In time, the Navy would compile statistics showing that for a career Navy pilot, i.e., one who intended to keep flying for twenty years as Conrad did, there was a 23 percent probability that he would die in an aircraft accident. This did not even include combat deaths, since the military did not classify death in combat as accidental. Furthermore, there was a better than even chance, a 56 percent probability, to be exact, that at some point a career Navy pilot would have to eject from his aircraft and attempt to come down by parachute.
A young man might go into military flight training believing that he was entering some sort of technical school in which he was simply going to acquire a certain set of skills. Instead, he found himself all at once enclosed in a fraternity. And in this fraternity, even though it was military, men were not rated by their outward rank as ensigns, lieutenants, commanders, or whatever. No, herein the world was divided into those who had it and those who did not. This quality, this it, was never named, however, nor was it talked about in any way.
As to just what this ineffable quality was... well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process. No, the idea here (in the all-enclosing fraternity) seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment—and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite—and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God. Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality. There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of tests. A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even—ultimately, God willing, one day—that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.
Manliness, manhood, manly courage... there was something ancient, primordial, irresistible about the challenge of this stuff, no matter what a sophisticated and rational age one might think he lived in.
Reporters violated the invisible walls of the fraternity. They blurted out questions and spoke boorish words about... all the unspoken things!—about fear and bravery (they would say the words!) and how you felt at such-and-such a moment! It was obscene! They presumed a knowledge and an intimacy they did not have and had no right to.
Just as the Soviet success in putting Sputniks into orbit around the earth revived long-buried superstitions about the power of heavenly bodies and the fear of hostile control of the heavens, so did the creation of astronauts and a “manned space program” bring back to life one of the ancient superstitions of warfare. Single combat had been common throughout the world in the pre-Christian era and endured in some places through the Middle Ages. In single combat the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for a pitched battle between the entire forces. In some cases the combat would pit small teams of warriors against one another. Single combat was not seen as a humanitarian substitute for wholesale slaughter until late in its history. That was a Christian reinterpretation of the practice. Originally it had a magical meaning. In ancient China, first the champion warriors would fight to the death as a “testing of fate,” and then the entire armies would fight, emboldened or demoralized by the outcome of the single combat.
Naturally the brave lads chosen for single combat enjoyed a very special status in the army and among their people. They were revered and extolled, songs and poems were written about them, every reasonable comfort and honor was given them, and women and children and even grown men were moved to tears in their presence. Part of this outpouring of emotion and attention was the simple response of a grateful people to men who were willing to risk their lives to protect them. But there was also a certain calculation behind it. The steady pressure of fame and honor tended to embolden the lads still further by constantly reminding them that the fate of the entire people was involved in their performance in battle. At the same time—and this was no small thing in such a high-risk occupation—the honor and glory were in many cases rewards before the fact; on account, as it were. Archaic cultures were quite willing to elevate their single-combat fighters to heroic status even before their blood was let, because it was such an effective incentive. Any young man who entered the corps would get his rewards here on earth, “up front,” to use the current phrase, come what may.
The men chosen for this historic mission took on the archaic mantles of the single-combat warriors of a long-since-forgotten time. They would not be going into space to do actual combat; or not immediately, although it was assumed that something of the sort might take place in a few years. But they were entering into a deadly duel in the heavens, in any event. And even though the archaic term itself had disappeared from memory, they would receive all the homage, all the fame, all the honor and heroic status... before the fact... of the single-combat warrior. Thus beat the mighty drum of martial superstition in the mid-twentieth century.
Fighter jocks, as a breed, put physical exercise very low on the list of things that made up the right stuff. They enjoyed the rude animal health of youth. They put their bodies through dreadful abuses, often in the form of drinking bouts followed by lack of sleep and mortal hangovers, and they still performed like champions. (“I don’t advise it, you understand, but it can be done”—provided you have the right stuff, you miserable pudknocker.) Most agreed with Wally Schirra, who felt that any form of exercise that wasn’t fun, such as waterskiing or handball, was bad for your nervous system.
NASA engineers and technicians at the Cape were pushing themselves so hard in the final weeks people had to be ordered home to rest. It was a grueling time and yet the sort of interlude of adrenal exhilaration that men remember all their lives. It was an interlude of the dedication of body and soul to a cause such as men usually experience only during war. Well... this was war, even though no one had spelled it out in just that way. Without knowing it, they were caught up in the primordial spirit of single combat.
The field of consciousness is very small, said Saint-Exupéry. What do I do next? It was the moment of the test pilot at last. Oh, yes! I’ve been here before! And I am immune! I don’t get into corners I can’t get out of! One thing at a time!