Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Right Stuff (1983)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Right Stuff (1983)

In director Philip Kaufman's epic dramatic adaptation of Tom Wolfe's best-selling non-fiction novel about military pilots conducting tests and research at Edwards Air Force Base (California), and the test pilots (future astronauts) involved in the pioneering Project Mercury spaceflight program - with many exhilarating flying sequences and a brilliant Bill Conti score:

  • the opening scene with voice-over narration about the goal of breaking the sound barrier in the late 1940s: "There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier. Then they built a small plane, the X-1, to try and break the sound barrier. And men came to the high desert of California to ride it. They were called test pilots and no one knew their names"
  • the secret test mission sequences, set in 1947 at an army airfield in California (Muroc, the future site of Edwards AF base), of obsessed, 'right stuff' test pilot Chuck Yeager (Oscar-nominated Sam Shepard); in the local bar, Yeager was approached by two military officials and casually asked what he truly thought of the sound barrier - he responded: "Well, I'll tell ya half these engineers have never been off the ground, ya know. I mean, they're liable to tell ya that the sound barrier's a brick wall in the sky. It'll rip your ears off if you try to go through it. If you ask me, I don't believe the damn thing even exists"; he agreed to "have a go at it" and fly the next morning - with no additional salary beyond his $283 dollars a month pay from the Air Force
  • the sequence of Yeager's attempt to break the sound barrier - his top-secret, successful test run in October of 1947; just before Yeager took off in a B-29 bomber, he kissed and then waved goodbye to his wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey), who stood nearby to watch; onboard, Yeager was dropped from a B-29 in his high-speed, rocket-powered orange Bell X-1 aircraft, and after some tense moments, he broke the sound barrier - his plane began to shake and vibrate, his pressure gauge cracked and others on the ground felt the impact of the sonic boom - they asked themselves: "What's that sound?"; some moaned: "Oh God, he bought the farm. That's it, we're back to square one" - fearing Yeager's death; however, Yeager suddenly reported via radio: "Make a note here would ya? Must be something wrong with this ol' Mach meter. Jumped plumb off the scale. Gone kinda screwy on me... I'm still goin' upstairs like a bat outta hell"; the observers were jubilant ("He finally did it! He broke the sound barrier!"), including his wife Glennis and friends Slick Goodlin (William Russ) and Pancho Barnes (Kim Stanley) (proprietess of the flyboys' local watering hold in the Mojave, the Happy Bottom Riding Club)
Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard)
Glennis Yeager (Barbara Hershey) Waving Goodbye
Yeager's X-1 Dropped from B-29
Yeager at the Controls
Gauges Showing Mach 1.0 Speed Broken
Pressure Gauge Cracked
  • the vignette from 1953 when one of the first future astronauts, boyish USAF pilot Capt. Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and pretty wife Trudy (Pamela Reed) drove in an open convertible toward Edwards AF base, with the radio blaring: "I've got a rocket in my pocket"; he bragged as he zoomed past a truck: "Who's the best pilot you ever saw? You're lookin' at it, baby....Did I ever let you down?"; she was soon completely let down by the disappointing and sparse military base accommodations - with dirty tap water, lack of electricity - and the fear of losing her husband in a crash, etc.
  • after the launch of Russia's satellite dubbed Sputnik into space in 1957 (orbiting for three weeks), a 'space race' was triggered and the NASA agency was formed; a number of failed rocket launchings were conducted in the next few years at Cape Canaveral in Florida
  • naval officer Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) was introduced after landing his jet on an aircraft carrier; he had been noticed on TV's The Ed Sullivan Show (and on a game show) by two sea-sick NASA recruiters (Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum) who decided to approach him on the carrier; the two spoke of the dangers of space flight to Shepard: ("I doubt you've heard about our project. We're going up against the Russians all the way. It's got the highest priority. It's a hazardous undertaking. In fact, it's extremely hazardous, if you get my meaning. It's so hazardous that if you decide not to volunteer, it will not be held against you in any way"); without hesitating, Shepard immediately signed on: "Count me in"
  • the scenes of the many medical exams and physical tests endured by the pilots chosen as applicants for the Mercury space program, including centrifugal force tests and enema continence tests, followed by extreme fitness and training exercises; at the Lovelace Clinic (Albuquerque NM) in February of 1959, Shepard was given a paralyzing nerve stimulation test in his left arm
Spinning and Centrifugal Force Test
Puncture and Nerve Test
Enema Continence Test
  • the scene of the lung capacity test during a rigorous selection process, when the prospective astronaut-trainees were instructed by the head Nurse Murch (Jane Dornacker) to exhale continuously into a tube and keep a ping-pong ball positioned between two sets of lines; she mentioned that the current record was 91 seconds; thinking that he was the record-breaking winner, Gordon Cooper boasted: "93 seconds. Read it and weep," but then noticed two others still taking the test, Marine flyer John Glenn (Ed Harris) and Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) - Carpenter lasted the longest; Virgil "Gus" Grissom (Fred Ward) joked to Cooper about the last two contestants: "We were competing with Archie and Jughead"
  • the publicity scene of the seven, hand-picked pioneering Project Mercury astronauts being introduced one-by-one by NASA to cheers and praise, and the launching of a subsequent promotional and photo campaign to portray them as heroes (with their wives)
  • during the earliest test flights - the use of chimpanzees to test G-forces and other effects upon animal life, and the controversy that developed over using them as flight subjects, passengers or substitute 'astronauts'
  • the scene of the chosen Mercury astronauts (including John Glenn and Alan Shepard), inspecting and confronting the team of white-coated NASA scientists/engineers led by a German-accented chief (Scott Beach) (modeled after on immigrant Wernher von Braun); they asked intelligent questions (unlike chimpanzees) about their small and inadequate flight capsule - quering about its lack of a window or an escape hatch with explosive emergency bolts; Gordon Cooper asked: "Do you boys know what makes this bird go up? Funding makes this bird go up!", and then "Gus" Grissom stepped forward and added that required design advances demanded more funding (they threatened to reveal funding issues with the press clamoring just outside the hangar): "That's right. No bucks, no Buck Rogers"
  • after making their point, the seven astronauts ("pilots") lined up in front of the capsule ("spacecraft") to have publicity photos taken by the eager press - seen in a montage of different poses (all vying for attention)
Mercury Astronauts Confronting Engineers/Scientists
Led by 'Wernher von Braun'
Historic Footage of JFK
The Iconic Images of the Seven Mercury Astronauts
Walking Forward Toward the Launch Pad
  • the scene of Alan Shepard's flight into space - becoming the first American to be successfully launched in May of 1961 - he was strapped into the capsule and prepared to launch for a short 15-minute orbital flight; however, there were numerous glitches and delays, as reported by Eric Sevareid (as Himself): "There's another hold from NASA, another delay. Alan Shepard sits there, patiently waiting. What can be going through a man's mind at this moment?" - actually, Shepard was naturally complaining of a full bladder to ground control: ("Gordo, I have to urinate....Request permission to relieve bladder") and was permitted to pee into his suit: ("Permission to wet your diapers anytime, son") - to everyone's embarrassment; then Shepard asserted: "Well, I'm a wetback now.... I'm cooler than you are. Why don't you fix your little problems and light this candle!"
  • the sequence of John Glenn's launch by a Mercury Atlas rocket in February 1962 - becoming the first American to orbit the Earth (three times) - and his harrowing re-entry with a faulty and loose heat shield on his capsule - he survived the 18,000 miles per hour and heat build-up during his return (humming to curb his anxiety), with a short nerve-wracking period of time when his radio blanked out during ionization; he was celebrated with a ticker-tape parade up New York's Fifth Avenue
  • there were continuing tests at the rival Edwards AF base, where the Mercury program was mocked by test pilot Chuck Yeager ("Anybody that goes up in the damn thing is gonna be Spam in a can"); however, Yeager also recognized the incredible bravery required to be a Mercury astronaut: "Monkeys? You think a monkey knows he's sittin' on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys they know that, see? Well, I'll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that's on TV. Ol' Gus, he did all right"
  • in a frightening, expertly-edited sequence, Yeager took a dangerous, high-altitude, record-attempting flight in a specially modified Lockheed F-104 Starfighter jet; at the edge of space, his completely-vertical plane stalled and he lost control, and the doomed aircraft quickly lost altitude (exhibited by a wildly-revolving altitude gauge) - Yeager was able to push his ejection-seat button, but his flight suit was set on fire by the rocket in the ejection seat, and a trail of smoke was viewed behind him (his helmet was on fire); the plane precipitously descended and crashed into the desert
Yeager in His Flight Suit
Yeager's Vertical High-Altitude Flight
Altitude Gauge Spinning
Plane Went Out of Control and Spun
Yeager Ejecting
Flames From Ejection Seat
Yeager's Helmet Burning
Crashed, Smoking Plane
Yeager Burned But Alive
  • miraculously, Yeager had survived the high-speed ejection but was badly charred and burned - there was the iconic sight of him proudly walking away from the wreckage of his plane smoldering behind him, with his parachute in his arms
  • the sequence of celebration for the heroic astronauts by Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Donald Moffat) in the Houston Astrodome - with a Texas-sized banquet and a striptease stage performance by 60 year-old burlesque dancer Sally Rand (Peggy Davis) who waved giant white feathered wings serving as fans to mostly obscure her nakedness
  • in the concluding scene - Gordo Cooper finally had a chance to prove he was "the best pilot you ever saw" - by becoming the astronaut with the longest space flight to date in May of 1963; it was the last flight of the Mercury program; as his spacecraft ascended nosily into the heavens, his voice quivered as he reported back: "Up we go into the wild blue yonder. Thirty seconds and fuel is go, oxygen is go. Cabin pressure on the top peg. Altimeter is working.The sun is coming through the window. Oh, Lord, what a heavenly light" - a smile broke over his face
  • the film's ending (voice-over) narration dove-tailed with Cooper's historic flight: "The Mercury program was over. Four years later, astronaut Gus Grissom was killed, along with astronauts White and Chaffee, when fire swept through their Apollo capsule. But on that glorious day in May 1963, Gordo Cooper went higher, farther, and faster than any other American - 22 complete orbits around the world; he was the last American ever to go into space alone. And for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen"; the end-credits followed

Daring Test Pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) Talks About the Non-Existent Sound Barrier

Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) with wife Trudy (Pamela Reed) Arriving at Edwards AF Base - 1953

Two NASA Officials Meeting With and Recruiting Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) on Aircraft Carrier

The Lung Capacity Endurance Test Conducted by Nurse Murch

The Two Winners

Losers: Grissom to Cooper: "We were competing with Archie and Jughead"

NASA's Publicity Campaign for 7 Mercury Program Astronauts (and Their Wives)

Earliest Test Flights - With a Chimpanzee

Shepard (After Peeing in His Spacesuit): "Light this candle!"

Alan Shepard's Flight Into Space

John Glenn's Harrowing Re-Entry With Faulty Heat Shield

The Ticker-Tape Parade After John Glenn's Space Flight

Sally Rand's Feather Strip-Tease Dance

Film's Ending: Gordo's Flight in May, 1963


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