History of the World According to the Movies: Part 77 – The Space Race


The Right Stuff is a 1983 film about the breaking of the sound barrier as well as the original astronauts of the Mercury 7. The film isn’t entirely historically accurate and does get a lot of stuff wrong but it’s among the great movies featured on Roger Ebert’s list. Still, while it has an almost all-star cast, the guys they portrayed were much shorter in real life since NASA height limit was 5’11.”

One of the key events in the Cold War was the Space Race in which the United States and Russia competed to put the first artificial satellite (Russia), the first manned spaceflight (Russia), and the first man on the moon (US). Of course, if there was a more constructive way to channel Cold War aggression and competitiveness, then the race to Space Exploration was it. After all, the race for nuclear weapons kind of scared the hell out of people while the Space Race gave everyone a way to boast about one’s national technological marvels while not having to worry about being blown to oblivion. Thus, when US President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced the national desire to launch an artificial satellite in 1955, the Space Race was on. Then the Soviets beat the US in the first round in 1957 with Sputnik 1 which basically sent the US freaking. Then the Russians launched Sputnik 2 which carried a dog named Laika into space who died five to seven hours after launch due to stress and overheating (well, the satellite was never intended to bring her back alive, though Moscow said she was euthanized but her death was kept secret for over 40 years). In 1958, the US launched Explorer 1 that discovered the Van Allen belt. Then you have the race for manned spaceflight in 1961 with Soviet Yuri Gagarin being the first man in space on Vostok 1 and the Russians would launch the first woman Valentina Tereshkova two years later (though the US would launch the first LGBT person in space in the 1980s if you know what I mean). Later in 1961, the US would launch Alan Shepard as their first man in space followed by John Glenn in 1962 as the first man to orbit the earth. Yet, even later that year, US President John F. Kennedy announced the US’ intent to land on the moon by the end of the decade. However, the US would beat the Soviets on this one and put a man on the moon by the end of the decade mostly because the Soviet manned moon program was beset with problems from the start, though they did send a probe there before Neil Armstrong made his one small step for man. Nevertheless, movies made pertaining to the Space Race do have their share of inaccuracies which I shall list.

Yuri Gagarin:

Yuri Gagarin lifted off into space at night. (He lifted off at 9:07AM Moscow time.)

Werner Von Braun:

Werner Von Braun was involved in the failed attempt to launch the Vanguard rocket. (Sorry, Homer Hickam, but you had no need to send your condolences to him since he wasn’t involved in the project and wouldn’t have been upset at all. You should’ve sent them to the Navy, much to Von Braun’s disliking.)


NASA astronauts were over 6 feet tall. (Let’s just say the maximum height limit NASA is 5’11” thus, anyone over that would be considered ineligible. But astronauts in movies are always played by taller people.)

NASA scientists were bumbling idiots who needed design tips from the astronauts to even make the spaceships. (Contrary to The Right Stuff, it was the NASA scientists who designed the spaceships that put the astronauts into space and brought them right back. Also, NASA scientists were among the best and the brightest minds in the nation. Heck, at the time there were German scientists from WWII like Werner von Braun who were able to duck war crimes indictments because the US needed to compete with the Russians. These guys deserve their own movie, too.)

President John F. Kennedy inspired the US space program. (NASA was established during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency in 1958 contrary to Apollo 13.)

The Mercury 7:

Virgil “Gus” Grissom was 5’10.” (Contrary to Fred Ward’s portrayal of him in The Right Stuff, he was 5’5.” Also, his full name was Virgil Ivan Grissom, with the first he found personally embarrassing and the middle a propaganda embarrassment in itself. It’s no wonder why they called him, “Gus.” Also, the first guy to be launched into space twice as well as the first one of the Mercury 7 to die when he met his end during a launch pad test for the Apollo 1 mission.)

All the Mercury 7 astronauts all raised their hands when asked “Which one of you will be the first into space?” (Contrary to The Right Stuff, the question was actually about whether they were confident they would return from space.)

Gordon Cooper was a Korean War veteran. (Contrary to The Right Stuff, he was the only astronaut of the Mercury 7 who wasn’t a combat veteran. He was also the only nonsmoker and managed to hold his breath longer than John Glenn or Scott Carpenter unlike in the movie.)

Though John Glenn was planned to go on seven orbits on Friendship 7, he only landed after three. (He was always planned to land after 3 orbits and did so though the ground did tell him that he was to go for 7 it was to inform him that he was in a stable orbit. Also, he was the oldest man in space then since he was the oldest astronaut of the Mercury 7 and he’s the only one of that group still living at the age of 93 as of 2014.)

NASA chose Alan Shepard to be the first American man in space. (Actually while this is implied in The Right Stuff, Shepard was actually chosen by his peers.)

Gordon Cooper was the last American to go into space alone. (As of 1982 when The Right Stuff came out and as an astronaut of NASA. However in 2004 two guys on Scale Composite’s SpaceShipOne named Mike Mevill and Brian Binnie have the latter on the day when Gordon Cooper died.)

John Glenn traveled 17,500 miles per hour on Friendship 7. (No Mercury spacecraft had a guidance system that permitted to measure its velocity.)

Gordon Cooper was the only person of the Mercury 7 not to fly a Mercury mission. (Deke Slayton was due to a heart condition but he’ll go into space in 1975 during the Apollo-Soyuz test project as a docking module pilot. As for Gordon Cooper, he went into space in 1963 on Faith 7 and was the first American to spend more than a day in space. He would also be the commander on Gemini 5 two years later.)

Deke Slayton could swim. (Despite the pool scene in The Right Stuff, he could not and never told anyone. Also, during underwater training, Slayton sank to the bottom and had to be rescued. He subsequently practiced holding his breath in the kitchen sink according to his wife Marge.)

Gus Grissom panicked when his Liberty 7 sank in a splashdown landing that he caused the premature detonation of the hatch’s explosive bolts. (Actually contrary to The Right Stuff, the premature detonation was due to mechanical failure, not human error. Yet, it took a long time to find that out.)

Gus Grissom was an incompetent pilot as well as a womanizer. (He was neither contrary to his portrayal in The Right Stuff. Besides, NASA didn’t see him as an idiot since he flew on a Gemini mission and was selected to command the Apollo 1 mission before a fire during practice killed everyone on the launch pad. Not to mention, neither did his fellow astronauts on the Mercury 7 either. By contrast, Scott Carpenter had a little controversy with his mission in the realm of fuel management and never flew again.)
John Glenn hummed “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” during his potentially fatal re-entry. (Contrary to The Right Stuff, he didn’t do this.)

John Glenn was threatened of being replaced by another astronaut when he got into a shouting match with a NASA official who ordered him to get on the phone with his wife Annie and tell her to let Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson in. (Contrary to The Right Stuff, Glenn did confirm the incident but didn’t mention other astronauts, “I saw red. I said that if they wanted to do that, they’d have a press conference to announce their decision and I’d have one to announce mine, and if they wanted to talk about it anymore, they’d have to wait until I took a shower. When I came back, they were gone and I never heard any more about it.”)

All John Glenn did during his flight on Friendship 7 was gaze at the star and talked about the so-called “fireflies” outside his spacecraft (“They were droplets of frozen water vapor from the capsule’s heat exchanger system, but their fireflylike glow remains a mystery” as John Glenn wrote). (Contrary to The Right Stuff, Glenn said he did more than that including taking his blood pressure, taking pictures of the Canary Islands and the Sahara, testing his vision, and doing exercises with bungee cords to compare his readings to previous ones taken on the ground.)

Apollo 13:

The glitch on Apollo 13 sent the crew into total chaos. (Actually contrary to Apollo 13, NASA had already simulated many of the faults that would occur on the actual Apollo 13. Not to mention, the astronauts remained with cool heads at all times than what the film implies with the emotional tensions being played up for drama.)

Jim Lovell and Fred Haise were a bit mistrustful of Jack Swigert who replaced Ken Mattingly when the latter had to pull out due to rubella. They were also worried about his competence with docking the Command Module. (Contrary to Apollo 13, Swigert was an expert on the Apollo command module who literally wrote the book on emergency procedures, many of which were actually used on the mission. Yes, there was a little apprehension when he replaced Mattingly but it was short-lived and had more to do with the fact he was a last-minute inclusion they had to bunk with for the duration than with his abilities, especially after what happened. Also, if he couldn’t dock the Command Modules, his cremates could’ve done it.)

Ken Mattingly was bumped off from the Apollo 13 mission for rubella. (Yes, he was yet though the film gets this correct as well as the fact he never contracted it. Yet, viewers may have a hard time wondering why Mattingly was grounded despite never contracting the disease. The answer is that a week prior to the launch, one of the backup crew members named Charles Duke contracted rubella from his kids and everyone else on both the prime and backup crew was exposed since they trained together. Aside from the obvious exception of Duke, Mattingly was the only one of both crews who didn’t have rubella as a child, and thus, wasn’t immune. So three days before the launch, Mattingly was out and Swigert was in.)

Ken Mattingly was rewarded for not nobly going into space and saving his stricken crewmembers from the control center. (Contrary to Apollo 13, the tasks Mattingly performed were down to a whole team operating more closely on the lines of existing procedures.)
Commander James Lovell said, “Houston we have a problem.” (Actually he said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem” though he probably should’ve said that. Also, the real Jim Lovell looked more like an older Edward Norton than Tom Hanks.)

Ken Mattingly was at home drinking when the Apollo 13 accident occurred and only knew from watching the TV. (Contrary to the film, he was at Mission Control at the time. Also, Gary Sinise was much more attractive than he was in real life.)

A team of engineers devised a solution to the Command Module on Apollo 13 by making its air filters fit the incompatible slots of the Lunar Module’s filters. (Contrary to Apollo 13, this was devised by a single NASA engineer while driving to work.)

Marilyn Lovell’s wedding ring went down the drain while she was taking a shower before her husband’s Apollo 13 mission. (Unlike in Apollo 13, her ring was too big to fall through the drain cover and Marilyn was able to retrieve it.)

Alan Shepard was bumped to Apollo 14 because of inner ear problems. (Contrary to Apollo 13, it was his lack of training and the relatively short time until launch. Bumping his crew up to Apollo 14 would give his crew more time to train. Still, Alan Shepard would get to be on the moon and use his own golf clubs, too.)


The launches of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin took place in Star City, Russia. (They took place in Baikonur Cosmodrome which is in present-day Kazakhstan. Still, it’s worth noting that Yuri Gagarin was mistaken for an alien when he landed in a Russian village and asked them for a phone. I’m sure being 5’2” in an orange jumpsuit didn’t help.)


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