We talk to author James M Clash, whose new book paints a picture of the iconic individuals who sculpted the technical landscape of the 1960s.
Half a century ago the world was poised on the brink of some of the greatest technological breakthroughs we'd ever seen. In those days the way we saw technology was inextricably linked to human achievement. If we were able to walk on the Moon, dive to the lowest point of the oceans, fly aeroplanes faster than thunder, climb to the highest point on earth or parachute back home from the edge of space it was because of a combination of two things. You needed the technology, and you needed a human superhero: someone with the right stuff.
'The Right Stuff' is a compilation of interviews with what author James M Clash calls "icons of exploration in all walks of life". Despite the book's subtitle - 'Interviews with Icons of the 1960s' - the book is wider in range, dealing also with critical events leading up to the decade in question. At this point it's important to grasp two things about Clash's book: first, although the word 'Sixties' will bring to mind images of radical counterculture, what we are talking about here is human achievement mostly in the context of the Cold War; and second, for the most part we are talking about challenges that couldn't have been met without direct assistance from a world of technology that was in its heyday.
The book itself comprises interviews with 14 key figures from this era that Clash, in his career as a journalist, has picked up along the way. Starting with Chuck Jaeger - the first person to break the sound barrier in level flight - and ending with Apollo 11 in 1969, it's a story that is so different from one of Civil Rights and Jefferson Airplane. Here we have a theme of nations struggling to make their mark on the world in a proxy war, where being the first to achieve something had significance beyond that of simply winning. There were national identities to reinforce and there was national pride at stake. Although John Glenn's early space missions were extraordinary technical achievements, what really propelled him into the heavens wasn't the rocket he was sitting in, but the fact that the Russians had already got Yuri Gagarin into orbit.
"Right now there's a lot of nostalgia for the 1950s and 1960s. If you look at the achievements described in the book, the people behind them are real trailblazers. These are people who did big things in an era where big things were the norm. Today we hearken back to a simpler time, but it was a time when you could make big strides and feel good about moving forward."
Coming in from the cold
Clash isn't surprised that technology has played such a role in breaking human barriers. "They go hand-in-hand. Both of these things require a thirst for the unusual. When Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon that was the result of the backup of a 400,000 strong support team back on Earth. This was incredible because, when you think about it, back in the early 1900s we'd hardly began flying and in less than 70 years we're suddenly on the Moon. So yes, the technology allows us to set those marks and pass those barriers. But it's driven by the human thirst for what is beyond the norm. And the cerebral aspect of the technology pushes the scientists further."
If technology was the means by which this incredible upsurge in human record-breaking could be achieved, the driver behind the technology was, according to Clash, the Cold War. "All of the astronauts will tell you that America was in a race with Russia for technological superiority, which was defined by your progress in space. That was the latest thing." Clash is clear that one thing he has learned - and he can't quite keep the disappointment out of his voice - is that space travel wasn't primarily about what he calls a "romantic notion of exploration for its own sake. It was more because the government said: 'OK, we must move on with this and here's the money to do it.' And when you ask the astronauts why they did what they did, they will tell you they were doing their duty for their country".
Clash's book ends with two chapters featuring Apollo 11 astronauts and so wraps up the 1960s. "With the men on the Moon, we'd gained the technological superiority over the Russians to claim that we [the USA] had won the Cold War." He goes on to say that this was a metaphorical war, where the rockets fired were at the Moon rather than at other countries. But it was a war fought by scientists, test pilots, physicists. The idea that we were somehow 'exploring' space was notional. Nobody really cared what was up there. The only thing that mattered was to get there first.
Of the 14 protagonists in 'The Right Stuff' there is not one woman, and so the first thing to say when looking for what Clash's iconic figures have in common is that they were all men. But do they have anything more in common than that? In choosing the same book title as Tom Wolfe did for his 1979 book about the space race, was Clash looking to find out more about the personal attributes that went into making his subjects?
"I would say that the one thing that every single person I interviewed for this book had in common was a sense of humility, with the right moral values. The right stuff. And I think that part of that comes from the realisation that what they did was the real deal. But if you were to ask me if there was an underlying psychological attribute then I would have to say that they are all cool and logical under pressure. If you ask them about fear they will tell you that sitting on top of six million pounds of liquid oxygen or hydrogen doesn't scare them. They are thinking more about not letting their country down, not letting Nasa down."
In other words old school professionals, who believed in preparation, were calculated risk-takers and survivors. Whether it was the physical bravery of the men up in space or the intellectual bravery of the scientists developing the rocketry to get them there, "none of these people did what they did for fame or money. None of them did it for the wrong reasons," says Clash, "and I think that's why I used the title for the book that I did. And I think that's why Tom Wolfe did too."
'The Right Stuff' by James M Clash is published by AskMen and is available in e-book format only, £6.55 from Amazon