Space race continues: How Disney+'s 'The Right Stuff' lifts off from the movie, Tom Wolfe book

Bill Keveney, USA TODAY
·5 min read

Disney+'s "The Right Stuff" is launching into space, just like the namesake book and film that chronicled NASA's Project Mercury, but the familiar trip has a longer timetable and a somewhat different itinerary.

That largely comes through the luxury of an eight-episode first season (streaming weekly starting Oct. 9) that delves more deeply into the lives of the military test pilots who became the first NASA astronauts and concludes with the project's inaugural flight by Alan Shepard. The remainder of the one-man Mercury flights covered in Tom Wolfe's 1979 best seller and the U.S. space program will be depicted in hoped-for future seasons.

As the latest series in a TV space race that includes "For All Mankind" (Apple TV+) and "Away" (Netflix), "The Right Stuff" explores the relationship of the Mercury 7 crew, with a special focus on the rivalry between Shepard (Jake McDorman) and John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), on board the third Mercury flight.

John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), seated between Virgil "Gus" Grissom (Michael Trotter) and Leroy Gordon "Gordo" Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue), speaks at a NASA press conference in Disney+'s 'The Right Stuff.'
John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), seated between Virgil "Gus" Grissom (Michael Trotter) and Leroy Gordon "Gordo" Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue), speaks at a NASA press conference in Disney+'s 'The Right Stuff.'

"Getting into the weeds with who these guys were is something that eight episodes gets to explore in a way that the book could, but any movie just runs out of real estate," McDorman says.

"This doesn't just stop with the seven men. It (highlights) their wives and the people who were instrumental in starting NASA, like Bob Gilruth and Chris Kraft, defining what an astronaut was going to be," says McDorman ("Murphy Brown"), who listened to Dennis Quaid, a star of Philip Kaufman's 1983 film, narrate an audio version of Wolfe's book as he drove to the set in Florida.

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The series won't track Chuck Yeager, portrayed in the book and and film as the greatest test pilot of all, but includes the Mercury 13, a group of female pilots who went through the same physiological tests as the eventual astronauts but weren't featured in the earlier projects.

Excluding Yeager "was a hard choice to make," says executive producer Mark Lafferty, who adds that the series is based on "a little bit of the movie, much more of Tom Wolfe's book and a great deal of outside research.

"Chuck Yeager, in the book and movie, didn't really interact with the astronauts. He doesn't touch the larger narratives of our core group of astronauts. He wasn't interested in going to space."

It's important to tell the story of the women of the Mercury 13, as personified by real-life pilot Jerrie Cobb (Mamie Gummer), especially at a time when the culture is paying more attention to people who have not received their due historically, Lafferty says.

Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), right, receives word that he's going to be part of Project Mercury as his wife, Louise (Shannon Lucio), listens in the Disney+ series, 'The Right Stuff.'
Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), right, receives word that he's going to be part of Project Mercury as his wife, Louise (Shannon Lucio), listens in the Disney+ series, 'The Right Stuff.'

"If the show goes on to future seasons and covers ground outside the bounds of Wolfe's book, the hope is that we will get to the first female astronaut, the first Black astronaut, the first non-white-male-test-pilot astronaut" as it explores the Gemini, Apollo and space-shuttle programs, he says.

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"The Right Stuff," the first National Geographic series produced specifically for Disney+, details the bravery of the astronauts, but also chronicles excessive drinking and philandering that were largely concealed by the idolizing portraits in Life magazine, a media force whose ability to shape history is detailed.

The behavioral transgressions don't lessen the astronauts' status or accomplishments, says Adams ("Suits").

The Mercury 7 - Deke Slayton (Micah Stock), left, Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), Wally Schirra (Aaron Staton), Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter), John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), Gordon Cooper (Colin O'Donoghue) and Scott Carpenter (James Lafferty) - predict who they think will be the first U.S. astronaut in space in Disney+'s 'The Right Stuff.'
The Mercury 7 - Deke Slayton (Micah Stock), left, Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), Wally Schirra (Aaron Staton), Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter), John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), Gordon Cooper (Colin O'Donoghue) and Scott Carpenter (James Lafferty) - predict who they think will be the first U.S. astronaut in space in Disney+'s 'The Right Stuff.'

"Anyone who puts their life on the line to accomplish something great, especially in a time that was as fractured and dangerous as that time in American history, (is) heroic. But no hero is perfect," he says. "We wanted to show how imperfect human beings responded when they were under pressure and trying to accomplish something that seemed impossible."

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Shepard and Glenn, whose conflicted relationship gets more detailed scrutiny, reflect that dynamic, as Shepard's liaison with a prostitute almost grounded the space program before it took off, and Glenn's calculated self-promotion alienated fellow astronauts.

"These could not have been two more different guys. They both were absolutely in love with flying, going faster, further and higher than anyone else, but beyond that, their personalities couldn't have been more different, more in conflict," Adams says. "They were always considered to be the head of the pack. John was very comfortable in front of the camera and Alan wasn't, but little did (Glenn) know there were going to be other circumstances that would lead to the final choice" of who flew first.

Glynn Lunney (Jackson Pace), left, Chris Craft (Eric Ladin), Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler) and John "Shorty" Powers (Danny Strong) are members of the NASA braintrust in Disney+'s 'The Right Stuff.'
Glynn Lunney (Jackson Pace), left, Chris Craft (Eric Ladin), Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler) and John "Shorty" Powers (Danny Strong) are members of the NASA braintrust in Disney+'s 'The Right Stuff.'

"The Right Stuff" joins a recent spate of space sagas as millions cheer private company SpaceX's success, both signs of public interest in space exploration, McDorman says. But there's also skepticism about the nation's ability to unite in a common pursuit.

"The story of the American space program is a great example of people accomplishing things that otherwise would seem impossible," McDorman says. "The things we can accomplish are limitless, but you have to come together to do those things. Right now, unfortunately, I think we're pretty divided."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Right Stuff': Disney+ remake of film is latest TV space saga