“The Kona Kai Seance” digs deep into themes of masculinity as the pending flight order drives fissures among the astronauts.
This recap of The Right Stuff season 1, episode 5, “The Kona Kai Seance”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Is being an astronaut man’s work? In the ’60s, it certainly seems so. All of the Mercury astronauts are men. And, more than that, they’re celebrities, lionized as the quintessential examples of American Males — devoted, brave, patriotic, hard-working family men. They’re about to make history. But, as we know, they’re imperfect. Some can’t keep their mouths shut or their trousers unzipped. Some are more reliant on their wives than they are on their unshakeable masculinity. America might not be ready for female astronauts, but that isn’t to say it doesn’t need them.
This is a matter raised in “The Kona Kai Seance”, specifically to Trudy, a pilot herself. And it comes right ahead of the men beginning to come apart at the seams, for various reasons. To see them sitting around a fire on the beach, drinking a bottle of Johnnie Walker, and complaining about how many hands they have to shake, you see how vulnerable they are. Fittingly, they discuss the close brushes with death they’ve already had. You get the sense that some of them haven’t quite come back to the land of the living — not really, anyway. It’s a melancholy scene of male vulnerability, welcome in a show all about posturing and chest-puffing tough-guy manhood.
The sense, too, is that these guys know this about themselves. Glenn might be the most vocal about not wanting to blow off steam in the same way as the others, but everyone’s feeling their own personal anxieties, whether it’s a lifelong inability to please their parents or worry over the flight order. As Cooper says to Trudy, “We’re not really champagne people anyway.” So much of the public-facing side of the Mercury project is a facade that it’s easy to forget what’s underneath; for all the achievements in engineering and science and history-making accomplishment, it’s human beings who have to rattle around in this machinery. And human beings make mistakes.
For instance: Shepard goes to Glenn in the middle of the night, torn up about having taken a cab to Tijuana, drunk too much, and been photographed philandering. That leaves Glenn to chase up photographers at the San Diego Herald. Shorty gives him a lead to Mr. Samuel Evans, who insists the paper will be running the story regardless. “This is a unique situation,” Glenn argues. “Every man’s situation is unique to him,” is the response, which is exactly what I’ve been saying. Glenn has to resort to begging, playing up the historical magnitude of what this story represents. “Think about the last draft of history, the one that never gets rewritten.” Quite. But it seems like Glenn’s silver tongue works a charm on Evans, though “The Kona Kai Seance” plays coy with whether the story has been run in the paper the next morning. Glenn takes a look and passes it to Shepard, saying he thinks they should gather the guys. We need to know!
In bed that morning, Trudy tells Cooper about Jerrie Cobb grooming a group of women to be astronauts, and that she asked her to try out. She wants to do it. Cooper is, predictably, in disbelief. “I just want you to be happy,” he says. “Me too.” Read the room, Cooper. Nevertheless, despite his incredulity, he supports Trudy in her ambition.
Anyway, Glenn gets the men together for a lecture about how they’re going to conduct themselves from here on. He tries to be coy — “I understand the allure of the female form. I’m a Christian man, not a blind man,” — but Shepard owns up to his own indiscretion. Glenn managed to get the story pulled, but he won’t be able to do that every time. The project is at risk as it is, and folks see them as heroes — they need to live up to that reputation. But when Glenn lets on that he told Shorty about what happened, Shepard turns on him, claiming “ratting him out” was all an attempt to be first on the flight order. They discuss, fittingly, what “a man” should do, obviously seeing it differently. Glenn has had quite enough of being accused of being out for himself considering he has, at one point or another, “saved” everyone there. “Just… just act like grown men.” Easier said than done. Still, he got burgers for everyone, which certainly helps.
It doesn’t help with Shepard. He still feels like Glenn betrayed his trust to get ahead, Perhaps some of the others feel the same way since Shepard insists that if Glenn’s first, as he’s likely to be, everyone in the room will know what he did to get there.
The next time the men are together, Gilruth announces that they’ll determine the flight order for the first three astronauts, though nothing will be announced to the public just yet. Gilruth puts it to a vote, based on the question: If you could not make the flight yourself, who would you choose? The men all vote, and the ballots are handed to Gilruth, who burns them. He writes the names on the board, visible to the men but not to us, and the men file out until only Glenn and Shepard are left. They shake hands. The flight order is Shepard first, Grissom second, and Glenn third.