Faster, farther, realer: why The Right Stuff is the most authentic space movie ever made

Tom Fordy
Scott Glenn in The Right Stuff - alamy

To play the role of pilot and astronaut “Gordo” Cooper in The Right Stuff, Dennis Quaid really did learn to fly. He surprised director Philip Kauffman and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel with his new skills – by taking off as they sat together in a small plane. “What the f–––‘s going on here!?” Kauffman recalled them saying. “Caleb and I were terrified.”

The real-life Gordo Cooper was a member of the Mercury Seven, the United States’ first men in space. Each of the Mercury Seven troupe had been a test pilot and was specially selected for the US’s competitive (but sometimes losing) efforts against the Russian space program.

Quaid learned to fly to get in the “heads and souls” of those pilots-turned-astronauts, the next generation of American frontiersmen. Quaid was searching, perhaps, for that very thing the film sets out to discover: “the right stuff.”

It's intangible, indefinable even. Is it the willingness to die for your country? The willingness to do it every day of the week, twice on Sundays? The need for adventure and discovery? The natural-born skill and cool to control a plane at 1,000mph and charm an entire country? Or the steely nerves to not – as the film says – “screw the pooch” when the going gets tough? Or is it all of the above? Whatever it is, The Right Stuff – as the title suggests – has it by the rocket-load. 

Released in 1983, it’s a stunningly accurate portrayal of America’s first astronauts – capturing not just the events, but the spirit of the early space program, with as much humility as heroics. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four.

And without that right stuff, there’d be no Tom Hanks stranded in space in Apollo 13; no Bruce Willis and Co tooling up to save the planet in Armageddon; no nerve-shredding weightlessness in Gravity; no Pancho’s Bar in Captain Marvel – named after the pilots’ drinking den on the Edwards Air Force Base; and no Matthew McConaughey bawling his eyes out from beyond the wormhole in Interstellar. (In fact, Christopher Nolan screened The Right Stuff to his cast and crew – “It’s an almost perfectly made film,” Nolan told IndieWire. “It’s one of the great American movies and people don’t quite realise how great it is — probably because it’s four hours long!”)

And there’d certainly be no Space Force on Netflix, or Tom Cruise planning to shoot an action movie in space with NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The cast of Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff - alamy

Based on the book by Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff tells the story of test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) – the first man to break the sound barrier – and the seven pilots selected for Project Mercury: John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen), and Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank).

“What absolutely fascinated me about Chuck Yeager and the astronauts was that they were all in a competition the rest of the world didn’t know about,” said Tom Wolfe. “And they were the embodiment of what was the right stuff.” Beneath the technical rocketry, it’s a tale of pioneering ultra-masculinity – set on the changing backdrop of American history.

Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff – co-producers of The Gambler, Rocky, and Raging Bull – paid the princely sum of $350,000 for the rights to Wolfe’s book, fending off a counter bid from Universal, which planned to turn it into a comedy vehicle for John Belushi.

United Artists wanted to produce, and the legendary screenwriter William Goldman was hired to write the adaptation. Goldman cut out Yeager – the heart, soul, and chiseled jaw of the story. United Artists liked Goldman’s script but Winkler and Chartoff wanted Yeager added back into the action. Goldman refused to do a rewrite. “[He said] it was his job to write a script that the studio green-lighted, he had, he has his million, and he would not write another word,” Winkler wrote in his book, A Life in Movies.

The Right Stuff was then picked up by Alan Ladd at the Ladd Company and Philip Kaufman brought on as writer-director. Winkler considered that Kauffman himself – as writer of the Raiders of the Lost Ark story and director of The White Dawn and Invasion of the Body Snatchers – had “the right stuff” . 

Scott Glenn in The Right Stuff - alamy

Kauffman wrote the new script, reinserting Chuck Yeager and what he would call the “rambunctious” quality of Wolfe’s prose. “I really wanted to find that Tom Wolfe quality, the craziness of the American circus,” Kauffman told Wired magazine. “How the astronauts would be defined publicly by a Life magazine story while the truth was far more interesting, important, and heroic.”

To sell the movie to Alan Ladd, Kauffman created 1,800 panels of storyboards. The cast were selected partly based on their likenesses to the real Mercury Seven crew – man-sized boy scouts with beaming all-American smiles and military issue hairstyles. Ed Harris, the production team later said, was like “John Glenn incarnate”. 

“I read for Phil Kaufman and wasn't very happy about how it went,” Harris told Wired. “Walking out, I hit the wall pretty hard. Phil saw me do that and said, ‘Oh, the guy's got spunk.’”

By the early Eighties, the real John Glenn – the first American to orbit the Earth – was an Ohio senator and was gearing up for a presidential campaign. Glenn reportedly disliked his portrayal in Wolfe’s book. He went to the Pentagon to prevent Nasa from giving the film access to its facilities. Chartoff talked NASA back into it. “We’re American citizens and should have the right to use the facility,” he argued.

For the role of Yeager, Kauffman wanted to cast Sam Shepard. Winkler and Chartoff were resistant, concerned by Shepard’s lack of acting experience for such a prominent role. They had Robert Redford in mind, but the $18 million budget wouldn’t stretch to a star of that magnitude. Shepard himself was unsure. “I felt like it was ridiculous to play a living person,” he told Wired. Kauffman compromised by chopping out the heft of dialogue and accentuating the character’s physicality.

Yeager didn’t have the required college degree for the space program but is the right stuff personified. In real life, Yeager broke the sound barrier in a Bell X-1 in 1947. He did it again in 2012, aged 89. In the movie, he’s like the last true cowboy: beginning the film on horseback, leading his fellow pilots into a new frontier, and standing alone on the sunbaked dustbowl while the Mercury 7 are hailed as heroes – before they've even stepped in a spacecraft.

Yeager acted as technical consultant on the film. He was on set every day, and played pool and drank beer with the cast and crew. Dennis Quaid described it as being “like having John Wayne on the set with you all the time.”

Speaking on a DVD commentary, Robert Chartoff said ideas of heroism had originally attracted him to the project. “The concept of what is heroism?" he said. "What does it mean? And what does it mean in contemporary society?"

Indeed, while The Right Stuff is about all-American heroes (the patriotism is infectious – even for non-Americans), it’s about humanising the heroics. See the much-copied sequence of the astronauts undergoing physical assessments. It’s The Right Stuff’s own training montage – instead of punching meat and running up steps, they’re blowing into tubes and having catheters stuck in them.

There are as many failures as there are successes, with test rockets exploding, arguments with former Nazi rocket scientists, and a PR disaster when the Russians beat the Americans to putting the first man in space (“But who’s going to be the first free man in space?” replies the US, putting some all-American PR spin on it).

When Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) is finally chosen to go into space, he’s waiting on the launchpad for so long that he has to urinate in his spacesuit, as really happened (“Request permission to relieve bladder”).

The film also portrays controversy over Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). After his capsule returns to Earth and lands in the Pacific Ocean, the hatch door blows off early, leaving Grissom to almost drown.

The real Alan Shepard, in 1959 - LIFE/Getty

Did – as Grissom claimed – the hatch door blow by accident? Or did Grissom “screw the pooch” and open the door early? The film takes a diplomatic line on the incident and Ward plays the blow to his ego and integrity masterfully. 

His wife, Betty Grissom (Veronica Cartwright) is upset that because they aren’t rewarded with a high profile trip to the White House like the other astronauts and their wives. All they get as thanks is a fridge-full of beer. (The real Gus Grissom died in 1967 when the Apollo 1 caught fire at a rehearsal launch test.)

The pilots’ wives themselves are a force to be reckoned with in the movie. Sidelined by their husbands’ missions and forced to live under the threat of them being killed each and every time they fly, the wives are formidable in their own way: Glennis Yeager (Barbara Hershey) is every bit as strong as her husband; Trudy Cooper (Pamela Reed) leaves Gordo; and Annie Glenn (Mary Jo Deschanel) rejects the public spotlight because of a crippling stutter. “Isn’t there anyone who can deal with a housewife?!” cries future president Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Donald Moffatt).

Dennis Quaid in The Right Stuff - alamy

The real hero of the piece could be cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who captures the great American landscapes: sweeping Wild West terrain; industrial space stations; even giant Texas barbecues. 

The film’s most iconic shot is of the Mercury 7 strolling down a corridor – decked out in full astronaut gear – to the sound of Bill Conti’s Oscar-winning, western-like score. Like the rest of the film, it's triumphant.

Bond’s John Barry had originally been on board to score the film but couldn’t agree with Philip Kauffman on a creative direction. Blade Runner maestro Vangelis then pitched a score to Irwin Winkler, performing a rendition over dinner on the rims of half-filled wine and water glasses, but ultimately couldn’t go to America to work on the film.

The Right Stuff's big moments, of course, are its thundering flying sequences. For planes and rockets shots, production used highly detailed models, real aircraft, and old school special effects techniques: lifting models with helium balloons, dropping models off a building and reversing the footage, and catapulting models across the sky. For one action scene,  the stuntman Joseph Svec died when his parachute failed to open.

To capture the violent turbulence of lift-off and sound barrier-breaking flight, they used techniques such as attaching a power drill to the camera. Caleb Deschanel remembered shaking a camera around so hard he gave a cameraman a black eye. The defining sequence comes when John Glenn finally makes it into space, dazzled by mysterious "fireflies" – luminescent particles swirling around his capsule (later explained as illuminated frost particles falling off the spacecraft). 

Unaware that there may be a potentially fatal problem with his craft’s heat shield, he’s dazzled by the lights. The real adventure of the movie is personal: rocketing further than mankind has gone before to find their own sense of “the right stuff”.

After a premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, The Right Stuff had immediate critical acclaim. But it was a box office failure, tainted perhaps by its political connection. With John Glenn’s presidential campaign imminent, Newsweek magazine ran a cover with Ed Harris’s face, asking “‘Can a movie help make a president?” “It didn’t,” quipped Winkler in his book.

Having "the right stuff" could be longevity. Almost 40 years later, it remains the best, most influential space film. (Even Dennis Quaid didn't have the right stuff back then. Despite learning to fly, he passed out and puked during shooting flying scenes, while doing barrel rolls with a test pilot.)

Tom Wolfe said “any fool” could risk his life. Having the right stuff meant more than that. “A man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery," he said, "put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment, and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite."

Chuck Yeager – now 97 – put it more simply: "You've got a job. If you get killed, that’s the way it goes.”