“Sierra Hotel” assembles its core cast and sets the stakes for this retelling of history.
This recap of The Right Stuff season 1, episode 1, “Sierra Hotel”, contains spoilers.
As with all dramatized stories based on real history, the first thing The Right Stuff episode 1, “Sierra Hotel” does is remind us that parts of what we’re about to see might not be true. But as we cut to Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 5, 1961, there’s something about a hand-picked astronaut eating filet mignon for breakfast that seems quite real — it might be his last meal, after all. It should be something fancy. The testy exchange that takes place during the meal feels fictional, though; a bit of bitchiness to spice things up.
This is the launch of Mercury Redstone 3, a key component of the United States playing catch-up with Russians in the Space Race. Astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr., who I now like to imagine was full of steak, is about to become the first American in space. It’s international news. The public has assembled. History is about to be made. But this is quite a modestly-budgeted show, so instead of fixating on the launch we instead flit back two years, to 1959. In Langley, Virginia, a young man named Glynn delivers a list of test pilots to some muckety-mucks on the Space Task Force. One of those test pilots, Cal Cunningham, spirals out of the sky to his death as his name on the list is squeakily crossed out. Test pilots, apparently, have an odd habit — a lot of them die.
The next list contains a Marine — John Glenn. John is 38 and is fuming about having apparently aged out of the honor of being the first American in space. The rest of the names are ticked off, but Alan Shepard is circled — he’s the best pilot the Navy has ever seen, but also one of the most reckless. We see Alan in a motel room with a woman who knows he’s married but doesn’t know his name. The takeaway from this conversation is that Alan has recently been promoted and gets to fly less. The point is reiterated in the very next scene. Alan should be happy with his cushy desk job with its regular hours and no risk, but he’s not. At all.
In the aftermath of Cal Cunningham’s death, Gordon Cooper, who was flying with him at the time, is looking for a transfer. Cal was his wingman and friend, and his tragic demise has obviously led to his disillusionment with being a test pilot. Gordon has one hand bandaged up after getting blackout drunk and falling through a glass coffee table, so he obviously has some longstanding issues anyway, but a note delivered to him by a courier might change all that. John is delivered one too, an eyes-only top-secret communication; an invitation to Langley Air Force base for a secret meeting. He realizes right away it’s the space program.
This meeting doesn’t seem that secret to me. Everyone apparently knows about it except Alan, who isn’t pleased to discover he’s out of the loop. As per instructions, all the test pilots arrive at the designated location and check-in under the same name: Bill Baker. As it turns out, Alan wasn’t left out, he just received the telegram late, meaning he has to sprint to NASA and make a fashionably late entrance to a grandiose briefing full of scaremongering about the Russians and the dangers of the mission that’s being proposed. Only seven of this bunch will be selected for Project Mercury, after a whittling-down process that’ll separate the best from the best.
John and Alan are the most experienced pilots there, and both are confident they’ll be among the seven — Alan is pretty sure that he’ll be the first man in space. Gordo introduces himself to the pair of them. You can feel our core cast coming together here among all these introductions; there are a lot of them, though, and a joke the receptionist made earlier about all the Bill Bakers looking the same was accurate enough that it’s difficult for the audience to keep track of who’s who. All of the Bills, though, take an immediate shine to Carol, but it’s Alan who leads her upstairs to her room, which earns a head shake from John.
Only two of the assembled men decline the invitation to join the program, which means 108 of them need to be whittled down to 32. We also start to get a sense of the family lives of some of these men. John’s wife, Annie, is supportive enough, but Gordo is separated from his missus. The problem with that is Project Mercury is only taking men from stable families, so he needs Trudy and their daughters to come home, even if it’s only temporarily, so that he can pass the background check. Cue montage!
Nothing about astronaut training looks fun. Exercises are done under oxygen deprivation, you’re spun around until you vomit, and men in lab coats shove things down your throat and up your arse. There’s a sit-down creative writing task that doubles as a psychological evaluation. Alan is only willing to part with the following: “I am a man who values his privacy.” When he’s pressed on this he only kicks off even more and is told that eventually, for all his physical aptitude, his lack of honesty with himself will catch up with him. It’s hard to argue with that.
Virgil Grissom, Donald Slayton, John Glenn, Walter Schirra, Malcolm Carpenter, Leroy G. Cooper, and, of course, Alan Shepard — these are your Mercury astronauts. We get a little montage of them all being told the news and then wheeled out for the press, which is where “Sierra Hotel” ends, having got its ducks in a row.
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