“Flight” sees Shepard finally go into space, but it’s smartly much more focused on everyone who watches him go and is waiting for him when he returns, bringing The Right Stuff to a low-key but hopeful end.
This recap of The Right Stuff season 1, episode 8, “Flight”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
With “Flight”, a simple but evocative title, Disney+ has reached the end of The Right Stuff, its first really notable live-action original series. It hasn’t been too bumpy a ride, even if it has been a relatively low-key one given the history-making nature of the subject. Nevertheless, there’s still a finale to get through, and it begins with Alan Shepard walking out of NASA’s crew quarters, out through the large doors of Hanger S, into a trailer that’ll take him to the launch pad, and finally into the waiting Mercury capsule. It takes a while, as the moment should, and we get a sense immediately of how many eyes are fixed on this one man in that rickety capsule; what his success or failure means to the American national identity.
A lot of The Right Stuff has fixated on the relationship between Shepard and John Glenn, and we get a bit more of that here, both in brief snippets of their interactions in previous episodes to a little joke in the capsule, where Glenn has left a photo of a scantily-clad woman and a sign advising against the playing of handball. The two men smile and shake hands.
A minor technical problem, announced by Shorty, keeps the capsule grounded for a while longer as the eagerness of the watchers visibly increases. Kraft is snappy. Louise, watching at home, suggests, probably rightly, that the assembled press want the big story of Shepard blowing up. To make matters worse, Shepard needs to pee, which has to occur in his suit. The power to the capsule is shut off to allow for it and turned back on afterward.
Shepard takes off, eventually. The launch is a success, even if the filter he pulled over the periscope to shield his eyes from glare earlier obscures his view of the earth. “Damn, what a beautiful view,” he says nonetheless. After a bit of necessary tension, he lands back on earth, safe and sound.
“Flight” gets the titular flight over and done with earlier than expected, with plenty left to address. Deke, after being grounded due to his arrhythmia, is found a position as a liaison between the astronauts and the rest of STG – an astronaut communicator, or “ass-com”, as he puts it. That’s a name that’ll need to be changed. In the meantime, Shepard, to the complete bafflement of Glenn, continues to downplay the whole affair, lamenting the short flight time, the fact he couldn’t actually see anything, and how the simulator felt more real than the real thing.
Glenn is incredulous that Shepard doesn’t grasp the momentousness of his achievement. The men, true to form, argue a little about Shepard’s “appetites” and his how his hunger keeps driving him to the next thing, and the next. Without that, where or what would he be? He sees a lot of that attitude in Glenn, too, whatever he might like to admit.
The Right Stuff season 1, episode 8 also checks in on the Cooper household, which has taken some knocks throughout the season and continues to here. For one thing, Trudy and the girls are leaving – she just can’t get over what was said at the press conference, and the enduring lack of respect her husband seems to have for her. Predictably he’s worried about how her leaving might affect his place in the program and not, you know, how it might affect her. She’s leaving to join Jerrie Cobb’s program and make her girls proud. So she thinks, anyway.
On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy addresses Congress and asks for the resources to meet national goals that include landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade. “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space — and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish,” is Kennedy’s justification, which shocks and panics Kraft and Gilruth, watching on television. They don’t know if they can ever land a moon on the moon, much less within the next few years.
This, though, does embolden Glenn, who meets with NASA Administrator James Webb to campaign for being moved up the schedule for Mercury-Atlas orbital missions. It seems Shepard was right about his hunger after all. Glenn knows the risks and, by his own admission, he doesn’t care. He’ll be the first. America will be first.
When “Flight” checks back in with Trudy, she’s told by Cobb that she can’t be part of the program because of what Cooper said in the press conference. They have to distance themselves from that kind of thinking. When Trudy mentions that she left Cooper, Cobb counters by saying that NASA wouldn’t like that either. She’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. Her being a good pilot, the only thing that should matter, is entirely beside the point.
It’s time for the obligatory round-up of little subplots and such as we check in on everyone as “Flight” draws to a close. Cooper isn’t taking the loss of Trudy well. Glenn has realized that nothing he could find in space would compare to what he has with Annie and the girls. Shepard’s Meniere’s diseases continues to trouble him. And Slayton finds the right name for his new position – “Chief of Astronauts”.
Fittingly, it’s Trudy and Cam who the season chooses to finish on. They sit in a plane, preparing to take off, going over what each of the instruments and dials does. Trudy doesn’t know if they’re going to move back in with Cooper, but for now, it doesn’t matter. They taxi down the runway, together, and take off into the air.
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