As the Space Shuttle program comes to a close, Tom Matlack wonders where all the Chuck Yeagers have gone.
One of my earliest memories is of my father waking me in the middle of the night when I was four and leading me by the hand as I padded down the stairs in my footsy pajamas. My older brother was already sitting in front of a small black-and-white television set with rabbit ears, and an image of manhood that has stayed with me all of these years was flashing on the screen.
Our house sat atop South Hill in Ithaca, New York. My father was an English professor and an activist against Vietnam War. Daniel Berrigan, the well-known Catholic priest who became one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted men for napalming selective service records, was a frequent guest.
The war, and my father’s response, confused me. But what I saw on the screen didn’t. I instantly understood how amazing and cool and macho it was. Neil Armstrong emerging from his space capsule to take the first steps on the moon and pronounce, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
A couple years later we moved to Amherst, Massachusetts. Dad was teaching at UMass. Our living arrangement had, to my first grade mind, become less comfortable as we had a group of activist graduate students living with us.
I had a habit of waking up incredibly early (something my own six-year-old does now, too, so it must be genetic). I figured out how to turn on our now slightly larger black-and-white television set. I’d tune in to a PBS program that showed extensive footage of the Mercury and early Apollo missions over and over again. On a couch made of plywood and foam rubber my dad had built, I obsessively watched these real men and their rockets.
I was 15 when Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff came out. The book was explicitly about the competition between test pilots, like Chuck Yeager, and astronauts for Project Mercury, like John Glenn, who really had the right stuff. But the implied theme was about what attributes constitute the pinnacle of manhood. The book and the film, which came out four years later, had a big impact on my thinking about manhood.
“Gordo” Cooper, played brilliantly by Dennis Quaid, displayed a kind of brash arrogance that I fell in love with as a model for what a man might be at his best. But it was a kind of perfect-storm trifecta embodied in the Chuck Yeager character in the movie that left a lasting impression to this day.
In the openning scene in the movie, Chuck Yeager is racing his wife on horseback outside Muroc Air Force base in 1947, where the United States has secretly been trying to break the sound barrier, a feat which has, up until that point, ended only in crashes and deaths. The pilots call the barrier the “demon in the sky.”
The scene on horseback is shot so that it’s unclear until the very end that the two participants even know each other, let alone are man and wife. They are going all out as they gallop across the desert. The scene became a kind of touchstone of my own manhood, as I grew up riding horses at a gallop through the fields in western Massachusetts with a beautiful young girl who was my instructor and, in retrospect I realize, my first crush. It’s a scene in the film, and in my own life, as defining manhood in relationship. The beauty and power of the animals, the speed and danger, the feeling of freedom and absolute joy.
At the time the film’s release, I was very involved in theater. So, the fact that Sam Sheppard, perhaps the most famous American playwright, who also happened to be ruggedly handsome and married to Jessica Lange, played Chuck Yeager took the significance of the scene to mythic proportions in my mind. At the end of the scene Yeager falls and breaks his ribs, threatening to make his challenge of the sound barrier impossible. But he refuses to back down, enlisting the help of a friend to devise a cut-off broom handle to allow Yeager to close the catch of the X-1 airplane and become the first man to break the speed of sound.
By college, I had pretty much forgotten about men as astronauts. My obsession had moved on to athletics and my own attempts at greatness through the sport of rowing. During the winter months, when the Connecticut river in Middletown, Connecticut froze, our team would convene every afternoon after class in a student lounge to workout. We’d push the couches out the way, roll out homemade bars made of lead weight sunk into cement filling industrial sized soup cans, taken from the dining commons kitchen, and attached to three-foot-long lengths of pipe painted black.
Each afternoon we’d assemble, turn on a boom box full blast, playing a collection of Rolling Stones and David Bowie, and commence a 90-minute continuous workout that would end with bodies strewn across the floor like a bomb had exploded. Near the end, our coach, Will, would often challenge us individually and as a group to do more, to face up to “gut-check” time with courage and faith in one another as men. He often spoke of the transformational power of pushing beyond our limitations to the space beyond. And that while this was a physical act of courage, it really was a mental and even spiritual challenge resulting in a shift in the soul, not so much the body. If my sense of manhood was born with one man’s walk on the moon, it was forever shaped in the Nicholson Lounge, pushing past my limitations with a homemade “Bear” bar.
One winter day the team began to file in for the daily routine with the couches still in place and the television still on. We often arrived early to mentally prepare ourselves for the ordeal to come. But on this day we sat transfixed to the television set. It’s the only day I can ever remember that our coach ever delayed the start of a workout.
On the screen we watched pre-launch interviews with the schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe as she prepared for her ride aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Then we watched her classroom cheer as the spacecraft took off in a huge flash of light and smoke. Finally we watched as something went terribly wrong, and the massive rocket ship burned into tiny bits off flame and was gone, all aboard with it.
The reaction amongst my teammates was palpable. From bawdy jokes, the room fell silent. I don’t remember a single space shuttle astronaut, despite my early interest in space travel, but I do remember Christa. What had been a man’s domain had become a woman’s. And she had paid the ultimate price.
Will made clear that the transformation of pushing beyond boundaries required a willingness to live in this moment, this stroke. It also required a willingness to die on a certain level. Before races he had a habit of getting an inch from my face, the smell of chewing tobacco on his breath, and focused his blue eyes with the intensity of an assassin. “You ready to die, Mo-Fo?” he’d ask.
Our space program had proven that this question was not gender specific. As much as manhood has been synonymous with a certain macho approach to risk-taking, the grit and determination to push the edges of reality have been embraced by women who have “The Right Stuff” every bit as much as Neil Armstrong or Chuck Yeager.
All of this came to mind with the completion of the last Shuttle mission and the ending of the manned space program. The only astronaut in the last few years I can even name, and I suspect is also true of most Americans, isn’t famous for his bravery in space but his devotion as a husband to a U.S. Senator critically wounded in a gun attack (Mark E. Kelly, husband of Representative Gabrielle Giffords). The fact that his performance at home is more important than his job at the controls of a massive rocket speaks to the state of manhood in America these days and leads me to a broader concern.
The manned space program gave us an iconic vision of what it meant to be a man in America. The Right Stuff wasn’t just a rhetorical question. It was something we all had to ask ourselves, whether in space or in some smelly college lounge. Over the years since, as men have explored their softer sides, rightly so, as husbands and fathers, we have lost the role models that personified the more rugged aspects of manhood.
To me, Sam Sheppard playing Chuck Yeager had a point. Twenty-first century sports, business, political, and entertainment stars are hardly the manly men that I climbed out bed to watch when I was four or woke up early to watch on my family’s homemade couch when I was six.
We seem to have forgotten that it’s OK to be a real man that doesn’t lie or cheat or beat his chest, but stares down things that seem impossible—like flying at the speed of sound or walking on the moon—and doing them anyway.
Main photo courtesy of NASA
Challenger photo courtesy of NASA