s just what the engineers thought it could top out at.
By the time Major Chuck Yeager hit Mach 2.44, the fastest any man had ever traveled before, he was about 80,000 feet above the ground. That’s about 24,000 meters or over 15 miles above the ground.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, space is about 62 or so miles above the earth. Technically it’s not like there’s a wall out there so it’s not like 61.9 miles you’re in the atmosphere then 62.0 you’re in pitch black space, but anyway, there was plenty of sky between Major Yeager’s airplane and space.
But…there was also plenty of sky between Major Yeager’s airplane and the ground.
So when the rocket engine keeping him up in the sky shut down, it only took 51 seconds for his plane to lose 51,000 feet of that altitude.
In less than a minute, Major Yeager went from over 15 miles and 80,000 feet, or 24,000 meters, above the ground to about 5.5 miles and 29,000 feet, or about 8,800 meters above the ground.
That’s a rate of about 1,000 feet per second meaning in another 29 seconds, Major Yeager’s X-1A would’ve shattered all over the ground.
And the movie correctly shows that during his attempts to regain control, Major Yeager’s head cracked the plane’s canopy with his helmet.
Afterward, he’d joked about the near-death situation saying that he would’ve used the X-1A’s ejection seat…if it had one.
So as you can probably guess, the movie also correctly shows that Major Chuck Yeager managed to recover in time and land his plane safely back at Edwards.
After this, back in the movie, we see a few brief and purposely vague shots along with some text on screen that reads Star City, Russia, October 4th, 1957. Then we see a conference room full of men and someone bursts into the room saying, “It’s called Sputnik!”
Of course we don’t know if this particular scene is true—we don’t know a lot of details about the stuff that happened behind closed doors at top secret levels of the government—but the basic gist is true.
October 4th, 1957 was indeed the correct date for the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. It was the world’s first artificial satellite to make it into space.
At only about 23 inches, or 53 centimeters, in diameter, Sputnik was pretty much just a small, round metal sphere with four long sticks coming out of it. Those sticks were antennae that sent periodic pulses. Because Sputnik only made it into low earth orbit, those radio pulses could be heard by everyone in the world.
Remember there was no internet in 1957. But there were people with short wave radios, and anyone with a short wave radio could hear the chirping beeps that Sputnik sent out.
This is just my speculation, but I’d imagine many people didn’t know what it was at first. But then, slowly, as you hear your neighbors talk about it. They heard it on their short wave radios, too. It was mechanical, precise. Not like anything you’d heard before. That alone would help ensure everyone in town would start talking about it.
It’s no wonder that this sort of technology caused a panic in the U.S. government. And that’s exactly what it did—it kickstarted a new priority for the U.S. As the movie correctly implies, it was a mad rush to get to space—the space race.
The movie doesn’t really mention how long the training takes, but after a few sequences of seeing various test pilots going through rigorous training, we see a press conference. According to the film it’s April 9th, 1959 and seven Americans are introduced as astronauts. They are, according to the movie, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Leroy G. Cooper, Donald Slayton, John Glenn Jr., Malcolm Carpenter, Alan Shepard Jr. and Walter Schirra Jr.
That is all true.
According to NASA’s official documents, it was indeed on April 9th, 1959 when NASA’s very first administrator, Dr. Keith Glennan, issued a press conference in Washington, D.C. as he announced the United States’ very first astronauts—the Mercury Seven or, as they’re sometimes referred, the Original Seven.
By the way, the movie never really mentions the guy’s name who makes the announcement. According to the film’s credits, he’s just “Head of Program” and played by John P. Ryan. The real person who made the announcement, Dr. Keith Glennan, isn’t a character in the movie. But that’s probably because this “Head of Program” character is used throughout the film for various roles as the…well, head of the space program.
And while we’re on the subject of names, the Leroy Cooper I mentioned earlier is the person we’ve been calling Gordon Cooper. There were quite a few nicknames, so it can get kind of confusing at times, but NASA documents refer to him as L. Gordon Cooper.
Comparing the names the movie gives to the way NASA officially refers to them, there’s very little difference though.
M. Scott Carpenter, Walter M. Schirra Jr., and Alan B. Shepard Jr.; three Air Force pilots, L. Gordon Cooper Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton; along with Marine Corps aviator John H. Glenn Jr.
In the film, we have Charles Frank playing Scott Carpenter, Lance Henriksen playing Walter Schirra, Scott Glenn playing Alan Shepard, of course Dennis Quaid playing Gordon Cooper, Fred Ward playing Gus Grissom, Scott Paulin playing Deke Slayton and Ed Harris playing John Glenn.
Going back to the movie, after we’re introduced to the astronauts, there’s a bit of text on screen that says it’s Cape Canaveral, two months later. So that’d be June of 1959.
By the way, Cape Canaveral is about an hour outside of Orlando, Florida, and is the home of the Kennedy Space Center. Well, that’s what it’s called now. That’s a name it was given on November 29th, 1963, just seven days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
In 1959, it was the Marshall Space Flight Center.
Anyway, in the movie, we see a few different sequences of rockets launching and then blowing up. There’s no one on them—we know this because we can see the Mercury astronauts watching—but the storyline here that the film is getting across is simply that there was a lot of failure. There were a lot of rockets launched that exploded before NASA got it right.
All of that is true, and while the movie eludes to the name from time to time, what it’s referring to here was Project Mercury. According to NASA’s official documentation, Project Mercury was launched on October 7th, 1958, about six days after the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was reorganized and renamed to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
While the movie focuses on the search for astronauts first, it’s not like NASA was waiting on their development of the spacecraft to deliver the astronauts into space while they searched for the right candidates.
Well, as you can probably imagine, there were indeed a lot of failures before successes.
The basic idea for Project Mercury was to repurpose designs from intercontinental missiles so they could put a space capsule on top with, as the movie implies, the idea that the astronaut is in the capsule.
But the timing in the movie seems to be a bit arbitrary. In June of 1959 they were running rocket tests, but it’s not like they started in June. Nor did they end in June. According to This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury by Loyd S. Swenson Jr., James M. Grimwood and Charles C. Alexander:
Few people outside the military-industrial teams working on the Atlas could have known what was happening in the ICBM program in mid-1959. The fourth and supposedly standard version of the Atlas ICBM, designated the Atlas D, rapidly supplanted the third development version, called Atlas C, during the summer of 1959. Earlier A and B models, fired in 1957 and 1958, had phased through C and into D concurrently.
The Air Force had committed itself in December 1958 to supply NASA with standard Atlas Ds for all Mercury missions. The first installment on this commitment came due in September, at the same time that the weapon system was to prove itself operational. Since April 14, 1959, when the first series-D missile exploded 30 seconds after liftoff, only four other Atlas Ds had been launched, the second and third of which were partial failures or partial successes, depending upon one’s point of view.
If you recall, the press conference we saw in the movie announcing the astronauts was on April 9th, 1959 and it’d appear just a few days later the first Atlas-D missile exploded a few seconds after liftoff. So why the movie picks up the story two months after the April, 1959 press conference seems a bit odd.
Oh, and if you want to read the book that comes from, there’s a digital version of the book published for free over on NASA’s website. As always, I’ll add that to the links for this episode over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com.
Back in the movie, the next big event happens when we see a few vague events happening along with text on screen indicating it’s Star City, Russia. There’s no date mentioned, but after this we see a young Jeff Goldblum running down a non-descript hallway. He bursts into a conference room and mentions they’ve got a man up there—Gagarin.
First, let’s explain Jeff Goldblum’s role. If you recall, he was also one of the men alongside Harry Shearer who recruited the astronauts. This little running gag of him…well…running down the hallway to burst into a conference room every time the Russians one-up the Americans in the space race seems to be just that, a gag. And since both Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer are simply cast in the movie as “Recruiter”, and since there’s no real indication about why the same recruiter would now be a messenger, it’s probably safe to say they’re fictional characters.
What’s not fictional is Star City, Russia.
That’s what people called the location of the training center in Moscow for the Soviet space program. Technically it was called the Cosmonaut Training Center and was based just outside of Moscow proper in a city of its own built specifically for the center, Star City.
The name that’s mentioned by Jeff Goldblum as he burst into the room, Gagarin, is also based in truth. His full name was Yuri Gagarin and became the first human being to fly in space when he orbited the earth on April 12th, 1961.
As a little side note, the Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City would officially be renamed the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in 1969 to honor Yuri after he was killed in 1968 while piloting a MiG-15 fighter jet. He was only 34 at the time of his death.
On the heels of the Soviets making it into space, the Americans had a new fire lit under them to get someone into space as well. According to the movie, this happens on May 5th, 1961 when we see Scott Glenn’s version of Alan Shepard—after being forced to wait for so long he had to urinate in his suit—get shot up into space before the capsule comes right back down for a short, 15 minute flight.
As odd as that may seem, all of that is true. But there’s more to the story.
What the movie doesn’t mention is that Alan Shepard’s flight into space wasn’t planned for May 5th at first. It was actually planned for almost a full year before Yuri Gagarin’s flight. April 26th, 1960 was the first scheduled launch. Then it was postponed so they could do some more last-minute preparations. The new scheduled date was December 5th. Then January. Then March. Then, on April 12th, 1961, Yuri Gagarin made his flight.
Alan Shepard was so upset, he slammed his fist down on the table hard enough that, for a moment, NASA’s doctors thought he might’ve broken his hand—something that surely would’ve delayed the trip even more.
A new launch date was set for April 25th. Then May 2nd.
Finally, the seventh time was the charm.
At 5:15 AM on May 5th, 1961, Alan Shepard got into the Mercury capsule #7 which he affectionally renamed Freedom 7 for his trip to space. The target launch time was 7:20 AM, so while the movie makes it seem like he wasn’t expecting to be in the capsule for hours, in truth he knew going into it that he’d be in there for at least a couple hours.
But the movie is correct in showing that he didn’t expect to be in there for as long as he was.
You see, he didn’t launch at 7:20 AM. About fifteen minutes before he was scheduled to launch, NASA decided to postpone the flight for an hour so they could let cloud cover pass. Since the flight was only supposed to be about 15 minutes, they wanted to make sure they could get some good photos of earth without the clouds.
As the two hours he’d already waited turned to three, Alan found the coffee and orange juice he’d had alongside his big breakfast of steak, eggs and toast was coming back to haunt him.
Just like the movie shows, the crew at NASA told Alan he couldn’t leave the capsule because if he did, they’d have to postpone it yet again. Maybe even go another day—and they’d already delayed way too much for their liking.
And just like the movie shows, Alan didn’t like this…it got so bad that he basically gave an ultimatum. Either let me out of here so I can use the restroom or I’m just going to go.
So he did.
But thanks to the spacesuit he was wearing, after waiting for a few more moments, NASA’s scientists concluded the oxygen flowing through the suit dried the urine enough that they could continue the countdown.
Finally, at 9:34 AM, about 45 million people around the U.S. got to see Alan Shepard become the first American to blast off into space. Exactly 15 minutes and 28 seconds later, he came back.
In that time, Chuck Yeager’s previous record of Mach 2.44, or about 1,620 mph and 2,609 km/h, was smashed when Alan traveled at speeds up to 5,134 mph. That’s 8,262 km/h.
Going back to the movie, the next up to go into space is Gus Grissom. We see text on screen that says it’s July 20th, 1961, and Dennis Quaid’s version of Gordon Cooper and Fred Ward’s version of Gus Grissom are talking in a bar about how Gus is going into space the next day.
That timing is true, although again the movie doesn’t really mention that Gus’ mission was pushed back as well. Not nearly as many times as the first trip for Alan, but Gus’ launch was initially planned for July 18th. It was rescheduled for the next day after bad weather and pushed back yet again for the same reason.
Finally, Gus Grissom became the second American into space when he launched in the capsule under the call-sign Liberty Bell 7 on July 21st, 1961. His mission lasted a few seconds longer than Alan Shepard’s at 15 minutes and 37 seconds.
According to the movie, after Gus returns there’s some mix-up after his capsule splashes into the water. A retrieval helicopter is awaiting for Gus’ OK to pull up the capsule when the hatch blows, allowing water to start pouring in—making it impossible to recover the capsule.
That’s true, as is the immense amount of conspiracy that surrounded the event. Was it actually Gus Grissom blowing the hatch before he was supposed to? Or was it a malfunction?
Well, let’s lay out the facts so you can make a determination for yourself.
Let’s start with NASA’s official position. This comes from the mission archive on NASA’s website:
Flight successful but the spacecraft was lost during the post landing recovery period as a result of premature actuation of the explosively actuated side egress hatch. The capsule sank in 15,000 feet of water shortly after splashdown. The astronaut egressed from the spacecraft immediately after hatch actuation and was retrieved after being in the water for about three to four minutes.
That doesn’t give a lot of detail. Perhaps because, well, we just don’t know all of the details except for what the one person who was there had to say about what happened.
So let’s get into his details.
This is what happened according to the real Gus Grissom as given in the official NASA report for the Mercury-Redstone 4 mission:
The spacecraft landing in the water was a mild jolt; not hard enough to cause discomfort or disorientation. The spacecraft recovery section went under the water and I had the feeling that I was on my left side and slightly head down. The window was covered completely with water and there was a disconcerting gurgling noise. A quick check showed no water entering the spacecraft. The spacecraft started to slowly right itself; as soon as I was sure the recovery section was out of the water, I ejected the reserve parachute by actuating the recovery aids switch. The spacecraft then righted itself rapidly.
I felt that I was in good condition at this point and started to prepare myself for egress. I had previously opened the face plate and had disconnected the visor seal hose while descending on the main parachute. The next moves in order were to disconnect the oxygen outlet hose at the helmet, unfasten the helmet from the suit, release the chest strap, release the lap belt and shoulder harness, release the knee straps, disconnect the biomedical sensor and roll up the neck dam. The neck dam is a rubber diaphragm that is fastened on the exterior of the suit, below the helmet attaching ring. After the helmet is disconnected, the neck dam is rolled around the ring and up around the neck, similar to a turtle-neck sweater. This left me connected to the spacecraft at two points, the oxygen inlet hose which I needed for cooling and the helmet communications lead.
At this time, I turned my attention to the door. First, I released the restraining wires at both ends and tossed them towards my feet. Then I removed the knife from the door and placed it in the survival pack. The next task was to remove the cover and safety pin from the hatch detonator. I felt at this time that everything had gone nearly perfectly and that I would go ahead and mark the switch position chart as had been requested.
After about three or four minutes, I instructed the helicopter to come on in and hook onto the spacecraft and confirmed the egress procedures with him. I unhooked my oxygen inlet hose and was lying on the couch, waiting for the helicopter’s call to blow the hatch. I was lying flat on my back at this time and I had turned my attention to the knife in the survival pack, wondering if there might be some way I could carry it out with me as a souvenir. I heard the hatch blow—the noise was a dull thud—and looked up to see blue sky out the hatch and water started to spill over the doorsill. I lifted the helmet from my head and dropped it, reached for the right side of the instrument panel, and pulled myself through the hatch.
After I was in the water and away from the spacecraft, I noticed a line from the dyemarker can over my shoulder. The spacecraft was obviously sinking and I was concerned that I might be pulled down with it. I freed myself from the line and noticed that I was floating with my shoulders above water.
The helicopter was on top of the spacecraft at this time with all three of its landing gear in the water. I thought the copilot was having difficulty hooking onto the spacecraft and I swam the four or five feet to give him some help. Actually, he had cut the antennae and hooked the spacecraft in record time.
The helicopter pulled up and away from me with the spacecraft and I saw the personnel sling start down; then the sling was pulled back into the helicopter and it started to move away from me. At this time, I knew that a second helicopter had been assigned to pick me up, so I started to swim away from the primary helicopter. I apparently got caught in the rotorwash between the two helicopters because I could not get close to the second helicopter, even though I could see the copilot in the door with a horsecollar swinging in the water. I finally reached the horsecollar and by this time, I was getting quite exhausted. When I first got into the water, I was floating quite high up; I would say my armpits were just about at the water level. But the neck dam was not up tight and I had forgotten to lock the oxygen inlet port; so the air was gradually seeping out of my suit. Probably the most air was going out around the neck dam, but I could see that I was gradually sinking lower and lower in the water and was having a difficult time staying afloat. Before the copilot finally got the horsecollar to me, I was going under water quite often. The mild swells we were having were breaking over my head and I was swallowing some salt water. As I reached the horsecollar, I slipped into it and I knew that I had it on backwards; but I gave the “up” signal and held on because I knew that I wasn’t likely to slip out of the sling. As soon as I got into the helicopter, my first thought was to get on a life preserver so that if anything happened to the helicopter, I wouldn’t have another ordeal in the water. Shortly after this time, the copilot informed me that the spacecraft had been dropped as a result of an engine malfunction in the primary helicopter.
The postflight medical examination onboard the carrier was brief and without incident. The loss of the spacecraft was a great blow to me, but I felt that I had completed the flight and recovery with no ill effects.
The postflight medical debriefing at the Grand Bahama Island installation was thorough and complete. The demands on me were not unreasonable.
And that’s the end of Gus Grissom’s account of what happened. As you can tell, it’s a little different than what we see in the movie. For example, he mentions two helicopters instead of one.
Something else worth pointing out is that while Fred Ward’s version of Gus Grissom seems to panic a bit trying to get his helmet off in the movie, it certainly doesn’t sound like he was panicking as he tried to get his helmet unfastened. Of course, it’s hard to know for sure, but in the report Gus said after unfastening the helmet that everything seemed to have been going perfect up to that point.
And afterward, the movie doesn’t really spend much time on the fact that Gus himself almost drowned—his suit was causing him to sink and starting to swallow water. Fortunately, he was rescued in time!
About 16 years after the movie was released and some 38 years after Gus’ capsule settled onto the ocean floor, a private expedition funded by Cosmosphere and the Discovery Channel managed to raise the capsule. That was in 1999.
Even with the capsule, no one could determine for sure what happened. One of the men who helped in that expedition, though, was Günter Wendt. Günter, who isn’t in the movie at all, was an engineer who moved to the United States after the fall of Nazi Germany. He was in charge of the crews at the launch pads for NASA throughout the Mercury missions.
The reason I mention Günter is because he had a theory that perhaps the cover for the T-handle that activated the hatch was lost at some point during the mission. Then, maybe all it’d take would be a cord wrapping around the handle to accidentally have it be pulled. Or maybe it was the cold in space followed by the heat of re-entry that caused the handle to contract, melt and activate by accident.
Ultimately, we don’t really know what happened.
According to the movie, this is something that had an effect on Gus Grissom. And while it’s certainly dramatized for the film, the basic gist is true. A lot of people in NASA didn’t believe the hatch blew by itself. They thought perhaps he blew the hatch prematurely and as a result, was directly responsible for the loss of the capsule.
But there’d soon be evidence to help support Gus’ claim that he was innocent.
Going back to the movie, after Gus Grissom’s splashdown debacle, we see a fire that burns the bar back by Edwards Air Force Base to the ground, and Chuck and Glennis Yeager walking through the charred remains.
So throughout this episode, I’ve really just mentioned it as “the bar” as if it doesn’t have a name. Of course, it does, but the movie also doesn’t really mention it’s real name.
Remember when we learned about the real Chuck Yeager cameo and he mentions the food is courtesy of Pancho’s? Well, Pancho’s may have been the nickname for the bar, but that wasn’t it’s real name.
The bar’s real name was the Happy Bottom Riding Club, and it was founded by Pancho Barnes. In the movie, Pancho Barnes is played by Kim Stanley, and the real Pancho was a pilot herself.
She was the founder of the first movie stunt pilots’ union and, in 1930, she broke Amelia Earhart’s speed record.
And as another trivia fun fact for you, Pancho’s grandfather was Thaddeus Lowe. He was the Chief Aeronaut during the American Civil War and formed the Union Army Balloon Corps. For that reason, he’s often referred to as the grandfather of the U.S. Air Force.
But…really, he was Pancho’s grandfather.
After her career as a pilot, she settled onto land she’d purchased in 1935. Then, as the then-Muroc Army Air Base expanded during and after World War II, she opened a restaurant, bar and hotel. That was the beginning of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, which its loyal patrons affectionally called Pancho’s after her.
There’s even a brief moment where Kim Stanley’s version of Pancho mentions she’ll give a free steak to whomever breaks the sound barrier. That’s actually true.
And so is the fire that we saw in the movie.
But, as you can expect, there’s more to the story there.
You see, as Edwards Air Force Base continued to expand, the land that Pancho owned became more and more valuable to the Air Force. It probably didn’t help that the commander of the base who was a friend of Pancho’s ended up retiring in 1957. But even before his retirement, there were some indications that personnel changes in the Air Force that shifted against Pancho’s favor. Of course this is mostly rumors and conspiracies, but many think because the new personnel coming onto Edwards didn’t know Pancho personally, they pushed heavily on her to sell.
But despite the land seemingly being more and more valuable as base’s desire to expand increased, the Air Force only ever offered Pancho next to nothing for the land. She refused. Then, somehow, rumors started to circle around that the hotel at Pancho’s place was actually a cover for a brothel.
Because of these rumors, the Air Force enacted a rule that prohibited airmen from frequenting the Happy Bottom Riding Club. Since that was pretty much everyone that went to visited her club, all of a sudden she didn’t have any patrons. A lawsuit was brought up citing slander, but then something even more strange happened.
With the lawsuit still unsettled, on November 13th, 1953, the Happy Bottom Riding Club was the victim of a fire. No one really knows how it started.
Now if you’ve been listening closely, you’ve probably noticed something a bit wrong with the movie’s interpretation of this story.
Gus Grissom’s flight was on July 21st, 1961. The real Happy Bottom Riding Club caught fire in 1953.
So when the movie shows the fire after Gus’ mission, the timeline is a bit off.
Speaking of which, going back to the movie’s timeline, after seeing Pancho’s burn down we’re whisked back to the space race as we see a young Jeff Goldblum announce yet another Russian achievement. This time it’s Titov.
That’s also true, and it’s something that happened on August 6th and 7th, 1961 when the 25-year-old Gherman Titov became the first human to spend more than 24 hours in space as he orbited the earth 17 times.
And just like the movie shows, it wasn’t until February 20th, 1962 when the United States responded by sending John Glenn up into space in Friendship 7 and would orbit earth three times for a total duration of 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds.
According to the movie, there’s a really strange moment during John Glenn’s mission. I’m referring to the weird particles we see Ed Harris’ version of John Glenn mention.
That is true. In fact, the movie does a remarkable job of using the same sort of words that the real John Glenn used to describe them to NASA back on earth. This is an excerpt from the official NASA report of John Glenn’s Mercury-Atlas 6 mission:
The biggest surprise of the flight occurred at dawn. Coming out of the night on the first orbit, at the first glint of sunlight on the spacecraft, I was looking inside the spacecraft checking instruments for perhaps 15 to 20 seconds. When I glanced back through the window my initial reaction was that the spacecraft had tumbled and that I could see nothing but stars through the window. I realized, however, that I was still in the normal attitude. The spacecraft was surrounded by luminous particles.
These particles were a light yellow green color. It was as if the spacecraft were moving through a field of fireflies. They were about the brightness of a first magnitude star and appeared to vary in size from a pinhead up to possibly 3/8ths of an inch. They were about 8 to 10 feet apart and evenly distributed through the space around the spacecraft. Occasionally, one or two of them would move slowly up around the spacecraft and across the window, drifting very, very slowly, and would then gradually move off, back in the direction I was looking. I observed these luminous objects for approximately four minutes each time the sun came up.
During the third sunrise I turned the spacecraft around and faced forward to see if I could determine where the particles were coming from. Facing forwards I could only see about 10 percent as many particles as I had when my back was to the sun. still, they seemed to be coming towards me from some distance so that they appeared not to be coming from the spacecraft. Just what these particles are is still subject to debate and awaits further clarification. Dr. John O’Keefe at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is making a study in an attempt to determine what these particles might be.
Now your first question might be, how could John Glenn witness three sunrises if he was only in space for four hours? Well, remember, he’s orbiting the earth multiple times. Three times, to be precise. So it’s not a sunrise that happens each morning, but each time he orbits the earth.
And listening to John Glenn describe the particles, I know what you’re thinking. Aliens. Right?
Well, that’s not what NASA determined. While that report was written right after the mission, given time to figure out what the particles were, NASA would officially determine those particles to be ice crystals venting from the spacecraft.
But…as you can guess, plenty of people don’t agree with that explanation.
John Glenn’s mission is the last of space we see in the movie, but it wasn’t the last of the Mercury missions.
On May 24th, 1962, Scott Carpenter orbited earth three times for a total time of 4 hours, 56 minutes and 5 seconds—about a minute longer than John Glenn’s mission.
Then on October 3rd, 1962, Walter Schirra went into space for 9 hours, 13 minutes and 15 seconds as he orbited earth six times.
The movie doesn’t mention this at all, but there was something else that Walter did during his mission. Remember the whole hatch disaster with Gus Grissom’s capsule?
Well, Walter was determined to help provide evidence that it was not Gus’ fault. After he splashed down in the capsule, a helicopter came by to recover the capsule and pick up Walter. But Walter had a different idea. He told the helicopter he’d prefer to have the capsule towed to the carrier with him inside.
So a boat was dispatched from the carrier with a line that was then attached to the capsule. After the capsule was hoisted up to the carrier, Walter manually blew the explosive hatch. As a result of manually blowing the hatch, Walter’s hand was badly bruised which, in many people’s minds, was proof that Gus did not manually blow the hatch because, if you remember, the medical examination of Gus after he landed didn’t show any bruising.
Going back to the movie, we’re with Chuck Yeager again as he decides to try to break yet another record. He can’t be the fastest man alive anymore—no airplane can go the 17,558 mph or 28,257 km/h that Walter Schirra went in his last mission.
Instead, he wants to try and beat the Russian record of a jet flying 114,000 feet. That’s about 43,800 meters. He almost makes it. We see the blue sky turn black as he almost goes beyond earth’s atmosphere as we hear Sam Shepard’s version of Chuck Yeager say he’s at 104,000 with just a few more to go…then the plane’s jet engines shut off and the plane starts to spiral to the ground.
While the X-1 test plane from the beginning of the movie didn’t have an ejection seat, fortunately this one does, and in the movie we see Sam Shepard’s version of Chuck try to battle with the plane before finally bailing out.
That’s true, but there’s a few important details the movie left out.
It happened on December 10th, 1963.
The plane was a Lockheed NF-104A and, in fact, it was the third NF-104A aircraft in existence. Probably the most important detail the movie left out, though, was that just four days before Chuck Yeager took out the third NF-104A for a spin, elsewhere the very first NF-104A set a new altitude record of 120,800 feet—or 36,820 meters. The pilot who did that was another Air Force test pilot by the name of Major Robert Smith.
So that whole thing in the movie about Chuck Yeager wanting to beat the Russian’s record of 114,000 feet? That wouldn’t have mattered.
Although Major Smith did take it so high that the NF-104A’s typical aerodynamic controls weren’t functional anymore. But the plane was built for high altitudes, so it had hydrogen peroxide thrusters in the nose and wing tips to still give some control. Some people refer to those as space controls, because they’re the type of thrusters designed for use in outer space.
Then, on the way back down, Major Smith was able to re-engage the engine to regain control and land safely.
As for Chuck Yeager’s flight, it was quite a bit different than what we see in the movie. While the movie makes it seem like he went out on his own without permission, according to an interview with the real Chuck Yeager that he gave to the Academy of Achievement in 1991, the real story was a bit different than the movie shows.
What really happened was that in the morning, Chuck Yeager, who at this point was the very first commandant of the United States Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School, flew one of the school’s NF-104A planes up to 108,000 feet and successfully landed. Then, after lunch, they wanted to have another go at it. Chuck didn’t even bother getting out of his pressure suit for lunch.
The purpose of these flights wasn’t to try to beat a Russian record, but they were testing the forces on the angle of re-entry into the atmosphere. To do this, they had to run a series of flight tests, basically leaving the atmosphere and coming back down.
But to come back into the atmosphere, you had to rotate the plane to a certain angle. They’d test different angles and measure how long it took for the plane to recover and at what altitude. Typically, after angling for re-entry you’d be able to get the engine to reignite around 40,000 feet. But if that didn’t happen, you’d basically coast into a landing.
This certainly wasn’t the first time that Chuck Yeager had flown the NF-104A. In fact, he was one of the test pilots on the plane before it ever went into production officially.
Anyway, after a successful morning test, the afternoon test didn’t quite go as planned. After hitting about 104,000 feet, or 31,700 meters, he left the atmosphere as expected and started to plot his re-entry. He’d later say he’s not quite sure the reason why, but his best guess was that one of the thrusters on the nose didn’t work and for whatever reason he wasn’t able to get the nose to go down enough for re-entry.
So instead of a successful re-entry to the atmosphere, the plane went into a spin. Try as he might, he couldn’t get control of the plane.
Unlike what we saw in the movie, for the real thing, Chuck was talking to a crew on the ground that was busy recording all of the data. He said he couldn’t get the plane out of a spin and with only about 6,000 feet to spare, he bailed and parachuted to safety while the NF-104A crashed into the ground.
Oh, and by the way, not only is the movie pretty inaccurate with the whole premise of this flight but there’s also a mistake in it. While Sam Shepard’s version of Chuck Yeager is flying, at about 2 hours and 46 minutes into the movie, if you look at the top right side of the frame you’ll see the aircraft that the camera is in in the foreground. It’s only for a split second so you might have to do what I did and go frame-by-frame, but it’s there. And since it’s nowhere else in these shots, I have a feeling we weren’t supposed to see the plane the camera is in.
Anyway, after this, the final scene in the movie comes with text on the screen that says it’s May 15th, 1963. According to the movie that’s when the final Mercury mission takes place as Gordon Cooper lifts off into space.
We never really see him enter space, but watching Gordon’s rocket is how the movie comes to an end.
That is true, but if you remember when Chuck’s crash was then you’ll know the movie flipped these around. The final manned Mercury flight was indeed Gordon Cooper’s flight on May 15th, 1963. But Chuck Yeager’s crash of the NF-104A happened on December 10th, 1963.
So the movie has things a little backward there.
Closing out the movie is some text on the screen that explains the Mercury program is over. Four years later, according to the movie, Gus Grissom was killed along with two other astronauts in an Apollo capsule.
Then it says that for that glorious day in May of 1963, Gordon Cooper was the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen as he completed 22 orbits around the world.
That is all true.
Well, if you want to get technical about it, using the term “that glorious day” might be incorrect. You see, Gordon Cooper’s mission that started on May 15th, 1963, did orbit the earth 22 times like the movie said, but it also lasted for 1 day, 10 hours, 19 minutes and 49 seconds. So technically more than a single glorious day.
But that’s nitpicking.
Sadly, the movie is also correct with mentioning what happened to Gus Grissom.
Along with Ed White and Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom rounded out the crew of the very first Apollo mission as its commander. Then, during a test on January 27th, 1967, about a month before their scheduled launch, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were asphyxiated inside the Command Module after it burst into flames.
But this wasn’t before Gus Grissom became the first American to ever fly into space twice after he went back up as the pilot for Gemini 3.
Today, Gus Grissom is buried at Arlington National Cemetery right alongside Roger Chaffee.
No one has ever been able to determine the source of the fire.
As for the rest of the original astronauts, Scott Carpenter continued working at NASA until 1967 when he resigned. He passed away in October of 2013 at the age of 88, about a month after suffering a stroke.
Gordon Cooper was, like the movie says, the last American to orbit the earth on his own. He’d also go back to space as a part of Project Gemini. Then, after the Apollo program launched, he was a backup to the commander on the Apollo 10 mission. As backup, he didn’t go on the mission but would’ve filled in if the primary couldn’t for some reason. But that also meant he was in line to be the commander of the Apollo 13 mission.
You’ve probably heard of that one. I’ve got another episode covering that movie and the mission.
But Gordon Cooper didn’t end up getting chosen to be commander for Apollo 13, something that frustrated him. He retired soon after in 1970. After his career at NASA, Gordon Cooper became big in the UFO community for his insistence on a governmental-coverup of UFOs that he claimed to have seen.
Oh, and he was also the Vice President of Research and Development for Epcot as a part of the Walt Disney Company.
In 2004, Gordon passed away from heart disease after developing Parkinson’s. He was 77.
Walter Schirra would also go back to space as a part of both the Gemini Project and the Apollo program, joining Apollo 7 as the commander.
He also had a UFO reporting of his own, claiming he saw it while he was on the Gemini 7 mission along with Frank Borman and James Lovell—who is the person Tom Hanks plays in the movie Apollo 13.
But Walter’s UFO reporting wasn’t aliens. You see, it was Christmas. So he reported a UFO as a joke to imply he was seeing Santa, then started playing Jingle Bells on a harmonica he’d smuggled on board.
After his career in NASA, Walter joined CBS as a consultant and was one of the anchors covering the Apollo 13 mission.
Walter passed away in 2007 after a heart attack. He was 84.
After his Mercury mission, Alan Shepard was in line to be the first in the subsequent space program, Project Gemini. But after having about 20% of his thyroid removed during an operation after doctors found a lump there, he was pulled from the mission.
But he would end up going back to space as the commander of the Apollo 14 mission.
In the movie, Scott Glenn’s version of Alan Shepard is seen as a promiscuous person, but that’s something that we just don’t know. The book that the movie is based on talked about it, sure, but Alan’s real wife never dug into the issue. If there were affairs, she didn’t seem to want to know.
He retired from NASA in 1974 and devoted most of the rest of his life to spending time with his family. He passed away in 1998 after a two year fight with leukemia. 35 days later—exactly five weeks—Alan’s wife, Louise, passed away from a heart attack.
Deke Slayton was the only of the original Mercury Seven to not get to go to space during the Mercury missions. His flight had been scheduled for May of 1962, as the fourth of the seven planned flights, but NASA’s doctors raised concerns over his heart. For that mission, Scott Carpenter replaced Deke and eventually NASA decided not to let Deke fly at all.
After years of trying to bolster his health by dropping smoking, coffee and alcohol—well, most alcohol…he didn’t go completely dry—in 1975, Deke Slayton finally got to go to space. He joined two other American astronauts as they met two Soviet cosmonauts in space. On their return flight, a switch was accidentally flipped that sent fumes into the cabin.
As you’d expect, all three astronauts were sent to the hospital for a checkup. Nothing came of the fumes, but during the checkup they found a lesion on Deke’s lung. It was removed, but Deke never returned to space again.
Despite this, he retired from NASA in 1980 making him, as of this recording, the longest-serving astronaut in U.S. history with 23 years of service.
He passed away in 1993 at the age of 69 after a year-long battle with a brain tumor.
The last of the original seven astronauts in the Mercury program was John Glenn.
He never went back to space because, according to NASA’s administrator at the time, after John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, he became a national hero. They didn’t want to risk sending him back up again.
In 1964, he resigned from NASA and immediately began a political career as a member of the U.S. Senate from Ohio—his home state. He served in the U.S. Senate from December 24th, 1974 until January 3rd, 1999.
John Glenn passed away just last year, on December 8th, 2016. He was 95.
That brings us to Chuck Yeager. He wasn’t a part of the Mercury missions because, as the movie correctly states, he never had a college degree. And since NASA required a college degree for astronauts, Chuck could never be one. Which is interesting because after his time as a test pilot, as we learned earlier, Chuck became the first commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot school. Basically, he trained astronauts. He couldn’t be an astronaut himself because of the technicality of not having a college degree, but he could train them.
He became General Chuck Yeager in 1969 after being promoted to the rank of brigadier general. He held that rank until he retired from the Air Force in 1975 after 33 years of service.
Sadly, Glennis Yeager passed away from cancer in 1990. 13 years later, in 2003, General Yeager remarried to Victoria Scott D’Angelo, an actress whose sole acting credit on IMDb is from 1985’s Harrison Ford movie, Witness.
And so, our story today that began with Harrison Ford seems to have come full circle.
Today, General Yeager, who is 94 as of this recording, and his wife, Victoria, are living in California.