Six Against the Heavens by James A. Michener
When Stanley Mott took his seat at the table during the first meeting of the selection committee and saw the list of the 110 applicants for the six available spots in the astronaut program, he went immediately to the chairman and said, "I think I must disqualify myself. I know one of these men."
"Number 47. Charles Lee, Army test pilot. If he uses the nickname 'Hickory,' I know him. He worked for me a few years ago as gate guard at the Army missile center at Huntsville."
"What did you think of him?"
"Real Tennessee hillbilly. Finest kid I ever knew. My wife thought the same about his wife, another hillbilly named Sandra. I told him to quit his guard's job and get himself an education."
"Yep. My wife found his wife a nursing job. He went to Vanderbilt. Graduated with honors."
"That's the kind of man we're seeking. Stay here and share your opinion."
"I won't vote when his name comes up."
"If he's that good, you won't have to."
So Mott had stayed, studied each of the competitors and voted strongly for Randy Claggett of Texas and John Pope of Fremont, both of whom were accepted. His rugged testimonial on behalf of Hickory Lee enabled him to make the list also, but his three other choices were rejected.
After the six winners had been introduced to the public at a press conference, NASA officials handed Mott an assignment which would give him great satisfaction during the next decade: "You're a sensible man. Know a lot about engineering and science. We want you to look after the indoctrination of these men. The way things are going, they'll form the backbone of our program for years, and we want them to be in top shape."
The first thing Mott did was to check his impressions of the six new astronauts against the more technical knowledge of the psychiatrist who had supervised the analyses of the original 110, dismissing about 30 out of hand. He found Dr. Loomis Crandall of a clinic in Denver a most engaging fellow. He did not speak jargon: "What you've got to work with, Dr. Mott, are six of the most highly motivated young men in America. Look at their faces. Look at their records."
He spread on the table six large photographs of the winners, each with a brief summary:
Randolph Claggett, 1929. Texas A & M. Major, USMC. Patuxent River.
Charles "Hickory" Lee, 1933, Vanderbilt Univ. Major, US Army. Edwards.
Timothy Bell, 1934. Univ. of Arkansas. Civilian. Allied Aviation test pilot.
Harry Jensen, 1933. Univ. of Minnesota. Captain, US Air Force. Edwards.
Edward Cater, 1931. Mississippi State. Major, US Air Force. Edwards.
John Pope, 1927. Fremont State. Commander, US Navy. Patuxent River.
Mott checked his list as Dr. Crandall recited his conclusions: "Pope's the oldest, Bell's the youngest, the rest are nicely bunched. Homogeneous in most other ways too. All Protestants. All from small towns. All married and all with at least two kids except Pope. All from the Midwest or South."
"Now that last point's significant. To have passed our strict surveillance these men must have had a central tendency in their lives. Good behavior, bravery, a certain religious bent. The whole mix. And what do you suppose is the best name for that? Patriotism. And where do you find that these days? Mainly in the South. Mott, if you took one thousand of the men who really run the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, you'd find that 70 percent of them come from the South, which has only what? Thirty percent of the population. Totally out of proportion, but that's because the heroic occupations have always appealed to the Southern man...and the Southern woman. Look at the list. Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi. And the chap who graduated from Minnesota was born in South Carolina. Went North only because his family was Swedish, and they wanted him in Minnesota surroundings."
Crandall also emphasized that a majority of the astronauts so far, and certainly all of this group, came from small towns: "I've pondered this, and it can't be genetic, or a matter of aptitude. It must be a socioeconomic factor. Boys from small towns tend to live close to their parents. They're urged to take things seriously. Their families encouraged them to study, join the Boy Scouts, play games. These men, all of them, had character ingrained in them by the time they were 10.
"You can get that in the city, but more often you're led into other channels. Business. Manipulative professions like the one I'm in. Political management." He paused. "I'll tell you one thing, Mott, I'd hate to live in a country governed by these astronauts. Very conservative. Very unimaginative in any field outside their own. They're all Republicans, you know."
But he also stressed what Mott already knew, that these men were determined to succeed: "Every one is a superachiever, driven by the most profound determination to do things right. Cowardice, recalcitrance, the temptation to do sloppy work, all suppressed. Their capacity to do extra work is unbelievable."
Crandall made two other warning points: "Astronauts by an enormous margin are firstborn children. They've been pampered. They have powerful egos. Their parents may have driven them too hard, but they also loved them. These men expected to be cared for. Do not brush them off. On the other hand, no astronaut, regardless of the pressure we put him under, has ever developed a gastric ulcer. These sonsabitches know something you and I haven't learned: Work like hell all day, but turn it off at night. Eat a good meal and get a good night's sleep. So you don't have to treat them like china. These bastards are tough."
Now it was time to bring in a man with whom Mott would be forced to work in close tandem: "I want you to meet Tucker Thompson, chief honcho for Folks magazine. He's responsible for breaking the stranglehold LIFE had on the astronauts, and he's got to make good on these six or get fired."
The editor burst eagerly into the room, smiling enthusiastically, and Mott had an opportunity to inspect more closely the man with whom he would be working. He was tall, bronzed, about 50, and when he extended his hand, his cuff disclosed an imposing link made of a large gold nugget. He wore a buttoned-down collar and a tie of rich, solid color, a pair of exquisitely pressed black trousers, an expensive white jacket and, of course, tassled shoes. He was slightly bald, a fact which he used to good advantage when he smiled, for then his large face seemed enormous, a vast expanse of tanned skin, shimmering eyes and very white teeth.
He brought with him a set of the family photographs already taken by his magazine, and when he spread them on the desk, Dr. Crandall added an obvious point: "Yes, I forgot to say. These young men were never afraid to marry the prettiest girl in town. No psychological hang-ups about the conflicting roles of husband and wife. Boom! They're in bed." And with a pencil he identified the wives.
"Four normal. Two problems. The Swede Jensen married the Swede Inger. All-American, all-Americans. The Tennessee boy they call Hickory married the daughter of a Tennessee hillbilly, and every man should be so lucky. Outdoor type, has her own horse, her own used car. But when she dresses up! Get back in line, you guys.
"The civilian Bell," Dr. Crandall continued, "the lad so highly recommended by Senator Glancey, found himself a real doll, as you can see. Probably the best mother of the group."
"She photographs like a million," Tucker Thompson said. "With or without the three kids."
"Ed Cater, the Air Force man from Mississippi, married himself a woman who is most deceptive. Looks like Miss Confederacy but ran a mortgage firm before she married Ed. Bright as they come."
"I don't see any problems there," Mott said, adjusting his glasses. "Except my own. Keeping my mind on the job."
"The problems hit us with these two," Thompson said, "and if I'd have been on the selection committee, I don't think I'd've allowed these two in. They damage our case." He pointed to the photograph of Debby Dee Claggett: loose-fitted blouse, sandals, blond hair somewhat awry, a cigarette in her lips.
"Frankly, she looks blowsy. We had a board meeting to decide how we should play her. She's not an outdoor type. She's not a cover girl. And she has two real significant drawbacks. Two of her kids are by another man. He's dead, of course. They were legally married. And I find she has the habit of calling anyone she doesn't like, or likes a great deal, 'that sonnombeech.'
"We can play her two ways. Texas wholesome," Thompson continued. "We can claim her father owned a large ranch."
"Nobody knows where he is." He coughed. "Or we can stress the death of her first husband."
"But you said his being the father of the two kids was a drawback," Crandall said.
"In our business you often take a weakness and make an asset of it. Throw it right in the public's face. We've been checking the record, and she seems to have behaved with extraordinary courage when her husband went down in flight training. We have some pictures. We can claim Claggett was the closest family friend. Proposed immediately to care for the orphans, all that jazz. We convert a liability into an asset."
Then Thompson turned to his last photograph, Mrs. John Pope, legal counsel to the Senate space committee. She appeared in office garb, a neat red skirt falling just below her knees, a white Peter Pan collar and a string of beautiful imitation pearls. Her hair was pulled back and fastened with a barrette, but it was her dark eyes which commanded attention.
"She's a time bomb, gentlemen," Thompson observed from long experience. "What the hell do we photograph if astronaut John Pope takes off on a dangerous mission? His wife in her Washington office biting a pencil? She ought to be miles from Washington in some small town in a white house with a picket fence. And dammit, she doesn't have any children. Everything about this capable woman adds up wrong. In my business," Thompson continued, "we've learned that our female readers instinctively despise bright young women like Penny Pope who hold jobs and keep their weight down."
"Except for Debby Dee," Mott pointed out, "your first four are rather thin."
"But they're also pretty. Like models. Women expect models to be thin. And none of them is contaminated by having a job." Gesturing toward the entire gallery, he said: "If a woman is pretty, thin is beautiful. If she has an administrative job, thin is avaricious and mean-spirited. You tell me what to do with this one." And he pointed at Penny Pope.
All such questions became vital to Stanley Mott's wife, Rachel, when NASA employed her to act as a kind of den mother to the families of the six new astronauts. Everyone who knew her realized that she was perfectly suited for such a task. She was a mature 43, always well groomed, a fine housekeeper with children of her own, and a Bostonian with a strong sense of obligation.
While Rachel's husband inducted the six young men into the mysteries of NASA, their wives were left free to follow their own obligations and interests, and this was where Mrs. Mott's responsibilities began. She worked closely with Tucker Thompson, who saw to it that the wives were photographed regularly at those occupations which would best represent the female half of the NASA effort: Sunday school, picnics, suppers for old folk, standing outside church with other parishioners on Sunday morning.
Rachel saw the women at their regular tasks, and although at first they had been suspicious of her, judging her to be a NASA spy, they came in time to respect her professionalism and her force of character. Rachel had the hardest time with Debby Dee, who was only six years younger and not disposed to pay much attention to what anyone presumed to tell her. The Claggetts were not a family she would have sought out, and Rachel was somewhat gratified when her husband reported that he was not having much success with Major Claggett: "He finishes his work faster than others, and he knows airplanes, but he's difficult to communicate with."
Like everyone else, Rachel found herself in love with the Swedes, Harry and Inger Jensen, for they were attractive, bright and eager to please. "Perpetual Boy Scouts," someone described them, and Harry had indeed been an Eagle Scout. They were easy to identify: Each had blond hair and a narrow triangular face. Their eyes were blue; they smiled incessantly, and they were in love.
Rachel worried about the civilian couple, for they seemed to lack the harsh fiber that characterized the military families, even though Stanley assured her that Tim Bell was one of the hottest pilots private industry had so far produced. The trouble with the Bells, as Rachel saw the problem, was that the husband was inordinately good-looking while the wife, Cluny, had that baby-doll prettiness which frequently spelled danger. Since she photographed magnificently, and since her husband looked more like a hotshot test pilot than any of the other men, their pictures were widely distributed, and in time Mrs. Mott came to agree that despite their possible weaknesses, the Bells were a considerable asset to the program.
She found it easy to like the three pretty Southern women, Cater, Jensen, Lee; they conducted themselves well, assisted whenever called upon and seemed indistinguishable from the millions of resilient wives who had accompanied their husbands in ages past when the latter went forth with Julius Caesar to the frontiers of empire, or with Douglas MacArthur to his Occupation of Japan. Gloria Cater, the onetime businesswoman from Mississippi, was a constant surprise, a combination of antebellum beauty and a tough sense of self-protection. Inger Jensen was frail, talkative and great fun to be with. But the gem of the Dixie contingent, in Rachel Mott's opinion, had to be tomboy Sandra Lee from the hills of Tennessee.
She saw with approval that Sandy apparently assessed the NASA experience with neat accuracy. Sandy could turn on whatever mood Tucker Thompson and his photographers wanted, then walk away untouched by the nonsense. Rachel felt her closest identification with Penny Pope of Washington, for in this competent, self-directed woman she saw the kind of efficiency she tried to maintain in her own life, plus a personal charm which she had never been able to generate. Also, Mrs. Pope was obviously more gifted intellectually than the other five and therefore more rewarding to talk with on the few occasions when she left her duties with the Senate to visit with her husband. Mrs. Mott did not feel, like some other NASA personnel, that "this Pope dame is a cool customer," for she sensed Penny's great warmth. But she did know that the perfectly groomed young woman from the Midwest was going to present problems quite different from those offered by the Southern belles. Rachel Mott liked Penny Pope, but she also feared her.
There were several exhaustive meetings on the subject of how to present the six wives to the reading public, but in the end it was Rachel whose ideas about the magazine cover prevailed: "A small American flag in the center, blowing in the breeze, surrounded by the women shown in the most carefully chosen vignettes. Sandy Lee with an Indian sweat-band around her head. Gloria Cater chewing an executive pencil. Penny Pope standing before a Senate eagle. Cluny Bell with one hand framing her fragile face. Inger Jensen in an Eton collar being her adorable self. And Debby Dee Claggett."
She stopped. How could the big Texas woman best be depicted? Tentatively she suggested: "With a martini, a cigarette..."
"One thing for sure," Thompson said, "our psychological studies prove that in a circular picture people will usually over-look the 8 o'clock position. Lower left-hand corner. Debby Dee comes in at 8 o'clock."
The cover was a sensation, the handsome American flag surrounded by six of its most appealing daughters. As soon as customers started writing in for copies, Folks ran off 200,000 so they could be framed, and sold them for 25¢ each. Mrs. Mott felt, with some justification, that she had played a helpful role in getting her six debutantes properly launched into the American social season, but on the day when Virgil Grissom and John Young made their historic first flight in the new spacecraft Gemini, she discovered that she was living in a fool's paradise. It was a tense moment in space history, when the fate of the national program hung in the balance and when the safety of two astronauts—not one, as before—was at stake.
All NASA was on edge, and Tucker Thompson felt that this might be a good moment for the general press to see how the new wives reacted to the machine in which their own husbands would shortly be flying. He called Mrs. Mott. "Rachel, where are the girls?"
"I believe four of them are watching television at Gloria Cater's."
"Marvelous. That'll make a great shot. But why only four?"
"Mrs. Pope's in Washington, as usual. And Inger Jensen's visiting her folks in Minnesota."
"Damn! She's the most photogenic. That little-girl charm. We'll go with what we have. Meet me at the Caters'." He was about to hang up but asked hurriedly: "It's got a picket fence, hasn't it?"
Mrs. Mott should have gone into the cottage first to alert the wives, but she stayed outside to coach the women reporters on the personalities of the four wives, and this meant that Tucker got to the living room first. He almost fainted, for he found the women with their shoes off, playing gin rummy and drinking martinis while the television droned on with no one paying attention. Mrs. Claggett and the hostess, Mrs. Cater of Mississippi, were smoking cigarettes.
"Good God!" Thompson cried. "A sacred moment in history. Men's lives in the balance. And you're playing poker."
"Gin," Mrs. Cater said.
"The press is out there. Reporters from all over the nation, all over the world. Get your shoes on."
Sandy Lee took charge, and in her most efficient manner swept up the cards, hid the martinis and whisked away all signs of debauchery. Then, with the utterly disarming charm that she could turn on when needed, Sandy went to the door and said: "Persons from the major wire services and two reporters from overseas may come in for 15 minutes. Then we'll come out and meet with you for as long as you wish. Because this is a historic moment, and we feel deeply proud to play even a minor part in it."
The program for which the six new astronauts had been selected was named Gemini because for the first time two men were to fly the spacecraft in a compartment so restricted that one man lay almost touching his partner and remained there immobilized for periods of up to 14 days. No two men of normal-large dimension could possibly wedge themselves into this confined space, and even highly trained men like the lean astronauts had trouble doing so.
From its earliest days NASA had followed a sensible program of requiring all its astronauts to study everything, but then to assign each man a field of specialization in which he was expected to become a top expert, familiar with the most arcane concepts and possible future developments. It was always an exciting time when these assignments were made, and one morning Deke Slayton appeared with a list: "Claggett, because of your unusual knowledge of airplanes, structures. Lee, because you've already done a lot with electronics, the electrical system. Bell, because you specialized in aerodynamics at Allied Aviation, flight surfaces. Jensen, because you're small and tight, flight gear and survival mechanisms. Cater, because you've done good work on propulsion at Edwards, rockets. Pope, because of your doctorate in astronomy, navigation and computers."
John Pope noticed that whenever assignments of any kind were published, the same pecking order was maintained, with Claggett at the top and himself at the bottom. One day when he was alone in Dr. Mott's office he saw a list giving the names in the accustomed rank and titled ORDER OF SELECTION. When Mott returned, Pope asked him bluntly: "Why am I at the bottom of the list?"
"You weren't supposed to see that."
"I didn't read it. Just saw the title and the order."
After Mott hid the list in a drawer, he said, "That's the order in which you were selected. There's no better airman around than Claggett. I suppose you know that. The others have terrific records, Pope. This boy Bell, the civilian. He flew everything with wings and helped Allied improve every machine they ever made."
"But why me at the bottom?"
Since Pope seemed bewildered by this ranking, Mott decided to level with him.
"It wasn't your flying. You're up there with the best. And certainly not your bravery because in Korea and Pax River...Well, you have the medals to prove that."
"What was it? What's my hidden weakness? I don't know and I ought to."
"Patterns," Mott said, and when the young flyer looked amazed he added: "You didn't conform to the patterns. You don't live with your wife. You have no children. Statistically you represented a gamble, especially your wife. NASA feels safer when unknowns like Claggett and Lee conform to patterns. Because then the numbers are in our favor. With you we were flying in the dark. I think you know that." When Pope made no reply, Mott said, "It surfaced in Korea."
"That you were a loner."
"But I was also good," Pope said with that charming frankness which characterized the best test pilots.
"That's why we chose you, John. We knew that in the air you would prove to be one of the very best men on our roster. And you will be."
"But on the ground, watch out."
An embarrassed pause, then: "Any chance you could persuade your wife to quit her job and move down here to Houston?"
"None." Pope rose and left the room.
John Pope struggled to put the conversation with Mott out of his mind. He and his fellow astronauts found themselves spending more and more time on duty assignments in Cape Canaveral. Austere bachelor quarters were provided in NASA buildings, but the men preferred the livelier scene at Cocoa Beach, 20 miles to the south. If they brought their wives along, which they often did, it became the custom for them to take rooms at a new and glossy motel called the Bali Hai, which had three considerable assets: a white beach from which the husbands could plunge into the high waves of the Atlantic, a blue-tiled swimming pool in which the wives could disport, and a large dark bar in which both could celebrate. The walls of the Dagger Bar were tastefully decorated with daggers, swords, knives, sabers, most of them contributed by well-traveled patrons who had brought them home from foreign ports. The effect was quite stunning, a congenial bar with inviting tables surrounded by weaponry which recalled the violence of the world and reminded the drinkers of the violence which had sometimes threatened their lives. The Dagger Bar featured rum drinks with exotic names like Missionary's Downfall or Virgin's Last Stand, and an excellent fish dinner for a flat $3, including one free beer.
Each new group of astronauts was advised by those who had gone before: "The scene is at the Dagger Bar. Those fresh oysters, all you can eat for 50¢!" Tucker Thompson, anticipating that his crowd would want to lodge at the Bali Hai, checked the place out and satisfied himself that the rooms were clean and the drinks honest, but he discovered something else that sent icicles right up his spine: The Bali Hai was sometimes overrun by hordes of groupies who wanted to be where the action was, and since many of them were delectable and still in their teens, he could foresee disaster.
"Well," Thompson told Stanley and Rachel Mott darkly, "they've got to lay off my astronauts, or we're going to look like fools." And he showed the Motts next week's issue of Folks in which his long-range program for the special group was revealed. It displayed on the cover, in the neatest possible array, the new astronauts, each man looking right into the camera with chin set, eyes ablaze and hair cut short, Marine-style. THE SOLID SIX, cried the headline, and Thompson sat back highly pleased. "In our business," he said, "the battle's half won if you can label your product with a snappy title."
"The Solid Six," Dr. Mott repeated. "It has a good sound, and they certainly look solid." Tucker Thompson drummed on the table, then looked past Rachel Mott to where the teenage groupies were still making a fuss over Claggett: "We blow the solid bit if any one of our boys explodes in scandal. Point is, Mott, I want you to talk with your boys." Mott waited till all the men were at Canaveral, for he did not want to discharge this messy task piecemeal. The delay proved almost fatal, because a persistent teenager from Columbus, Mo., the daughter of a professor no less, forced her way into Randy Claggett's bedroom while he was working in one of the simulators at the Cape and was waiting for him in bed, undressed, when he returned to the Bali Hai.
Randy did not feel obligated to force the girl from his bed, or even to make her put her clothes back on, but when he told her at half past nine that he really must go down for some supper and that she could not walk down with him, she understood and used a fire escape.
Tucker Thompson sat in the bar, awaiting the gathering of the men. He looked around and saw a compelling young Oriental woman, not yet 30, small, exquisitely framed, with becoming bangs, high cheekbones and just a hint of Asia in her eyes. Her complexion was that delicate coloring which appears on the finest celadon vases of the Orient, and she seemed the kind of woman with whom any responsive man would want to discuss his troubles. Also, she wore that special combination of informal clothing which invited men to approach her table when she sat alone: a pleated blouse in handsome tan colors which matched her skin, a casual sweater thrown carelessly about her shoulders, a very wide belt emphasizing the smallness of her waist, a free-swinging skirt and Italian-style loafers with broad, blunt toes.
As soon as Tucker saw her, warning bells started ringing: "That one is no groupie. She's for real." But what truly terrified him was the fact that she was watching with professional cynicism everything Randy Claggett and his teenage supper companion were doing and was occasionally writing in a notebook.
"Who's that?" Thompson asked.
"The woman in the corner?" Mrs. Mott asked. "She's a reporter, a Korean raised in Japan. Well regarded in the profession. Did a stint with the New York Times. Got an M.A. with top grades from Radcliffe. Now writes for the Asahi Shimbun, biggest paper in the world, and is syndicated in Europe."
"What's a Japanese doing at Cape Canaveral? Spying?"
"She writes beautifully about space. Has a real feeling for it. Has a pilot's license, I believe, and she did a lot of glider soaring in New Hampshire when she was at Radcliffe."
"What's her name? She's not on my list."
"Yes, she is," Rachel said with some embarrassment. "She's the one we thought was a Japanese man. Rhee Soon-Ka. Rhee's the last name. When I went to meet Mr. Rhee, voilà!" Tucker studied the intruder for several minutes, then rose abruptly and walked to her table: "I'm Tucker Thomspon, Folks."
"I know," she said. "Sit down. You're the one who keeps the six little Boy Scouts locked up."
"It's our job to write about them."
"You don't seem to have that one behind bars," she said, pointing to Claggett.
"His niece, from Kansas."
"Popes used to have nieces. Astronauts have pickups."
"You write one word..."
"I intend to write about 60,000 words."
"You be careful..."
"It's your job, Mr. Thompson, to provide the American public with fairy tales. It's mine to provide the rest of the world with adult interpretations."
"You be very careful..."
"I don't have to be. I'm not trying to sell anything. Tonight I'm taking notes on a most attractive young man, a most lecherous one."
"Now Miss..." He hesitated. "What's your name?"
"Born Rhee Soon-Ka. In America I use Cynthia Rhee."
"You could find yourself in a lot of trouble, Miss Rhee."
When Thompson returned to his table he received the harshest shock of all, delivered by Rachel Mott: "She's supposed to have said in the bar that in order to complete her research she intended to sleep with every one of our six.'
Rachel paused a moment, then added: "The Solid Six, as you describe them."