“Advent” sees the Space Race heat up as multiple personal and professional problems threaten to derail the Mercury project before it even gets going.
This recap of The Right Stuff season 1, episode 4, “Advent”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
It’s easy to forget that the Space Race was very much a race. You’d think scientific advancement would justify itself; that unparalleled achievements in aeronautics and engineering would be their own reward. But no such luck. Only three months after the spectacular, very public failure of NASA’s Mercury-Atlas 1 launch which capped off the previous episode, a Soviet robotic probe, Luna 3, orbits the moon and takes pictures of the heretofore unseen far side. It doesn’t matter who does what, only who does it first. And thus far, the Russians are winning hands down.
This is a problem, obviously. And people are willing to make all kinds of compromises to solve problems, up to and including collaborating with former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who designed Hitler’s V2 rockets and the Redstone that’ll launch the first astronaut into space. When the men, angry about being unable to pilot the craft and demanding changes that’ll allow them to do so, confront Gilruth, they’re quickly set straight by the pictures taken by Luna 3. They understand the stakes better than anyone. And the Russians aren’t wasting time going up the chain of command to complain.
The introduction of von Braun is one of the big additions in “Advent”, but another, more personal one is young Judith (Ella Paige), Alan’s niece. His wife Louise’s sister has died and Judith is coming to stay with them, which he explains to Dee while they’re out picking out gifts at a toy store. The presence of both is deeply felt throughout the episode, and in some ways, they symbolize the dueling personal and professional responsibilities of these men who continue to be in the public eye. Their own reputations are on the line, but the reputation of the country itself depends on them.
And things aren’t looking good for the country’s reputation. During the Mercury-Redstone 1 rocket test, supervised by von Braun and his men in the blockhouse and Kraft and the flight controllers elsewhere, the launch fails again. In the confusion, Kraft overhears that the Germans are looking for a gun, so he races toward Launch Complex 5 and tackles the man that von Braun has sent to pump holes into the rocket to relieve the pressure. This leads to a big to-do between Kraft and von Braun, who calmly blames American procedures for the failure, rather than his rocket design.
The personal lives of the astronauts are still causing problems in “Advent” too. Cooper, for instance, is smilingly handed an envelope by a pretty woman – this is the enigmatic Lurleen – who tells him to read the card inside, which he later does and dumps in the trash outside his house (a rookie move if ever there was one.) At the Shepard house, Louise lets Alan know that they’re going to call Judith Martha, since Judith is too close to Julie, which is a spectacular decision to make for a child that age who has just lost her mother. The Glenns, meanwhile, fret about the upcoming presidential election (topical!) between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, with the little matter of the project’s funding resting on the outcome. For that reason, Annie encourages her husband to get Kennedy on-side, which leads to the climactic guff of The Right Stuff season 1, episode 4, but more on that in a bit.
In the meantime, Trudy finds the note from Lurleen in the trash, which contains an address where she wants Cooper to meet her. Honestly, it’s inexplicably dumb that he’d have left the note there, but whatever. Things aren’t going particularly well for the Shepards either, since Alan’s insufferable father “Bart” and his wife Pauline are around for Christmas dinner. Bart’s a colossal pr*ck, berating Alan and Louise for renaming Judith – although that’s a fair criticism – and then physically disciplining her for putting her elbows on the table. He also isn’t shy about ridiculing NASA’s efforts thus far and Alan’s role particularly, which he sees as having accomplished nothing – and having sacrificed his Navy career to do so. Yikes.
Nobody is having a great Christmas in “Advent”. Slayton, unable to get home due to the storm, spends his in the Starlite Lounge with von Braun, who tells him about Kraft’s deformed hand and denied aspirations of being a pilot. Trudy spends hers with Lurleen, who she ambushes at the motel and argues with over who’s right for Cooper.
This is a lot of toing and froing, but at least we get some resolution, some of which makes for really nice character moments. When Slayton confronts Kraft about what von Braun told him, he confesses to having dropped his peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a fire when he was three and burned his hand trying to pull it out. In response, Slayton shows off his own deformity, a missing ring finger. “Screw von Braun. Never liked that Nazi anyway.” It’s a nice moment, especially since Kraft is so obviously torn up about his inability to be a pilot himself. Trudy confesses to Cooper about going to the motel, and the two are able to reconcile somewhat, with Cooper confessing his mistakes but also making his intentions clear. And Judith tells Shepard outright that she doesn’t want to be called Martha, and would prefer to choose her own name. At first, she goes with Alan but eventually settles for Alice. Their “pleased to meet you” and hug is another nice moment.
But “Advent” ends with a bit of a mishap, as alluded to previously. At a New Year’s Eve party which all the pilots and their wives are in attendance for, Glenn is cutting about being all smug about Kennedy’s pending arrival, but when a motorcade pulls up outside, it isn’t the former president who gets out, but his “special advisor for all matters science”, Jerome Wiesner (Todd Allen Durkin). As the clock counts down to midnight and the beginning of 1960, Glenn might have done the project much more harm than good.
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