by Breanna Beers
National Geographic’s eight-episode Disney+ original series “The Right Stuff” launched exactly as a rocket should: successfully, but uneventfully.
The first episode outlines the selection of the ‘Mercury Seven,’ with a focus on three: John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), and Gordon Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue). The early part of the episode focuses on the first two, foreshadowing a rivalry that we can expect to develop over the next seven episodes.
Where Shepard is a pent-up ball of masculine anxiety expressed as cockiness, resentment, and aggression, Glenn is an even-keeled family man with his eyes on the bigger picture of what the Mercury mission really means. The conflict between the playboy daredevil and the serious visionary is a bit clichéd, but I’m hoping that as the series continues, we’ll get to see these characters filled out with more nuanced motivations, perhaps influenced by each other.
What’s mildly more interesting than this overdone contrast are the similarities between the two. Both are acclaimed military officers and fearless test pilots. Both are geniuses pushed into desk jobs against their will as they near middle age. And both see space as the ultimate extension of what they first sought in flying: for Shepard, adrenaline, and for Glenn, a legacy.
By contrast, the first time we see Cooper, his daring leads to devastation rather than prestige, costing one of his closest friends his life. The accident serves as a stark reminder of Cooper’s own mortality, and he requests to be transferred to a different assignment for the sake of his wife and children. Yet when summoned to a top secret NASA briefing, he becomes captivated by the stars—an exact reversal of Glenn’s and Shepard’s journeys. Where they seek out NASA to avoid a desk job, Cooper accidentally stumbles into the program after requesting one.
As NASA narrows their 110 recruits to seven, even the astronaut candidates themselves aren’t impressed with the tiny new agency. Shepard quips to Glenn after the recruiting conference, “If they were really committed, they’d be a branch of the military.” “It could just be a publicity stunt,” Glenn replies wryly.
The recruits’ skepticism serves as a telling reminder that the Mercury program was unprecedented and untested. What would today require years of preparation and planning was condensed into a period of a few months. After all, the goal was not scientific exploration but cold war demonstration—more race than research.
Meanwhile, the press coverage of the cohort was nearly as constant as COVID reporting is today. I’m hoping that the show will deliver on its press release promise of “a clear-eyed look at America’s first ‘reality show,’ when ambitious astronauts and their families became instant celebrities in a competition of money, fame and immortality.” This is “The Right Stuff”’s chance to become current in an age where publicity looks different than it ever has before, rather than just another space drama.
As it is, however, this episode sets up promising themes, but it’s not a particularly original retelling. Its characters are clichéd in their bravado and idealism, and the first strains of patriotic adventurers letting their dreams interfere with their home lives are already starting to show. From the training montage to the worried wives, there isn’t a space trope the episode doesn’t accommodate.
Regardless, this is only the first episode. Maybe Glenn and Shepard will both be humanized: Glenn as more than our straightlaced white knight and Shepard as more than the tormented macho antihero that they are in this episode. The actors certainly do their best with what they’re given, but there’s only so much room for creativity when you’re working within the confines of a generic script.
Either way, as an incorrigible space nerd, I’ll be watching it the whole way through. I’m cautiously optimistic that for those less familiar with these stories, which are often overlooked in favor of the Apollo missions, “The Right Stuff” could provide an engaging and accessible introduction. Stay tuned for my final judgment as the remaining episodes are released over the next several weeks.
Breanna Beers is a senior Molecular Biology major and the Editor-in-Chief of Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and citrus tea.