100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 91

Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff

Launch of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969

Before it was a movie, it was a book—just like the Bible. Only in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff the conclusion is not foreordained. The test pilots who volunteered, in both the U.S. and Russia, were never guaranteed a safe return to their comfortable warm beds. Frequently, all too frequently, they met with violent death; it was the quid pro quo for those who pursued “pushing the envelope” of high performance aircraft. Of course, the next step on their flying resume was to fly in space. Being the first man in space, or later, the first man on the moon, was even more icing on the cake.

    The space programs of both Russia and the United States highlighted spectacular flights involving pilots, even though several scientists believed that each nation could attain nearly all the objectives of their respective space programs without jeopardizing lives. Vostok, Voskhod, Soyuz, and Salyut were components of the Russian program; Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab were components in the U.S. program, the pinnacle of which was achieved on July 20, 1969 when Apollo 11’s lunar module Eagle landed on the surface of the moon.

    Below is a short summarized list of the men and machines (and one woman!) that went into space, from the selection of the first Vostok and Mercury missions till the final Apollo flight, which incidentally, carried the last of the “Right Stuff” Mercury Seven astronauts on his only mission. In a sense, what began with Gagarin ended with Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton’s handshake with his fellow orbiting Russian cosmonauts.

U.S.                                                                           Russia


                                                                                                                                                                                                         4/12/61 Vostok 1 (1 hr. 48 min.) Yuri A. Gagarin using a Vostok-K rocket achieves the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         first human spaceflight and completes 1 orbit.                 

5/5/61 Mercury 3 (15 min.) Alan B. Shepard Jr.

takes a suborbital flight using a Redstone rocket.


7/21/61 Mercury 4 (16 min.) Virgil “Gus”

Grissom duplicates Shepard’s suborbital flight.

                                                                                                                                                                                                         8/6/61 Vostok 2 (1 day 1 hr. 18 min.) Gherman S. Titov makes the first multi-orbit  flight  completing 17 orbits.

2/20/62 Mercury 6 (5 hrs. 55 min.) John K.

Glenn atop an Atlas LV-3B rocket completes

America’s first orbital flight and splashes down after

3 orbits.


5/24/62 Mercury 7 (4 hrs. 56 min.) M. Scott

Carpenter duplicates Glenn’s 3 orbits.

                                                                                                                     8/11/62 Vostok 3 (3 days 22 hrs. 24 min.) Andriyan G. Nikolayev orbits 64 times and lands by parachute.


                                                                                                                     8/12/62 Vostok 4 (2 days 22 hrs. 57 min.) Pavel R. Popovich takes part in a dual mission with Vostok                                                                                                                        and completes 48 orbits.

10/3/62 Mercury 8 (9 hrs. 13 min.) Walter Schirra

completes 6 orbits.


5/15/63 Mercury 9 (1 day 10 hrs. 20 min.) Gordon

Cooper in the last Mercury flight achieves 22 orbits.

                                                                                                                                                                                                         6/14/63 Vostok 5 (4 days 23 hrs. 6 min.) V.  Bykovsky in a dual mission flies 81 orbits.


                                                                                                                     6/16/63 Vostok 6 (2 days 22 hrs. 50 min.) Valentina V. Tereshkova, the first woman cosmonaut, orbits in her                                                                                                                      dual mission with Vostok 5.


                                                                                                                                                                                                         10/12/64 Voskhod 1 (1 day 17 min.) Vladimir M. Komarov with comrades Konstantin P. Feoktistov                                                                                                                                                                                                               and Boris B. Yegorov atop their Voskhod 11A57 rocket become the first multi-human crew; the three cosmonauts                                                                                                                                                                                                          complete 16 orbits.


                                                                                                                     3/18/65 Voskhod 2 (1 day 2 hrs.) P. Belyayev and A. Leonov, become the first to perform extravehicular activity                                                                                                                                  (EVA) when Leonov floats free in space for 20 min. while tethered to the capsule; they complete 17 orbits.

3/23/65 Gemini 3 (4 hrs. 53 min.) Virgil “Gus” 

Grissom and John Young ride their Titan II GLV

rocket and become the first American multi-person

crew; they complete 3 orbits.


6/3/65 Gemini 4 (4 days 1 hr. 56 min.) James

McDivitt and Edward H. White II complete 62 orbits;

White becomes the first American to EVA and the first

ever to use a personal propulsion unit.


8/21/65 Gemini 5 (7 days 22 hrs. 56 min.) Gordon

Cooper and Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr. complete 120

orbits, demonstrating the feasibility of a lunar mission

including a simulated rendezvous.


12/4/65 Gemini 7 (13 days 18 hrs. 35 min.) Frank

Borman and James Lovell complete 206 orbits in a test

of long term space endurance; they also serve as a

target for the first rendezvous.


12/16/65 Gemini 6A (1 day 1 hr. 51 min.) Walter

Schirra and Thomas Stafford complete 15 orbits and

rendezvous with Gemini 7.


3/16/66 Gemini 8 (10 hrs. 42 min.) Neil Armstrong and

David Scott complete 6.5 orbits; this was the first dual

launch and docking, but it was cut short by an

emergency landing in the Pacific when the Gemini

capsule maneuvering rocket misfired.


6/3/66 Gemini 9A (3 days 21 min.) Thomas Stafford and

Eugene Cernan complete 44 orbits but were unable to

dock with their target vehicle; Cernan completes 2 hrs.

7 min. of EVA.


7/18/66 Gemini 10 (2 days 22 hrs. 47 min.) John Young

and Michael Collins complete 43 orbits, and accomplish

the first dual rendezvous and docking maneuvers;

Collins performs an umbilical EVA.


9/12/66 Gemini 11 (2 days 23 hrs. 17 min.) Charles

“Pete” Conrad Jr. and Richard Gordon Jr. complete

44 orbits, rendezvous, and dock.


11/11/66 Gemini 12 (3 days 22 hrs. 34 min.) James

Lovell and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. complete 59 orbits

in the final Gemini mission; Aldrin performs 5 hours

of EVA.

                                                                                                                                                                                                         4/23/67 Soyuz 1 (1 day 2 hrs. 48 min.) Vladimir M. Komarov completes 18 orbits but is killed when his parachute                                                                                                                                                                                                          fails; this is the first fatality of the space program.*

10/11/68 Apollo 7 (10 days 20 hrs. 8 min.) Walter

Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walter Cunningham launch

atop their Saturn 1B rocket, perform 8 service

propulsion firings, 7 live TV sessions with the

ground, and rendezvous with the S-IVB stage.

                                                                                                                     10/26/68 Soyuz 3 (3 days 22 hrs. 51 min.) G. Beregovoi orbits 64 times and approaches to within 198 m. of the                                                                                                                                                                                    unmanned Soyuz 2. 

12/21/68 Apollo 8 (6 days 3 hrs.) Frank Borman,

James Lovell, and William Anders become the first

humans to break the bonds of Earth's gravity when

they are propelled atop their Saturn V rocket in the

first lunar orbital mission. They complete 10 orbits,

and return photographs of potential future lunar

landing sites.

                                                                                                                     1/14/69 Soyuz 4 (2 days 23 hrs. 14 min.) V. Shatalov completes 48 orbits, and docks with Soyuz 5 in the first                                                                                                                                              linkup of two space vehicles both of which carry people.


                                                                                                                                                                                                         1/15/69 Soyuz 5 (3 days 46 min.) B. Volynov assists as A. Yeliseyev and Y. Khrunov perform EVA, and transfer to                                                                                                                                                                                                          Soyuz 4 in rescue rehearsal.

3/3/69 Apollo 9 (10 days 1 hr. 1 min.) James

McDivitt, David Scott, and Russell Schweickart flight

test all the lunar hardware in Earth orbit, including

the lunar module (LM) code named “Spider.” Their

Command and Service Module (CSM) is code named

“Gum Drop.”


5/18/69 Apollo 10 (8 days 3 min.) Thomas Stafford,

John Young, and Eugene Cernan operate a Lunar

mission development flight to evaluate the LM

performance in the lunar environment; Stafford

and Cernan descend their LM Snoopy to within

15,250 meters of the Moon before returning to John

Young in the CSM Charlie Brown.


7/16/69 Apollo 11 (6 days 21 hrs. 18 min.) Neil

Armstrong, Michael Collins (who remains behind in

the CSM Columbia), and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr.

accomplish the first lunar landing (July 20); 

they make a limited inspection of the surface,

photograph themselves, evaluate and sample the

lunar soil, and plant the American flag.

                                                                                                                                                                                                         10/11/69 Soyuz 6 (4 days 22 hrs. 42 min.) G. Shonin and V. Kubasov take part in the first triple launch (with                                                                                                                                                                                                            Soyuz 7 and 8).


                                                                                                                                                                                                         10/12/69 Soyuz 7 (4 days 22 hrs. 41 min.) A. Filipchenko, V. Volkov, and V. Gorbatko conduct, with Soyuz 6                                                                                                                                                                                                            and 8, experiments in navigation and photography.                       


                                                                                                                                                                                                         10/13/69 Soyuz 8 (4 days 22 hrs. 59 min.) V. Shatalov and A. Yeliseyev complete 80 orbits.


11/14/69 Apollo 12 (10 days 4 hrs. 36 min.) Charles

“Pete” Conrad Jr., Richard Gordon Jr., and Alan

Bean achieve second lunar landing, demonstrate

pinpoint landing capability next to a previous lunar

probe, and sample more of the lunar surface.


4/11/70 Apollo 13 (5 days 22 hrs. 55 min.) James

Lovell, John Swigert Jr., and Fred Haise Jr. attempt

the third lunar landing, but abort due to an

explosion that causes a loss of pressure in the liquid

oxygen tank of the service module and a fuel cell

failure. Their adventure makes a very good movie


                                                                                                                                                                                                         6/2/70 Soyuz 9 (17 days 16 hrs. 59 min.) A. Nikolayev and V. Sevastyanov accomplish the longest spaceflight to                                                                                                                                                                                                           date.

1/31/71 Apollo 14 (9 days 42 min.) Alan Shepard,

Stuart Roosa, and Edgar Mitchell fly the third lunar

landing and return 44.45 kgs. of material. Shepard

hits a golf ball on the moon.

                                                                                                                                                                                                         4/23/71 Soyuz 10 (1 day 23 hrs. 46 min.) V. Shatalov, A. Yeliseyev, and N. Rukavishnikov dock with Salyut 1,                                                                                                                                                                                                           the first space station, but are unable to enter it.


                                                                                                                                                                                                         6/6/71 Soyuz 11 (23 days 18 hrs. 22 min.) G. Dobrovolsky, V. Volkov, and V. Patsayev dock with Salyut 1 space                                                                                                                                                                                                           station but die during reentry due to a loss of cabin pressure in orbit.

7/26/71 Apollo 15 (12 days 7 hrs. 12 min.) David

Scott, Alfred Worden, and James Irwin accomplish

fourth lunar landing; they are the first to use the 

Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) “moon buggy.”


4/16/72 Apollo 16 (11 days 14 hrs. 51 min.) John

Young, Ken Mattingly, and Charles Duke Jr. achieve

the fifth lunar landing, carry the second LRV, and

return 96.6 kgs. of material.


12/7/72 Apollo 17 (12 days 13 hrs. 52 min.) Eugene

Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Harrison Schmitt succeed

in the last manned lunar landing; they bring the third

LRV and have a total EVA time of 44 hrs. 8 min.

before returning to Earth with 110.2 kg. of material.


5/25/73 Skylab 2 (28 days 49 min.) Charles “Pete”

Conrad Jr., Joseph Kerwin, and Paul Weitz take

part in the first Skylab launch atop their Saturn 1B

rocket, enter the Skylab Orbital Assembly—the first

American space station—and conduct medical and

other experiments. Spacewalks are required to repair

the heat shielding that was damaged during launch.


7/29/73 Skylab 3 (59 days 11 hrs. 9 min.) Alan Bean,

Owen Garriott, and Jack Lousma are the second

Skylab crew; they perform systems and operational

tests and deploy thermal shield.

                                                                                                                                                                                                         9/27/73 Soyuz 12 (1 day 23 hrs. 16 min.) V. Lazarev and O. Makarov take part in the first Russian spaceflight to                                                                                                                                                                                                          carry humans since the Soyuz 11 tragedy.

11/16/73 Skylab 4 (84 days 1 hr. 7 min.) Gerald P.

Carr, Edward G. Gibson, and William R. Pogue service

the unmanned Saturn workshop, and obtain medical

data for extending spaceflights.

                                                                                                                                                                                                         12/18/73 Soyuz 13 (7 days 20 hrs. 55 min.) P. Klimuk and V. Lebedev perform astrophysical and biological                                                                                                                                                                                                            experiments.


                                                                                                                                                                                                         7/3/74 Soyuz 14 (15 days 17 hrs. 30 min.) P. Popovich and Y. Artyukhin occupy the Salyut 3 space station and                                                                                                                                                                                                           study Earth resources.


                                                                                                                                                                                                         8/26/74 Soyuz 15 (2 days 12 min.) G. Sarafanov and L. Dyomin make an ultimately futile attempt to dock with                                                                                                                                                                                                           Salyut 3.


                                                                                                                                                                                                         12/2/74 Soyuz 16 (5 days 22 hrs. 24 min.) A. Filipchenko and N. Rukavishnikov check modifications to the                                                                                                                                                                                                           Salyut systems.


                                                                                                                                                                                                         1/10/75 Soyuz 17 (29 days 13 hrs. 20 min.) A. Gubarev and G. Grechko dock with Salyut 4 and set Russian                                                                                                                                                                                                           endurance record.


                                                                                                                                                                                                         4/5/75 Soyuz 18A (22 min.) V.  Lazarev and O. Makarov’s spacecraft fails to separate from its booster, and the                                                                                                                                                                                                          craft cannot reach orbit, but the crew successfully lands in western Siberia.


                                                                                                                                                                                                         5/24/75 Soyuz 18B (63 days) P. Klimuk and V. Sevastyanov dock with Salyut 4.


7/15/75 ASTP (9 days 1 hr. 30 min.)                                                                                                                                                    7/15/75 Soyuz 19 (5 days 23 hrs. 31 min.)

This mission features the docking of the ASTP, the U.S. Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (Thomas Stafford, Vance Brand, and Donald “Deke” Slayton), and Soyuz 19 (A. Leonov and V. Kubasov) in a cooperative U.S.-Russian mission. Stafford and Slayton shake hands with Leonov and Kubasov in the heavens!

* On January 27, 1967, Grissom, White, and Roger B. Chaffee died in a capsule fire while they were conducting ground tests, but Komarov died in an actual flight.