The mysterious "fireflies" observed by John Glenn on his first orbital flight were actually tiny flakes of frost illuminated by sunlight. As the spacecraft orbited into darkness behind the Earth, the sub-zero temperatures caused condensation on its skin to freeze. When warmed by the sun on the other side of the orbit, the temperature change caused some of this frost layer to break free and to be illuminated by the sun. This was confirmed by astronaut Scott Carpenter on the next Mercury flight when he banged on the craft's side, causing more of the flakes to break free and become visible.
While several of the lead actors chose to meet their real-life counterparts, Scott Glenn elected not to meet with Alan Shepard. Scott said he wanted to get down Shepard's character and nuances by observation and by hearing others' points of view. After filming, the real Alan Shepard wrote writer and director Philip Kaufman and commented on Scott Glenn's "spot-on" performance - except for "not being nearly as good-looking as he was."
In the film, Alan Shepard says "Louise, I'm going to the moon, I swear to God. I'm on my way." Of the Mercury Seven, Shepard was the only one that did go there, on Apollo 14, becoming the fifth person to walk on the moon (and the only person to ever play golf on the moon) on February 5-6, 1971.
While filming the lung-capacity sequence - in which the seven original Mercury astronauts need to blow into individual tubes to keep toy balls suspended in a beaker and end up in a competition of physical stamina - the seven actors portraying the astronauts actually competed with each other for the same reason. Gordon Cooper was third, John Glenn was second and Scott Carpenter won (in the movie). In reality, Cooper - the astronaut portrayed by Dennis Quaid - was the only non-smoker among the seven original astronauts, and therefore possessed a far-greater lung capacity than any of the others.
It is generally believed that Gus Grissom was not at fault in the real-life hatch-blowing incident on the Liberty Bell 7 capsule. Kickback from the manual activation switch caused a tell-tale bruise to form on the hand activating it, and Grissom never developed the bruise. Wally Schirra, at the end of his Mercury 8 space flight, deliberately activated his own hatch to demonstrate how the bruise formed and exonerate his comrade. The most likely explanation for Grissom's hatch blowing is that the external release lanyard came loose as it was only held in place with a single screw - a design that was changed to be more secure for subsequent flights. N.A.S.A. apparently believed in Grissom's innocence as well, as he remained in a prime rotation spot for subsequent Gemini and Apollo flights. There is also significant belief among astronauts of the time that, had he not been killed in the Apollo 1 fire, Grissom would have been the first man to walk on the moon.
During the weekend of April 4, 1999, Gus Grissom's lost Liberty Bell 7 capsule was located and recovered on the ocean floor ninety miles northeast of the Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. It underwent a restoration and went on a national tour before being placed in a permanent exhibit at the Cosmosphere, a space museum in Hutchinson, Kansas. The hatch, which many thought would have proved or disproved Grissom's contention that it blew open on its own, has not been recovered. Inside the capsule the restorers found a large number of Mercury dimes that Grissom had brought along as souvenirs. During the bar scene before Grissom's flight, two rolls of dimes can be seen on the bar.
When the astronauts are inspecting the space capsule (or "space craft") with Wernher von Braun and his team, Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) is quite insistent that the hatch have "explosive bolts". The purpose of explosive hatches is to allow the occupants of the capsule to escape easily. In 1967, while doing a routine test of the Apollo 1 capsule, Grissom and his two companions died when a fire broke out in the cabin. A contributing factor to their deaths was that the hatch was not designed with explosive bolts.
Original composer John Barry left the film because he found it impossible to understand what Philip Kaufman wanted from the score, citing a meeting where Kaufman described his ideal score as "sounding like you're walking in the desert and you see a cactus, and you put your foot on it, but it just starts growing up through your foot."
The bartender who chews out Gordon Cooper, calling him a "rookie" and a "pud-knocker," is Florence 'Pancho' Barnes, and she is well within her rights to put Cooper in his place. Barnes earned her pilot's license in 1928. She flew solo, crashed a plane, held the women's world speed record (taking it from Amelia Earhart), and worked as a stunt pilot in Hollywood (see Hell's Angels (1930)), all before any of the Mercury 7 astronauts - of which "Gordo" was the youngest, born in 1927 - reached the age of ten. As a pioneering aviatrix, she was truly made of "the right stuff." Her story was told in a television movie, Pancho Barnes (1988), starring Valerie Bertinelli.
According to Chuck Yeager in his autobiography, it was not known that he broke the sound barrier until after they checked the Bell X-1 recording panel, and not when they heard the sonic boom, as shown in the movie. He still got his steak dinner for being the first to break the sound barrier, though.
The failure montage ends with a rocket that goes nowhere and just lets out a humorous "pop". That is the Mercury-Redstone 1 launch failure, also known as "The four-inch flight". Due to a cabling error, the umbilicals separated in the wrong order, leading to an electrical fault that shut down the engine. The rocket then - dutifully - followed the correct procedure for a premature engine shutdown. 1) It released the escape tower, that took off. 2) It deployed the drogue chute for the recovery parachute (that is the "pop" seen in the film) 3) When not sensing any load on the main parachute, the rocket assumed the main parachute had failed and deployed the reserve. This left the rocket in a precarious condition: unanchored, fueled, with armed pyrotechnics, and with a parachute hanging down the side that - if the wind caught it - could have toppled the rocket. Flight director Chris Kraft made the call to just let the rocket sit until next the day when the batteries had drained and the liquid oxygen had boiled off. The rocket was recovered and although it was in good condition it never flew again. MR-1 was eventually put on display at the Space Orientation Center of Marshall Space Flight Center.
Ed Harris had to audition twice for the role of John Glenn. It was in fact Harris who insisted on the second audition because he felt his first reading of the part wasn't good enough. After the second reading, he got the part.
This film contains the first realistic shots of a spacecraft re-entry. For long shots, visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez used a small model of the Mercury capsule. This was coated with flammable material, ignited, and slid about one hundred feet down a wire toward the camera, which was protected with a sheet of Lexan. For close-up shots of the re-entry, no actual fire was used. The larger model capsule in these shots had liquid nitrogen pumped into it. This immediately evaporated, producing a fog of condensation, which escaped through a carefully placed ring of vents around the base of the capsule to form a flame-like pattern all around it. Then, to make the color right, the effect was simply filmed in orange light.
In the bar scene before Gus Grissom's flight, Deke Slayton is underwater swimming with some girls. Gordo says, "Go get 'em, Deke!" In reality, Deke couldn't swim and never told anyone. When the astronauts started underwater training at Scott Carpenter's suggestion, Deke sank to the bottom and had to be rescued. He subsequently practiced holding his breath underwater in his kitchen sink, according to his wife Marge.
Although the producers discouraged the cast from contacting the real people they were portraying, Dennis Quaid reached out to Gordo Cooper after learning they lived just a few miles from each other. The two became friends, and Cooper encouraged Quaid to get his pilot's license.
The "Happy Bottom Riding Club", which was owned and operated by Pancho Barnes, burned down in 1952. The remnants can still be seen today at Edwards Air Force Base.
To create the space uniforms for the Mercury astronauts, the costume designers used silver fabrics and other materials left over from costumes for singer and actress Cher.
Sam Shepard, who played legendary pilot Chuck Yeager, was actually afraid of flying.
When Ed Harris appeared in Apollo 13 (1995) as N.A.S.A. Flight Director Gene Kranz, it gave him the unique distinction of appearing with some of the same characters from The Right Stuff (1983) but played by different actors, like Deke Slayton (played by Chris Ellis in Apollo 13 (1995)). Others are mentioned but never seen like Alan Shepard and the late Gus Grissom. Harris also provided the voice of Mission Control in the space thriller Gravity (2013).
The film plays down the rivalry between pilots, especially civilian (Scott Crossfield) and Air Force (Chuck Yeager). Yeager even writes in his autobiography that he thought Crossfield was arrogant, though a great pilot.
Actor, comedian, and impressionist Kevin Pollak provided the voice of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Upon his death on December 7 2020, Chuck Yeager was the last surviving real character.
Selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Upon his death in December 2016, John Glenn was the last surviving Mercury Seven astronaut.
During the newsreel segment when President John F. Kennedy gives Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) a medal for his flight, in the background we can see Charles Frank as Scott Carpenter. When the angle reverses to actual archival footage of President Kennedy dropping the medal, he bends to pick it up, and the real Scott Carpenter and Gus Grissom are in the background.
Some were concerned that when this film was released it would help propel John Glenn, then a U.S. Senator from Ohio, into the Presidency. Newsweek Magazine had a cover story about it. Although Glenn ran for President in 1984, he lost the Democratic nomination to Walter Mondale.
The closing narration states that Gordon Cooper was "the last American ever to go into space alone". While true when the film was made, Mike Melvill in June and September 2004 and Brian Binnie in October 2004 went into space alone in Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne (Not a N.A.S.A. spaceship or spaceflight). Binnie's flight was the day Gordon Cooper died.
Pancho's Fly Inn was eventually subject to a forced buy-out by the Air Force as part of a plan to put in an extremely long runway. As Pancho's was within a few degrees arc of the runway it was considered to be in the way and a danger to pilots who might veer off-course. A fierce legal battle took place, with Pancho losing on the grounds of eminent domain. The 1952 fire that destroyed the place happened during the course of the legal action. Some suspected that it was lost to arson perpetuated on behalf of the commander of Edwards Air Force Base, but this was never proven.
The music accompanying John Glenn's orbit of the Earth is actually a song written by an Inuit woman on the set of Philip Kaufman's The White Dawn (1974) that was orchestrated by Henry Mancini for that film.
Trudy Cooper did not actually say that she "wondered how they would've felt if every time their husband went in to make a deal, there was a one in four chance he wouldn't come out of that meeting". Writer and director Philip Kaufman chose Mrs. Cooper to voice statements made by author Tom Wolfe. The book describes a 23% chance of a normal pilot dying during the course of a twenty-year career. The odds were higher at 53% for a test pilot.
The role of Annie Glenn was the first film role for Mary Jo Deschanel, the wife of director of photography Caleb Deschanel. Mary Jo and Caleb are the parents of Emily Deschanel and Zooey Deschanel.
Jane Dornacker who portrayed Nurse Murch was an American rock musician, actress, comedian, and traffic reporter. In this movie her character memorably takes no nonsense from Gordon Cooper. In real life, while doing a live traffic report, she died in a helicopter crash on October 22, 1986. Her last moments are horrifically captured on audio. She was 39 years old. Eerily, she had survived another helicopter crash six months earlier when it crashed in the Hackensack River.
O-Lan Jones, the woman who tries to talk to Sam Shepard as he leaves Pancho's bar, but the bartender tells her that he's married, was actually married to Shepard at the time.
Scott Glenn was initially considered for the role of Chuck Yeager, but he expressed that he would rather play Alan Shepard, and was cast in that part instead.
Hall of Fame lineman and Cincinnati Bengals player Anthony Muñoz has a cameo appearance in the movie as a nurse. His actual voice is dubbed over.
When Jack Ridley (Levon Helm) cuts the broom handle to help Chuck Yeager, he twirls the cut piece like a drummer would. Helm was the drummer for the musical group The Band.
Rick Springfield turned down a role in this film so that he could star in Hard to Hold (1984) instead. Springfield has stated that he greatly regrets this decision.
Tom Wolfe was unhappy with the film, because he felt it made too many changes to the book.
The film eschewed the use of visual effects done in the lab. The decision was made to use methods pioneered by the Republic Pictures special effects team of Howard Lydecker and Theodore Lydecker, and used in such Republic theatrical serials as Commando Cody in "Radar Men from the Moon" - A Full 12 Chapter Rocketman Serial (1952) and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953). The shots of the Bell X-1 were accomplished using a model "flown" on a long wire rapidly passing by the camera utilizing a natural sky background enhanced by clouds created using special chemicals. The use of the model can be seen when the plane banks and turns as the ailerons never move.
"Beeman's" is the lucky gum of pilots. It is a pepsin-flavored gum (the same flavor as candy cigarettes), and is still available for purchase online.
A running joke in the film is Gordon Cooper's ability to fall asleep during stressful events. During the training montage, Cooper is shown sleeping in the simulated capsule, as loud noises and flickering lights are going off all around him. At the end of the film, Cooper falls asleep in his space capsule on the launch pad. This is a nod to the fact that Cooper was the first American to sleep in orbit.
Pancho's was nicknamed "The Happy Bottom Riding Club". The real name was "Pancho's Fly Inn". Pancho had put in a dirt landing strip, with the intention that the place would serve as a motel for pilots who, on cross-country trips could fuel up, have a meal, and spend the night.
Although Bill Conti's score won the Academy Award for "Best Music, Original Score" and suites based on the score were issued, no complete soundtrack album was released until 2009. That album was made from master tapes kept all that time by Conti, and unfortunately some suffered damage in the interim.
One whimsical aspect of the film is that whenever members of the press appear in a scene, an audio track of the sound of locusts appears in the background, indicative of the "feeding frenzy" of the reporters chasing the most popular source of news stories of the day.
William Goldman was hired by producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler to write the first draft of the screenplay. However, when Philip Kaufman came on as director, he disagreed with Goldman's adaptation, which discarded the story of Chuck Yeager, and concentrated on the Mercury 7 astronauts. Kaufman said, "I didn't want to make a film entirely about astronauts. I thought Yeager was the one who truly had 'the right stuff.'" (In his book "Adventures in the Screen Trade," Goldman calls his meeting with Kaufman "a nightmare.") Kaufman discarded Goldman's script, and wrote his own script. Goldman later said he disliked the final film, because he thought Kaufman portrayed Yeager as the only hero, while the rest of the astronauts only got lucky and didn't match up to him in any way.
At the end of the film, Chuck Yeager bails out of an experimental Air Force plane. This was the NF-104 "Starfighter", which held the altitude and speed records for a jet until the SR-71 "Blackbird", a spy plane developed by Lockheed's "Skunk Works" under the command of Kelly Johnson. The Blackbird's speed record of Mach 3+ has never been beaten.
The aircraft carrier used in the scene to introduce Alan Shepard was the U.S.S. Coral Sea CV-43.
In the documentary "Moon Shot (1994)," Alan Shepard explained that it was at his suggestion that he urinate in the suit before he was launched. He said at first they didn't want him to do it, because it would short out everything. Shepard then suggested that they shut everything off, and then after he was dried out, they could turn it back on, to which they agreed.
In the late 1940s, Pancho's became a moderately popular tourist location for families from Los Angeles and the surrounding area. As an attraction, rodeos would be held on weekends. Another big draw was the motion-picture star Lassie, whose trainer regularly brought her there on a weekly basis for over a year to perform tricks for the kids.
In a scene deleted from the original release but restored in a later DVD version, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) scolds the liaison man (David Clennon) for suggesting that an astronaut is doing the same thing as a monkey. Yeager points out that a monkey does not know that he is sitting atop high explosives. The sentiment is put in Yeager's mouth but comes from Tom Wolf's book, "The Right Stuff". This scene was filmed at Hamilton AFB, Novato, California.
The Permanent Press Corps are all played by members of I Fratelli Bologna, a San Francisco theater troupe.
Bill Conti was appointed so late in the production, he was scoring to the final cut of the film instead of a first cut with which composers are usually given to work.
In Captain Marvel (2019), Carol Danvers crashs into a Blockbuster Video Store where she picks up a copy of The Right Stuff.
The tune that Gordon Cooper was whistling while trying to masturbate is the official anthem of the United States Air Force, simply titled: "The Air Force Song". He was attempting to drown out the man in the next stall, who was humming "The Marines' Hymn" (presumably, John Glenn, as Cooper guessed).
The film's opening and closing narration ("There was a demon that lived in the air...") is provided by Levon Helm, who plays Jack Ridley, Chuck Yeager's technician. Although the film gives the impression that Ridley was only a mechanic, in real-life, Ridley was a full-fledged aeronautical engineer who made significant design contributions and corrections to many early supersonic aircraft. Yeager often called him "the brains behind the whole X-1 test program."
The unexpected box-office failure of the film was considered one of the causes of the demise of The Ladd Company, despite the massive success of Police Academy (1984).
Ken Wahl, who previously starred in writer and director Philip Kaufman's The Wanderers (1979), was initially cast as Gordon Cooper. Dennis Quaid replaced Wahl, giving up an undisclosed role in The Outsiders (1983), which was being produced simultaneously.
While they didn't play their namesakes, two of the actors playing astronauts share the same last name with two actual astronauts. They are Scott Glenn and John Glenn and Sam Shepard and Alan Shepard.
Actress Mimi Sarkisian only appeared in two films, "The Right Stuff" and "One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest," both times playing a nurse.
While Fred Ward is more than eleven years older than Dennis Quaid, their characters Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper were less than a year apart in age, the two youngest of the Mercury 7.
The production was beset by fifteen mile per hour, dust-laden winds when they were filming at Edwards Air Force Base.
Allegedly, Bill Conti wrote about three different scores for this film, the first consisting of his own original work, the second one featuring Gustav Holst's "The Planets" as inspiration. The third score written by Conti purely copied the film's temp track. which primarily used "The Planets" piece, under the condition that if Philip Kaufman used that portion of the score, he would have to credit Gustav Holst as the real composer. In the end, Kaufman and Conti compromised, using Conti's second score as the final score. In addition to "The Planets", the music score features other classical music pieces favored by Kaufman, such as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major, Opus35. It also features the Air Force song, "Wild Blue Yonder", heard during the "Yeager's Triumph" sequence, and music composed by Henry Mancini for Kaufman's earlier film, The White Dawn (1974). In spite of the film's heavy use of music from various sources, Conti would go on to win the Oscar for Best Original Score.
The scene where Lyndon B. Johnson said, "The Russians want our pecker in their pocket" was a variation of his oft-quoted statement, "I never trust a man till I have his pecker in my pocket."
In the cookout scene at Edwards Air Force Base, Sam Shepard is seen playing catch with his son. Chuck Yeager's real-life nephew, Steve, played Major League baseball as a catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Alan Shepard's space flight was on May 5th, 1961. Gus Grissom's space flight was on July 21st, 1961. John Glenn's space flight was on February 20th, 1962. Gordon Cooper's space flight was on May 15th, 1963.
David Clennon who portrays a "liaison man", also appears in the space-themed From the Earth to the Moon (1998) portraying Dr. Lee Silver, who trains astronauts.
When Peggy Davis, as Sally Rand, performed the fan dance at San Francisco's Cow Palace (which stood in for the Houston Coliseum), the music was supposed to be "Clair de Lune", but on the first take the wrong music was played. Davis improvised until the music ended. Following a consultation between Davis and the crew, there was another take with the correct music.
In 1983, Jeff Goldblum played a character in two films who is awkward and out of his element in a rural area, asking nervously if there's any snakes around. The other is The Big Chill. He's also the comic relief in both.
The only Best Picture Oscar nominee that year not to be nominated in any of the writing categories.
Included among the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", edited by Steven Schneider.
American Airlines flight 1 crashed shortly after take off from Idlewild airport (now JFK) during the New York City ticker tape parade for John Glenn after his space flight.
The film cast includes five Oscar nominees: Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Kim Stanley, Jeff Goldblum, and Barbara Hershey.
The only Best Picture Oscar nominee that year to be also nominated for Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Cinematography.
Sergei P. Korolev masterminded the Sputnik launch, the world's first artificial satellite. The Sputnik launch was also dramatized in The Iron Giant (1999) and October Sky (1999).
An early press release announced that Ellen Barkin was cast in the film. Her part was eventually recast.
Included among the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the 400 movies nominated for the Top 100 Greatest American Movies.
Scott Wilson who played Scott Crossfield who was not chosen for the astronaut program because he was a civilian pilot played military characaters in Pearl Harbor released in 2001( General George C Marshal 2001) and Navy Seal Commanding Officer Salem in G.I. Jane (1997).
Jeff Goldblum's recruiter character asks Harry Shearer's character, "There aren't any snakes around here are there?" That same year in The Big Chill (1983), while out walking on Harold's property, Jeff's character is asked by Kevin Kline whether he's afraid of snakes.
Included among the American Film Institute's 2001 list of 400 movies nominated for the top 100 Most Heart-Pounding American Movies.
Sam Shepard, who played Chuck Yeager in this film, predeceased Yeager by three years, despite being twenty years his junior.
The first of two films where Dennis Quaid plays a pilot. He would do so again in "Innerspace (1987)."