A team of elite military test pilots finds itself tapped to be astronauts for Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program in the United States, in The Right Stuff, a new eight-episode dramatic series debuting in October on Disney+. Like Philip Kaufman’s Oscar-winning 1983 film of the same name, the series is based on the bestselling 1979 book by Tom Wolfe.
Wolfe became interested in the US space program while on assignment by Rolling Stone to cover the launch of Apollo 17, NASA’s last Moon mission. He spent the next seven years writing The Right Stuff, intent on capturing the drive and ethos of those early astronauts. (In a foreword to the 1983 edition, he pondered “What makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle… and wait for someone to light the fuse.”) Wolfe spent a great deal of time consulting with General Chuck Yeager, who was shut out of of the astronaut program and ended up as a contrasting character to the college-degreed Project Mercury team featured in the book. The Right Stuff won widespread critical praise, as well as the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
When United Artists decided to finance a film adaptation, the studio hired William Goldman (The Princess Bride) to adapt the screenplay, but his vision was very different from that of director Philip Kaufman, and Goldman quit the project. Kaufman wrote his own draft script in eight weeks, making Yeager more of a central figure; Goldman’s script ignored Yeager entirely. Goldman later wrote that “Phil [Kaufman]’s heart was with Yeager. And not only that, he felt the astronauts, rather than being heroic, were really minor leaguers, mechanical men of no particular quality, not great pilots at all, simply the product of hype.”
The film bombed at the box office, grossing $21 million against its $27 million budget, but it was a critical success and went on to win four Oscars. Wolfe himself disliked Kaufman’s film, and there were some objections to historically inaccurate details. The most egregious example was a scene when the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft sinks after splashdown. The film shows a panicked Gus Grissom deliberately detonating the hatch’s explosive bolts—something that, in reality, NASA later determined had been a mechanical failure. (Grissom was tragically killed in the Apollo 1 launchpad fire in January 1967.)
Produced for National Geographic by Appian Way (Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company) and Warner Bros. Television, the new series also draws heavily on Wolfe’s book as source material. “The Right Stuff evokes the wonder and awe of the moment we first escaped the bounds of our only home and ventured into the unknown,” showrunner Mark Lafferty told Deadline Hollywood in May. “But the show is as much about who we are today as it is about our historic achievements. At a time when the world is confronted with significant challenges, this story reminds us that what seems impossible today can become the triumph of tomorrow.”
Per the official premise, the series will be a “gritty, anti-nostalgic look at what would become America’s first reality show as the obsessive original Mercury Seven astronauts and their families become instant celebrities in a competition that will either kill them or make them immortal. The one-hour drama will follow the protagonists from the Mojave Desert to the edges of space, with future seasons carrying through to humankind’s greatest achievement: the moon landing.”
The show opens in 1959, at the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union is taking the lead in the space race, and a fledgling NASA is charged with putting a man in space within two years under the rubric Project Mercury. NASA engineers Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler, Mad Men and Mulholland Drive) and Chris Kraft (Eric Ladin, Mad Men, Bosch) handpick a crew of seven astronauts out of a pool of military test pilots. The focal characters are Major John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams, Suits) and Lieutenant Commander Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman, Limitless)—two very different men, both professionally and personally. The rest of the Mercury 7 include Captain Gordo Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue, Once Upon a Time), Wally Schirra (Aaron Staton, Mad Men), Scott Carpenter (James Lafferty, One Tree Hill), Deke Slayton (Micah Stock, Brittany Runs a Marathon), and Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter, Inhumans).
Their mission will have a profound impact on the mens’ families, most notably Annie Glenn (Nora Zehetner, The Astronaut Wives Club), who struggles with a speech impediment and is uncomfortable being in the pubic eye, as well as Louise Shepard (Shannon Lucio, Bosch, True Blood), who turns a blind eye to her husband’s wandering eye for the sake of their children. Eloise Mumford (Lone Star) plays Trudy Cooper, an accomplished pilot in her own right who sacrifices her own ambitions for the cause. The cast also includes Sacha Seberg (The Americans) as rocket scientist Wernher von Braun; Danny Strong (Billions) as John “Shorty” Powers, NASA’s PR man; and Josh Cooke (Manhattan, Castle Rock) as LIFE star reporter Loudon Wainwright, Jr. (Conspicuously missing from the cast of characters, at least for S1: Chuck Yeager.)
The trailer opens on a shot of expectant crowds on a launch day, followed by a montage of all that went into preparing for that launch: physical tests, prototype capsules, stints on the Multi-Axis Trainer (basically a human gyroscope), and the occasional tragic setback, all done under the glaring spotlight of national media coverage. “Americans love stories,” Cooke’s Wainwright says in the voiceover that sets the series’ tone. “This story ends with a climax in space, and starts right here on Earth. Money, fame, immortality. People will feel like they know you. They’ll want to be you. Astronauts. ‘Astro’ meaning ‘star,’ ‘naut,’ ‘voyager.’ Nobody has ever seen anything like you men—until now. Few things live forever in the soul of a country. You’re heroes.”
The first two episodes of The Right Stuff will premiere on Disney+ on October 9, 2020.
Listing image by YouTube/Disney+
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