Tag Archives: NASA

The Reason I Write-Tom Wolfe

the right stuff

by Rick Bretz

The recent passing of the legendary author Tom Wolfe caused a reflection on why I write this blog. I am a fan of many authors, one being David McCullough.  Two other writers have influenced me and given me the inspiration to keep on writing.  They are Frank DeFord, the sports writer who wrote about many topics for Sports Illustrated as well as authoring books.  The other writer is Tom Wolfe, who wrote a page turner for all time.

A friend first introduced me to Tom Wolfe’s writing style in 1981. she said that if you  want to read terrific writing pick  up the book “The Right Stuff.” The book is an insightful look at the Air Force test pilot fraternity in the late 1940s and 1950s as well as the birth of NASA’s astronaut selection and training program.  Hollywood made a movie out of the book later in the 1980s.  Before getting into those topics, Wolfe introduces the reader to a name, Chuck Yeager, the pilot that has the best “Right Stuff” of all test pilots.

The book opened my eyes to a different kind of writing style. He pioneered the style of “New Journalism”, using non-fiction narrative techniques to fill the story for the reader.  He may not have been in the room or inside someone’s mind but gave the reader a good idea of what it might have been like.  His writing style delivered dynamic prose in a descriptive style that was entertaining and informative. Here’s an example of his style:

“Well … things are beginning to stack up a little,” said Gordo. It was the same old sod-hut drawl. He sounded like the airline pilot who, having just slipped two seemingly certain mid-air collisions and finding himself in the midst of a radar fuse-out and control-tower dysarthria, says over the intercom: “Well, ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be busy up here in the cockpit making our final approach into Pittsburgh, and so we want to take this opportunity to thank you for flying American and we hope we’ll see you again real soon.” It was second-generation Yeager, now coming from earth orbit. Cooper was having a good time. He knew everybody was in a sweat down below. But this was what he and the boys had wanted all along, wasn’t it?”
Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff

The direct quote, “Well … things are beginning to stack up a little,”  many of us have heard a number of times on Astronaut documentaries.  But this was written before all of those documentaries hit cable television.  He took the quote and absolutely blasted it out of the park relating it to the original man on the top of the Pyramid, General Chuck Yeager.  In the book he talks about the Pyramid and his chapter on Naval Aviator pilot training is a thing of beauty.

“A persistent case of the bingos was enough to wash a man out of night carrier landings. That did not mean you were finished as a Navy pilot. It merely meant that you were finished so far as carrier ops were concerned, which meant that you were finished so far as combat was concerned, which meant you were no longer in the competition, no longer ascending the pyramid, no longer qualified for the company of those with the right stuff.”
Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff

I read “The Right Stuff” three times in the span of two years.  The first time to enjoy it as a great read.  The second time to analyze the writing style and the third time so I could analyze the word choices he made and how each sentence flowed into another.  His writing style demonstrated what was possible for me when writing my own articles for newspapers and magazines.  I’ve won a few writing awards through the years and the reason I still write posts for this blog is due to the craft of great authors like Tom Wolfe. I may never get as descriptive and smooth as my favorite authors but I like like trying

Tom Wolfe wrote many other books, among them being “Electric Kool-Aide Acid Test” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” equally as well received.  He also authored several magazine articles.  But for me, “The Right Stuff” kept me writing and forced me to constantly seek the perfect sentence, paragraph and more.   I am just one of many he influenced. Tom Wolfe left us on May 14, 2018. He left leaving the literary world  his wordsmith genius and the golden treasure of his work

Notable Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Right-Stuff-Tom-Wolfe/dp/0312427565

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Right_Stuff_(book)

https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/tom-wolfe-right-stuff-author-and-new-journalism-legend-dead-at-87-w520325

https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/907221-the-right-stuff

 

Historical Film of the Week

 The Control Room

The Control Room

From the 1960 NASA archives comes a film showing the launch of an Atlas ICBM carrying a payload of research instruments at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

https://archive.org/details/1960-05-23_florida?start=0.5

 

The Launch Pad

The NASA film captures the rocket fire and lift-off as well as a shot of the engineers at some of the control stations. Terrific older film saved in the archives for today’s online audience.

The Top Eight Historical Films

Hollywood’s dream factories have released many films that both entertain and sometimes educate.  The following movies are the selections I have made that come nearest to educating as well as entertaining.  I also admit that I have chosen these movies with a small measure of subjectivity.

1.       Schindler’s List (1993) Directed by Steven Spielberg

Schindler's grave
Schindler's grave (Photo credit: Seetheholyland.net)

Schindler’s list is a movie that holds you from the start and doesn’t let go.  The movie is a true story about Oscar Schindler, a factory owner who used his wealth and connections to save more than 1000 Jews during World War IISteven Speilberg shoots in black and white but uses color to make emotional points throughout the movie, the most memorable being the girl in the red coat walking on the street. Director Steven Spielberg uses his talents to show what evil is and what courage is throughout the film.  The film stays true to the original story as Liam Neeson gives a stellar performance as Oscar Schindler. Actor Ralph Fiennes personifies evil in the film and puts a face to the horror of the holocaust.

2.       Apollo 13 (1995) Directed by Ron Howard

Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 is the story of the shortened moon mission and how the NASA program found a way to bring the crew back home safely.  The film, from all accounts, is accurate to what actually happened.  The film took artistic liberties with arguments on the spacecraft between astronauts as well as combining all the engineering efforts of the NASA ground team into one character, Gary Sinise.  If NASA history captivates you the this film should satisfy your hunger games for all things that make astronauts modern-day heroes.

3.       Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) Directed by Richard Fleischer, American sequences.  Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda, Japanese sequences

The producers and directors of “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, meaning “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!”, present a balanced view

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (C...
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CVS-10) during the filming of "Tora! Tora! Tora!", her flight deck painted to resemble that of a World War II Imperial Japanese Navy carrier. Note the piston-engined aircraft on deck, often North American T-6 Texan resembling Japanese aircraft. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

of both sides of the Pearl Harbor attack.  It shows us the planning stages through the actual attack.  The producers elected to employ directors from America and Japan to present each point of view.  What the audience receives is a compelling straightforward presentation of Japan’s leaders planning for the attack and the America’s leaders trying to figure out when and if an attack would occur.  It outlines the view-point that Pearl Harbor’s military leaders received ambiguous orders while the political establishment ignored intercepted message to Japan’s diplomats stationed in the embassy in Washington, D.C.  If you want a clinical version of the events on December 7th without  political viewpoints or romance, watch this movie version of that horrific day.

4.    Glory (1989) Directed by Edward Zwick

Who can forget the preparation for the charge into confederate defenses at the end of the movie Glory starring Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick, and Morgan Freeman? No one who has seen the movie, I tell you!  The story of the first all black volunteer unit, the 54th Regiment, during the civil war and their commander Col. Robert Gould Shaw, it presents a generally accurate account of the unit’s formation, training and battle history. The story shows how Col. Shaw overcame prejudices so that his unit could form, train and get into the fight.  It features a great music score and each of the cast members is terrific in their parts.  I used to work with an Army Colonel who played a clip of this film before his final after action review after a two-week long training exercise.  He really liked this film and so do I.

5.       The King’s Speech (2010) Directed by Tom Hooper

What is significant about this film is that it shows that no matter your status in life, there are still personal

Colin Firth walks the red carpet at the 83rd A...
Colin Firth walks the red carpet at the 83rd Academy Awards Feb. 27, in Hollywood, Calif. Firth would go on to win in the best actor category for his portrayal of King George VI in the film “The King’s Speech. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

issues to conquer.  For some, it means bearing them in a public forum.  King George the VI of Britain, played by Colin Firth, ascended to the throne under extreme circumstances.  His brother abdicated the crown due to his insistence on marrying a divorced American.  However, the film is about the King’s struggle with a speech impediment, a stammer or stutter, that revealed itself especially in front of audiences or when making public speeches.  Colin Firth does a skilful portraying of the King working to correct his speech challenge.  Geoffrey Rush as the speech coach does not cower to the challenge of being the taskmaster to a King.  Helena Bonham Carter is charming as the young Queen Mother Elizabeth.  King George the VI rates high on my royal list because he stayed in London with its citizens during World War II bombing raids when he and his family could have went elsewhere.

6.       The Last Emperor (1987) Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

This movie gives us a glimpse of the Forbidden City and the essential parts of the life of the last emperor of China, Puyi.  As the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, the movie presents Puyi, who ascended to the throne at 2 years, 10 months. He changes from a person isolated from society inside the Forbidden City, believing he is better than his subjects to someone who dies as a simple gardener.  The story runs through the stages of the Chinese revolution and how the Emperor tried to hold on to his status and finally his re-education.  The film is breathtaking visually because the filmmakers were permitted to shoot inside the Forbidden City.

7.       We Were Soldiers (2002) Directed by Randall Wallace

Based on the book by General Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway, the movie is relatively accurate depiction of the first major battle the American’s fought during the Viet Nam War.  What is honest about this film is the cost of war paid by soldiers and their family members, especially spouses.  The notices from the Pentagon being delivered back home to wives is a truly heart breaking scene.  The battle scenes are brutal to watch but it does a better job than most films of showing how the Air Cavalry integrated with the Infantry during a battle.  The music score and the choices as to where to use it during the film will give you chills.

8.       Gangs of New York (2002) Directed by Martin Scorcese

Bird's eye panorama of Manhattan & New York Ci...
Bird's eye panorama of Manhattan & New York City in 1873 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The director makes the Five Points in New York the as much of a character in the movie as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting and Amsterdam Vallon.   This movie gets a lot of things right about New York in the 1800’s, including how firemen fight for the right to put out fires and therefore get paid.  This movie is worth seeing just to watch Daniel Day-Lewis light up the screen as Bill “The Butcher”.

Honorable Mentions: The Aviator, Black Hawk Down, Longest Day, The Madness of King George, Reds, Elizabeth, Inherit the Wind, The Right Stuff, Ran, Kingdom of Heaven, 300, Midway, Enemy at the Gates, Stalingrad, Gandhi, and Alexander.  There are many more but I have to stop the list at some point.