“Ziggurat” brings Shepard closer than ever to space, but circumstances conspire to keep him grounded for now as relationships and geopolitics both get testier than ever.
This recap of The Right Stuff season 1, episode 7, “Ziggurat”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Things aren’t looking good for the U.S. on the world stage in “Ziggurat”. The Russians have beaten the Americans to space. And just days after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made both the news and history, the Bay of Pigs invasion began. Amongst all that, on a human rather than a geopolitical level, John Glenn and Alan Shepard still don’t like each other very much.
But the geopolitical aspect is pretty important, since President Kennedy needs a win on the world stage, and Project Mercury can provide it – hopefully, anyway. Shepard will be launching in two weeks, and Glenn will be backing him up. “Kennedy might have grown a pair,” says Gilruth, “but they don’t get big overnight.”
Preparation for the launch still isn’t going entirely smoothly. The simulations are leaving Shepard annoyed and petulant. His Meniere’s disease is flaring up. He has the weight of the entire nation on his shoulders, and it’s literally making his head spin.
By comparison, Jerrie Cobb is doing alright, riding a spinning chair at New Mexico’s Lovelace Clinic “longer than anyone else, ever”, which makes her a real inspiration to someone like Trudy, who tells Cam about Cobb and her team of female astronauts and that the team might well include her mom. Cam is excited to hear that. But, as we’ll see later, but there are plenty of people who’d rather not hear it at all.
Among those people are most of the Mercury astronauts, with Cooper, knowing of Trudy’s interest, trying limply to defend the idea against baseless accusations of “menstruation” and such prohibiting women from flying. Shepard, meanwhile, has other concerns, namely having a man he can trust on the ground during his launch, and not having Glenn too close for comfort given the content of the letters he sent out about Shepard.
The big news of “Ziggurat” is that the launch is going to be live on national TV, much to the chagrin of Lunney, who interrupts Kraft’s assertion that this is a “war of ideas” with the Russians by reminding him that they have no idea how many cosmonauts had to burn in capsules before Gagarin’s success. Kraft believes the Americans are simply better than the Russians, but is that just patriotic bluster? “I sure hope you’re right,” counters Lunney, “because if not, we’re about to throw Al the most expensive funeral in the history of TV.”
TV is proving to be quite an issue in “Ziggurat”, for various reasons. During a press conference, Schirra, Slayton, Cooper, and Carpenter are asked questions about who’ll be first to launch – it isn’t public knowledge about Shepard being selected yet – but also about women astronauts; a question which is passed to Cooper, of all people. Trudy is watching at home as Cooper says, “We sent a chimp up, didn’t we? May as well send a lady up someday.” Yikes! “The only problem is the spacesuit makes you look kind of plump and we all know the gals aren’t going to like that.” Oh, Cooper, don’t go home, mate.
Nobody’s relationship is looking all that good, to be honest, least of all Shepard’s, whose wife Louise hears about his affair in Tijuana after a testy exchange with Rene, Carpenter’s missus. He doesn’t know at first, and you have to imagine that if he did he’d only have been more eager to approve the pre-emptive contingency press release that is scheduled to be released in the case of Shepard’s death.
“Ziggurat” eventually catches up with the opening scene from the very first episode, during which Shepard and Glenn have steak and eggs for breakfast. Afterward, Shepard passes his physical and psychological evaluations. He’s suited up, and his launch is targeted for a 30-minute window between two storm fronts. But the launch is delayed for two days thanks to the adverse weather.
After all that preparation, Shepard is left deflated. And things only get worse when Louise arrives and confronts him about his extramarital shenanigans. Thoroughly out of sorts, and confined to the base in fear of the press getting wind it’s him who’s slated to go up, Shepard heads to the roof of Hanger S with Glenn, who reminds him that it was God’s plan for him not to go up today. “Was it God’s plan for you to send those letters?” Shepard asks, letting on that he knows. Glenn defends his actions, though, and the two men argue, right there on the roof, closer to the edge than they’ve ever been, in more ways than one.
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