With the flight order announced and public scrutiny higher than ever, “Vostok” sees NASA trying to keep the Mercury Project alive while multiple different factors threaten to sabotage.
This recap of The Right Stuff season 1, episode 6, “Vostok”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Following the reveal of the flight order last week, “Vostok” finds Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and John Glenn being wheeled out to the press as NASA’s “First Team”, even though who exactly will go up when isn’t revealed. Naturally, this proves a point of interest for the media, with Loudon pressing Glenn for info on the drive to the airport. Have NASA already decided on the order and are just milking the drama leading up to the launch? Or is that coveted first position still up for grabs?
All this focus on the First Team – including a LIFE cover – leaves the other men out to dry a bit, left to amuse themselves at the Starlite Lounge where a petty game of tossing and catching a glass lands Cooper a nasty – and familiar – cut. The cut prompts unpleasant memories of the late Cal Cunningham, the other test pilot who died in the opening episode, as Henri helps a very inebriated Cooper back to his room.
Before the flight, Kraft and Gilruth lay out a litany of reviews ordered by Jerome Wiesner’s Presidential Scientific Advisory Committee (PSAC), since JFK, newly-installed in office, is looking for a reason to shut the program down rather than have to shoulder the responsibility of a very tragic and public failure. The men, then, elect to ace the demonstrations to prove a point, but it’s a difficult proposition with Shepard still badly suffering from his Meniere’s disease, which hasn’t escaped the notice of Dee.
It’s Shepard who is tasked with demonstrating the emergency egress procedure for if the Mercury capsule finds itself taking on water, which is simulated with a mock-up in the hotel pool, and the demonstration triggers Shepard’s condition, even though he’s ultimately successful.
Shepard’s potential unsuitability to the task doesn’t go unnoticed by Glenn, either. Annie finds him up late, typing up multiple copies of the same letter in an empty bathtub. Glenn’s concerned that Shepard might sink the whole project, and he believes he has an idea of who might be best to take his place – him. Annie, though, says this isn’t her husband and puts the letters away. Glenn has to concede that perhaps his wife is seeing this situation clearer than he is, but the next morning she wakes up to find both her husband and the letters gone.
That same night, Cooper’s daughter Cam calls him to confess her recent dumb behavior, which we’ve seen examples of in recent episodes, and since they’ve both been acting out lately, they can relate to one another. Neither knows that Trudy is listening on the line.
“Vostok” finds Shepard’s flight delayed – as Gilruth informs him, with an entirely straight face, the President wants to send a chimpanzee named Ham into space first, on the same Mercury-Redstone rocket that’ll be launching Shepard, to check the viability of the voyage. And while it starts out well, it doesn’t exactly go to plan, with the capsule being separated from the rocket and launched miles off course. “The little fella’s doing just fine,” Kraft reveals, proving the mission a success, even if Wiesner argues otherwise. This conversation is great, full of acerbic one-liners and clashing perspectives, and the much bigger historical context of the space race. Project Mercury is eventually allowed to proceed, but later, at the bar, von Braun lets on that, thanks to something in a medical file, the flight order is being changed.
Naturally, Shepard thinks Dee has ratted him out, but when he confronts her she turns the tables on him, reminding him that he never actually told her anything and instructing him to “be a man” and ask Kraft himself. Anti-Shepard sentiment seems to be everywhere in “Vostok”. Gilruth later confronts Glenn about sending those letters, warning him that he’s the one who seems unfit at the moment, despite his claims that he was only trying to save the program.
But it’s Slayon around whose health concerns have been raised – he has arrhythmia, and despite being cleared to fly years ago, he’s being grounded now. Kraft insists they’re going to find something for him to do, but it’s a small consolation, really. Speaking of which, there is a further blow to the program which caps off the episode. The Russians have put a man into orbit first.
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