‘The Real Right Stuff’ Shows the Real Mercury Seven on Disney+

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Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Right Stuff, was first published in 1979. The book was made into a movie in 1983 and then a television series on Disney+ in 2020. All of these told the story of America’s first astronauts, the Mercury Seven. However, extensive footage of the real astronauts has not been released by NASA until recently.

Premiering on Friday, November 20th, Disney+’s new documentary, The Real Right Stuff, is a companion to the steaming service’s original scripted series The Right Stuff which began streaming in October of this year. The documentary consists of historical footage provided directly by NASA as well as from broadcast networks of the time period. The series was produced by National Geographic and 1895 Films with Simon Raikes and Tom Jennings as Executive Producers. Tom Jennings also directed the documentary. 

The real Mercury Seven astronauts
The real Mercury Seven astronauts in their space suits. Image courtesy of Disney+.

Interview With Tom Jennings

I had the opportunity to interview Tom Jennings who directed and produced The Real Right Stuff. He also produced and directed another National Geographic documentary currently on Disney+, Apollo: Missions to the Moon. While working on the documentary on the Apollo program, NASA provided him a tremendous amount of original film footage about the Apollo missions. However, included in that trove of footage, NASA also included material from the Mercury and Gemini programs which were the predecessors of Apollo. So when the fictionalized episodic series The Right Stuff was being created, Jennings and National Geographic approached Disney+ about doing a historical companion piece to go along with it. The Real Right Stuff shows the real faces of the astronauts as compared to the actors who portray them. The documentary has some incredible color film footage of the astronauts, the rocket launches, and more. Jennings explained that this time period was the dawn of really good color filming and NASA spared no expense to capture these events for posterity. 

The Real Right Stuff begins with an interview between the author of the book, Tom Wolfe, and news anchor Tom Brokaw from 1979. Tom Wolfe’s voice and words from this interview as well as others help serve as part of the narration for the documentary. Tom Jennings explained that not only was Wolfe a great writer, he was also a great conversationalist and could tell the story in an eloquent yet down to earth style. He did such a great job of telling the story of the Mercury 7 that Jennings said a challenge was cutting out some of the interview so that it did not dominate the documentary. Another challenge was cutting down the documentary to fit within a two hour broadcast. The book covers a lot, beginning with the breaking of the sound barrier by Chuck Yeager. However, Jennings needed to focus on just the Mercury 7. The first pass of the documentary was about six hours long, so a lot of editing and cutting had to take place. 

John Glenn climbing into space capsule.
John Glenn climbs into his space capsule, Friendship 7, in which he was the first American to orbit the Earth. Image courtesy of Disney+.

Tom Jennings also wanted to create characters rather than just go from clip to clip like some documentaries. Instead of like a traditional documentary, he wanted this one to play like a feature film. Rather than have a single astronaut be a character, the seven astronauts together were a character. Other characters were the astronauts’ families, NASA, the space capsules, and so forth. One of the interesting features is an interview with Rene Carpenter, the wife of astronaut Scott Carpenter. She describes what it was like to be the wife of an astronaut, especially on the day of a launch with the media all over their front yard. Jennings also mentioned how he was able to access home movies of John Glenn that the astronaut had donated to the Ohio State University at Columbus. Some of this has never been released on this scale to the public before and provides a personal, behind the scenes look at their lives. Jennings concluded our interview by explaining that “people should watch The Real Right Stuff, even if they already know the story, because there is so much more to the story and what we as a collective remember. It is so easy to take space travel for granted today.” He wanted viewers to experience what it was like to live back then, in an age of heroes when a nation could pull together to do something that had never been done before.

Be Sure to See The Real Right Stuff

Mercury Atlas 2 rocket launch
The launch of the Mercury Atlas-2 rocket carrying an unmanned space capsule for a test flight. Image courtesy of Disney+.

I am grateful for the time that Tom Jennings took to speak with me. The Real Right Stuff is a great documentary that is entertaining and enjoyable as well as educational. I really enjoyed it. I have been watching the National Geographic series The Right Stuff on Disney+ since October. While I have gotten to know each of the Mercury 7 astronauts from the series, it was wonderful to then watch and see the real astronauts and their families as well as experiencing what life was like in American during the late 1950s and early 1960s. I am very impressed that the documentary not only focuses on the astronauts, but also their families and the people at NASA that made their flights into space possible. I highly recommend The Real Right Stuff for everyone, even those not interested in space travel because it provides an incredible snapshot of American history that is rarely taught in schools and which most people who were not alive at that time have little knowledge of today. The Real Right Stuff premieres Friday, November 20th. The final episode of The Right Stuff airs that same day. 

astronauts in front of jet fighter
All of the Mercury 7 astronauts were former military test pilots. Image courtesy of Disney+.

Here is a trailer to give you a taste of The Real Right Stuff.

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