“Single Combat Warrior” sees pressure getting to the astronauts as public attention reaches a fever pitch with a test launch on the horizon.
This recap of The Right Stuff season 1, episode 3, “Single Combat Warrior”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
The Right Stuff is quite unlike anything else on Disney+, which is funny in a way since there’s nothing remarkable or unusual about it. But the House of Mouse doesn’t typically traffic in anything even remotely risqué, so the overarching point of “Single Combat Warrior”, which is largely about how the pressures of fame and national responsibility and, yes, the temptation of women, are getting to the members of the Mercury 7, feels weirdly daring. The show’s fusion of real history with slightly exaggerated drama continues to work well in this latest instalment, settling into a comfortable balance as a test launch looms on the horizon and public interest in the mission reaches a fever pitch.
The Right Stuff episode 3 opens with the disastrous launch of the Mercury-Atlas 1 rocket, though, which doesn’t bode well, much to the annoyance of Chris Kraft and the rest of Mercury Mission Control. Even when Glynn talks about sims designed to test the team’s response to problems, there’s still a sense that pressure is getting to everyone regardless. When the time comes to do this publicly, as Kraft explains, “The press will be there, representatives of your federal government will be there, the wives and children of our astronauts will be there.” They need to get it right.
The astronauts themselves aren’t having a great time either. They’re being put through the multidirectional rigours of the Multiple-Axis Space Test Inertia Facility, the MASTIF or “gimbal rig”, which is designed to simulate space flight and is giving everyone a tough time, but none more so than Alan, who comes out of the contraption thoroughly disoriented and with a ringing in his ear that causes him to snap his fingers to self-test his hearing. In real life, Alan had Ménière’s disease, which is clearly what is being alluded to here.
At least the men still get to live in relative luxury at the Starlite Motel in Cocoa Beach on LIFE magazine’s dime, even if they might be individually worried about their performance in the MASTIF. Glenn, supposedly, isn’t keen on this freewheeling lifestyle, a sentiment he expresses to anyone who’ll listen, including his wife Annie, who along with the rest of the wives is preparing for a LIFE photoshoot. As we’ll see, though, this isn’t entirely true.
Glenn is certainly somewhat apart from the rest of the men though. He mimics laying in the spacecraft’s seats in his car after the moulds are delivered to Hanger S and tries to run through the procedure of liftoff in his head until he’s interrupted by Wally Schirra and a plastic alligator. He isn’t as on-board with the practical jokes as the rest of the guys, just as Alan doesn’t seem to be as on-board with the MASTIF, as “Single Combat Warrior” shows his repeated (failed) attempts to get it under control.
While Kraft and Lunney try to drum up some team spirit between with the flight controllers with a game of volleyball, Glenn continues to be slightly apart, recommended by Kraft’s secretary Eunice to visit her church – he mentioned God in his LIFE interview – and by Kraft himself to “be part of the team.” That’s an understandable suggestion but this is also, in some way, a competition for who gets the ultimate honour of being first into space. It’s a team effort, obviously, but the glory won’t be shared equally, which Glenn seems acutely aware of. While the other men busy themselves with female attention, he heads out to church, as advised.
Thus far, it’s Alan who has been established as a womanizer, and we see a bit of that here in The Right Stuff episode 3, but we also see him becoming consumed with the MASTIF and his obvious underlying health issues. While things get a bit risqué at the pool and Glenn discovers that the so-called “church” is actually a bowling alley, Dee O’Hara finds Alan on the floor having been tossed off the MASTIF. Between this, Gordo and Grissom getting into it, and Glenn cosying up with Dot at the bowling alley, we see the team starting to come apart a bit, casting off their Boy Scout public image in favour of something a bit truer.
This is especially the case for Alan, who is clearly dealing with a tremendous amount of anxiety about being dropped from the mission. While O’Hara is examining him, he asks what she might do if she found something amiss. She assures him it’d be kept in confidence unless it jeopardized the mission, which isn’t exactly what he wants to hear. When she asks him about experiencing any dizziness or hearing loss, he shakes his head.
Likewise with Glenn, when he drives Dot home, there’s a little hint about the two of them hooking up. Glenn ultimately rejects this, but it’s the closest we’ve seen him come to real temptation – his refusal to be one of the boys led to him closer than ever to actually becoming one of the boys. That’s what going to church will get you, I guess.
Of course, Alan gets to grips with the MASTIF, and the men all share in their reservations about the prototype Mercury capsule, which will be controlled mostly from the ground. “Spam in a can” is how they see it; a real quote, for what it’s worth. Later, the wives all gather for the LIFE cover photoshoot, which was also real and which “Single Combat Warrior” does a good job of emulating, right down to Rene’s bold floral dress.
Then it’s time for the launch of Mercury-Atlas 1, the first attempt at putting a Mercury capsule in space, and the real version of the test run we saw at the top of the episode. Everyone is assembled to watch the launch, which isn’t much more successful this time around. The astronauts and their families watch it burst into flames, as Alan slyly clicks beside his ear, obviously beset by the ringing again.
Things aren’t looking good.
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