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- October 31, 1983
- Vol. 20
- No. 18
The Astronauts Memorialized in Right Stuff Have Gone Surprisingly Different Ways
As the world premiere of The Right Stuff in Washington last week amply demonstrated, our longing for heroes has not dwindled in proportion to the supply of them. The film beckons to a time when men with short hair and slide rules read the Bible, raised a little Cain and got things done. Even the Ail-American names of the boys of Project Mercury—Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper—were like cowboy stars. Onscreen, at least, they appeared as heroes, and the first-night audience of Congressmen, hierarchs, power-mongers and, yes, even a few Reaganauts responded to their exploits with wild applause and a few irrepressible tears. Never mind that some of those onetime cynosures (see following profiles) have gone on to failed marriages and failed businesses, that one died tragically and that all are graying now. The audience had come to revel in their glorious youth. "Tonight," said one of the speakers who introduced the film, "reality becomes a legend."
John Glenn, 62, avoided the movie's premiere, anxious not to seem to be exploiting the movie for his presidential candidacy. He went campaigning in California, and he said that he would try to get a glimpse of the movie "on the road somewhere." Just as well; the normal human soul would have broken under the strain of so much adulation. When Harris, as Glenn, defied the NASA brass and backed up his wife's decision not to allow Lyndon Johnson to come to her house and bring the press corps with him, the Washington audience cheered. When Harris/Glenn, with his heat shield threatening to break off and incinerate him, reentered the atmosphere humming the Battle Hymn, the eyes of veteran test pilots in the audience grew moist. So engaging is Harris that the audience even seemed impressed when he lectured his colleagues on the evil habit of bedding down young women swept away by their astronautical charm.
The real-life John Glenn actually did most of those things—without the dramatics. Of the LBJ showdown, he remembers, "Annie had been up all night; she didn't want to do it. It wasn't an affront to the Vice-President. It was nice that he thought about coming out to the house." Of the lecture on sexual high jinks, he recalls, "It wasn't prudishness; the Mercury program could have been hurt by that kind of publicity." Glenn even corrects the movie's version of his greatest act of heroism. "I didn't hum on reentry," he recalls with a grin. "I was pretty busy then." But even if Glenn himself demythologizes the film, 15 million Americans are likely to see it—and see his heroics—before they vote in primaries early next year. Glenn himself refuses to glorify his role in Project Mercury: "We felt fortunate to be placed in that position, to do the things we were doing," he says. But despite the Senator's aw-shucks diffidence about the film, his image people are out to reap its full reward. Two weeks ago the Glenn campaign unveiled its own five-minute television commercial, complete with a clip of his Mercury lift-off and including Scott Carpenter's famous valediction, "Godspeed, John Glenn."
This is an exclusive fenced-off enclave of ranch houses nestled under mountains in the San Fernando Valley. But sitting in Scott Carpenter's home, a visitor hears a melancholy half-forgotten quatrain of T.S. Eliot running through his brain:
...Four wax candles in the darkened room,
Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead,
An atmosphere of Juliet's tomb
Prepared for all the things to be said or left unsaid.
Outside is one of those off-handedly sunny days that can make southern Californians take the pleasure of their lives for granted. But inside there is an almost sepulchral stillness. A few dim lights are spotted around a darkly shaded room. The ex-astronaut sits. His face is in profile, and he is chain-smoking. His body is not just lean, but taut. "I don't want to use the word 'dreamer,' " Wally Schirra had said, not unkindly, when Carpenter's name was mentioned, "but Scott would fantasize about things. He would be a perfect person to cross the gap between science and fantasy."
Carpenter was the poet of the Mercury Project, the man who would blow his food budget making long distance calls to his wife, Rene, and follow up with long, impassioned letters. Of all the astronauts, he was the one most willing to say there was more to life than The Right Stuff version of the pilot's code—Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving. "Wake Island, the movie, made me decide to be a naval aviator. Not an aviator. A naval aviator," says Carpenter, 58. "I had a scrapbook that I kept as an 8-year-old that has airplanes in it. I was fascinated by airplanes. In that scrapbook, I also had pictures of the sleeve insignia of naval officers. The movie crystallized it for me for two reasons—it involved flying, and it also involved defending the country."
This is not typical Project Mercury talk. When John Glenn talks about flying, he explicitly rejects the notion that it is a romantic exercise: "If you're a good pilot," he says, "flying becomes almost automatic." The other astronauts echo the sentiment. Glenn still flies his own plane between Washington and Ohio; Slayton and Cooper own their own planes. The rest rarely fly. But none speaks with Carpenter's rapturous enthusiasm. As he puts it: "Flying has always been glorious." Carpenter no longer flies, because, like most private citizens, he can't afford a jet. "I don't want to fly a kite," he says, with a laugh. "If somebody offered me an F-15, it would be different."
In The Right Stuff, Carpenter appears as Glenn's sidekick; his role is fairly minor. In the book, though, author Tom Wolfe reports that some of his colleagues considered Carpenter a starry-eyed pilot so carried away by the rapture of flight that he paid little attention to his fuel supply, nearly stranded himself in space and left NASA officials screaming for his scalp. Wolfe makes clear that he finds that view unfair, but Carpenter says he doesn't resent seeing it aired. "I think the book is accurate in all respects," Carpenter says now. "And if it's accurate, you have to respect what it says. If it's unkind to anyone but at the same time true, who can fault it? I don't think it was unkind to anybody." The words come out with the halting slowness of a man who examines himself every moment. His self-knowledge has no equal among his peers. When asked how he became an astronaut, he eschews the macho stand of his colleagues. "Conquering fears gives me great pleasure," he says and later adds, "curiosity has always been a prime mover for me." A little-known actor named Charles Frank plays the young Scott Carpenter in the film; Anthony Perkins could play him in middle age.
Life has been both kind and cruel to Carpenter. His marriage to Rene broke up; when a visitor broaches the subject gently, Carpenter turns a world-weary gaze on him. "In a situation like this, the rules of polite conduct are forfeit," he says quietly. "I know you know that, but I say this so you'll know that I know." He has no firm answer to the question of whether being an astronaut contributed to the divorce. "There were certain stresses imposed by that but, as you can see for yourself, marriages with a good solid foundation can withstand it. Marriages without a good solid foundation react as the camel does to the last straw." Carpenter has remarried now, to Maria Roach, a television advertising producer who is the daughter of Hal Roach, producer of the Laurel and Hardy movies. They have two sons, Matthew, 5, and Nicholas, 3, and, although Carpenter has seen several business ventures fold beneath him in the last decade, he is avid about his latest plan: He won't exactly say what it is, only that it's a venture "that may be the biggest breakthrough in manned underwater capabilities since the invention of scuba." As he says it, you can see the hope, and the dream, in his eyes.
The Icy Commander, as Tom Wolfe called him, was a surprise choice as the first American to go into space. The press supposed that Glenn had the slot locked up; even today, the Senator claims a piece of victory when he talks about the man who beat him out: "Al Shepard got the first Mercury-Redstone flight, of course," he says. "And I got the first orbital flight." Shepard, a career Navy man from Derry, N.H., was thought at the time to be the model of Christian Scientist rectitude. According to the book, and the movie, he may not have been. "The book really caused a lot of trouble in Shepard's marriage," one astronaut reports. In Wolfe's account—faithfully reproduced on the screen—Shepard defends the right of the astronauts to womanize. When John Glenn admonishes them to "keep our wicks dry and our zippers zipped," Shepard angrily invites him to butt out. Although he is not explicitly identified as a womanizer himself, the Icy Commander apparently dislikes The Right Stuff intensely. Now president of the Houston Coors beer distributorship, Shepard—who went on to fly to the moon in the Apollo program and retired from the Navy in 1971 with the rank of Rear Admiral—refused any comment on the film. At 59, he lives with Louise, his wife of 38 years, in a Houston suburb. He did not attend the film's premiere.
Wally Schirra, 60, has the firmest handshake in Project Mercury. In his light-blue blazer, slacks and Naval Academy ring, he has a Curt Gowdyish air about him; indeed, from 1969 to 1975 he was a play-by-play man of sorts, as Walter Cronkite's sidekick on broadcasts of space launches. In Project Mercury, Schirra had a twofold reputation: He was the jokester, but also the most demanding engineer at NASA, a pain to staffers, but the man who flew the only technically flawless flight in the program. He lives in the foothills of Denver now with Josephine—"my original wife," he says with a chuckle. He sits on the boards of several companies and will be seen on television this fall endorsing a cold remedy. He seems to enjoy himself immensely.
"The press corps portrayed us as new heroes," Schirra recalls. "I argued many times that we weren't. A hero is someone who puts his life on the line almost spontaneously." In public, Schirra was perceived as John Glenn's antagonist; he once told an interviewer that Glenn's heavy schedule of public appearances hampered his usefulness to the space program. "When you're in the space program," he explains, "you should be part of the system. You shouldn't lose that anonymity that lets you go into a meeting with engineers and scientists and riveters and janitors and have a meaningful conversation. For that reason, I'm sorry for the way they've handled Sally Ride. You see her now at meetings with Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug. I think she should say 'I'm not going to any more of those meetings.' " Still, Schirra relished some of the attention: "I went to the Oval Office and met President Kennedy, and afterward he took my 5-year-old daughter out for a ride on Macaroni, Caroline's pony. She had a great time."
Since he left NASA in 1969, Schirra has been slightly burned in an association with a questionable investment company to which he lent his name. But the rest of his life seems to have been as flawless as his flight; the most serious question now facing him is whether to move to San Diego to be near the ocean. As he heads off into a glorious Colorado afternoon, he is the portrait of an astronaut aging graciously, happily.
No astronaut worked harder to get into space than Deke Slayton. He was scheduled to pilot the fourth Mercury flight when doctors discovered an irregularity in his heartbeat and scrubbed him. Just one year short of a pension, he resigned from the Air Force. "They were going to ground me," he says. "If I stayed at NASA as a civilian, I could keep on flying, at least in two-seaters." Slayton, now 59, explains, "I could always get the irregularity to go away by running a few miles. I told them it was like a fine tuned racing engine that idled a little rough." Slayton stayed at NASA in ground positions for 10 years, and underwent a seemingly endless series of often painful and dangerous tests on his heart until Mayo Clinic specialists finally cleared him. He flew on the joint U.S.-Soviet flight in 1975.
In Tom Wolfe's account, Deke Slayton is a prime expositor of the Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving school, a good old boy in a Ban-Lon shirt who loved nothing more than racing his Corvette. There are some constants on this earth; despite his august title as president of Space Services Inc. in Houston, Slayton is still a good old boy par excellence. His deep South accent belies his Wisconsin roots. Although he made it to the movie premiere, he missed the celeb-studded dinner the night before—he was in Oklahoma, racing his home-built single-engine Formula Plane. "If it comes to goin' to a party or racin' m' airplane," he drawls, "I'm gonna race my plane."
Slayton's company launched the first privately built American rocket-ship last fall. In a year and a half the company expects to put a commercial satellite into orbit. Slayton split with his wife, Marge, and recently married Bobbie Osborn, but of his private life, he will say only that it is "fine."
Gus Grissom is a major figure in The Right Stuff—but borderline heroic, at best. In the book and in the movie, Grissom is the goat among the astronauts, a hard-drinking, hard-living type who courts the favors of barmaids with gewgaws he promises to carry into space. He is also held up to the world as a man who screwed up, who panicked, blew the explosive hatch off his capsule and allowed it to sink to the ocean floor after reentry. Grissom, the second American in space, was killed at age 40, when a fire broke out during a preflight practice session of Apollo I on Jan. 27, 1967. His colleagues react with the wrath of prophets to his-treatment in the film and in the book. Says Glenn, "Everyone wants to read themselves into being some sort of expert on the people who were out there. And then because it comes out slightly differently than the way people had hoped they become highly critical of the individual. I don't buy that. I just accept Gus' version as being the truth. So that's that." Grissom explained that he had done nothing untoward; the hatch blew of its own accord. In the movie, an expert announces, "We've been using explosive hatches for 10 years, and none of them has ever 'just blown.' " But Grissom's colleagues dispute the point. Gordon Cooper says a mechanical defect caused a vacuum in the hatch's control rod, which caused it to blow. Scott Carpenter says anyone who touched off the explosion would be marked with a deep bone bruise—a mark Grissom did not have. Schirra says that he himself suffered a deep cut the one time he set off such a hatch on purpose. "We were seven brothers," Schirra says, and his point is never more aptly proved than in the case of Grissom. None of the brothers will ever let an outsider say that Gus Grissom lacked the Right Stuff.
And then there is Gordon Cooper. The last man up in Mercury, the man whose automatic controls gave out and who landed manually, closer to his target than any automated system had ever come. Dennis Quaid plays him in the movie as a good-natured Oklahoma cracker with a swagger, a healthy ego and a habit of demanding of his wife, "Who's the best pilot you ever saw?" and supplying the answer: "You're looking at him." Seated on a banquette in the jet-set temple that is Manhattan's Pierre Hotel, in a sedate blazer and a garish tie, he makes Quaid's imposture seem stunningly accurate. "I don't think I ever called myself the best pilot in the world," he says, then pauses for effect. "Of course, I am..." That self-confidence got him through the failure of his controls: "I could hear the fear coming over the radio," he confides. "I figured nobody else was going to save my skin, so it was up to me." Cooper once predicted that he would be the only Mercury astronaut to fly to Mars, but he actually left NASA in 1970 in a huff after his civilian bosses ordered him to withdraw from a stock-car race at Daytona.
The twang and the amiable Sooner mannerisms almost got Cooper in a mess of trouble as soon as he returned to civilian life. "It seems like every high-level con man in the world came around with some business proposition," he says. In fact, he testified in a 1973 trial against a group of businessmen who had used him to front a scam helicopter manufacturing deal in South America.
Cooper is still thinking big. He is a principal in a California firm that intends to produce low-cost methanol airline fuel, and he has no shortage of enthusiasm for its potential. "This country currently spends billions of dollars a year on OPEC. That's money going right out of the country. We're depending on Mideast oil that could be cut off any day. But with methanol we could produce fuel that costs 80 cents a gallon. We could become OPEC independent."
The Right Stuff is scathingly on-tar-get about Cooper's personal life. He and his wife, Trudy, ended a separation when he was chosen for astronaut training; the semblance of a happy family was essential for one of America's new heroes, and both kept up appearances for years. Their divorce was bitter; Cooper's 11-year marriage to second wife Susan is far happier. To start a new family, he even underwent two operations to reverse a 1959 vasectomy. "In the days when no one knew what we would encounter in space," he explains, "we were warned that our children might be mutants because of the effects of radiation." The father of two grown daughters by Trudy, Cooper now is raising Colleen, 4, and Elizabeth, 3. Cooper, 56, can be becomingly modest these days. "Space flight is a humbler," he says. "When you get up in this huge lovely universe God has created for us, it makes you feel very small. It really sets you down a few pegs."
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