Defining the Right Stuff

The Right Stuff was defined by Tom Wolfe in his 1979 novel by means of discussing the impact of heroes in the cultural aspects of American life. Wolfe depicts this in an ironic manner in his non-fiction book which deals with the public obsession of Americans when it comes to the idea of heroes and mythmaking process in American society. The term “The Right Stuff” was used by the author in order for him to criticize the inability of the American public to critically analyze the stories told which are sometimes concocted by the media in order to advance certain political interests.

The author defines “the right stuff” by means of having all the requirements and passing all the necessary tests in order to be a pilot or a spaceman. Aside from these, the right stuff also includes the ability to possess a strong heart, courage and perseverance. When a person has the mixture of all these, it will be easy for him to attain the right stuff that is required for the project. Bravery is one of the most important aspects of the term the right stuff. The project requires a lot of bravery so that the person can stay longer. It is now just man vs.

other man in competing for a spot in the project, but also man vs. himself. He is responsible to his actions as well as his decisions, which is why he needs to be firm enough not to be swayed away by his fears. Also, it is not bravery wherein you just have to risk your life, as anyone could easily do that. Instead, he should be willing to be literally a lab rat, wherein anything can happen to him. Afterwards, he should be able to keep his cool, as well as retain his reflexes and the experience in order to do it again for the next day, then again the next day, until the research calls for it to stop.

There were various tests that these pilots and astronauts would have to undergo over and over again – an infinite set of mind and body exhausting activities that would really put anyone to their limits. The whole process is compared to a stepped pyramid or a ziggurat, wherein one has to move along the high and steep steps in order to go up. Through this way, that person can prove that as he goes up, he really does deserve to be one of those who were elected to do the job, because they were the right ones and because they had the right stuff to begin with.

Everyone aims for the top, no matter how steep it is, though everyone gets only one chance to prove that they really have the right stuff. It was something that not all man can do, and the ones who do it are really the best. Tom Wolfe defines the right stuff as the culmination of every skill and every talent that a person has, provided that he passes every test that was set for him in order to qualify for the experiment. It is not pure brawns, or pure brains, but instead, it offers the best of everything.

People possessing the right stuff really have to be good at many things, especially those which are greatly needed in the experiment. Nevertheless, Wolfe’s narrative is effective in supporting the claims he make in defining what “the right stuff” is and what it can and cannot afford those who possess it. It succeeds in proving that social norms, public pressure, and political agenda ultimately define “the right stuff” for American consumption and emulation, contrary to widely-held notion of achievement-based rewards in American society.

Wolfe therefore succeeds in delivering an incisive and witty commentary on the media and the public that consumes the images it provides. It is in this feat that Wolfe’s book becomes “the right stuff” itself for awakening the consciousness of the public to examine how the media and political interests collude to manipulate images of heroism and other American ideals.


Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. United States: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1979.