It was a fine idea for the Museum of Science and Industry and the Chicago Public Library to hold, as part of the “One Book, One Chicago” reading of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” a panel discussion at the Museum of Science and Industry on October 11. A fine idea, but a little silly when you consider the following:
1.) Wolfe’s book is about going toe-to-toe with the Soviets miles above Earth at the height of the Cold War. Wolfe may be criticizing Project Mercury as a wasteful venture made possible by a hysterical public and a complicit media, but he also knows he’s got a great human interest story.
2.) The panel was supposed to discuss the accuracy of Wolfe’s book, but the NASA representatives, astronaut Ken Ham and former shuttle program director Wayne Hale, are products of the shuttle era. This is the era best encapsulated by the picture in my Spanish book depicting astronaut Ellen Ochoa playing her flute in space to determine if zero gravity has any effect on acoustics. What would Al Shepard say about all this?
The result was an hour of trying to stick a square peg in a round hole, as they say in “Apollo 13.” The only person who could’ve made this work, Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, had to bow out at the last minute. The panel gamely tried to answer the questions posed by Channel 7’s slick Paul Meincke, though it was an odd combination of perspectives.
Hale, an amiable, soft-spoken fellow, had the most realistic view of things, acknowledging that the shuttle is past its prime. Roger Launius, a windy curator from the National Air and Space Museum, dominated the conversation with his monologues about humans “becoming an interplanetary species,” while Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey provided the literary insight into Wolfe’s work. The only whiff of the Right Stuff belonged to Ham, who flew Navy combat missions over Kosovo and Iraq. In the clipped voice of someone accustomed to speaking to wingmen over a microphone, Ham spoke of the book’s title as being about “the right ingredients to successfully accomplish your goal,” which sounded like the type of platitude John Glenn offers to the press in “The Right Stuff.”
Ham didn’t have much to say beyond that, but it was enough for a sparse crowd of rocket enthusiasts. For anyone in attendance not wearing a NASA T-shirt, the panel was a reminder that the dream has died softly, and we’re mostly okay with that.