Watching Gus Grissom's miserable face insisting, "The hatch just blew!" in The Right Stuff made me wonder if anybody remembers him and Edward White and Roger Chaffee cooked alive in their Saturn rocket on the launching pad. But we don't even want to go to the Moon anymore, so what's to remember? And even though Kubrick gets the last laugh as the space shuttle Challenger earlier this year went up (two years after Columbia), missing only a Pan Am logo to make it just like a movie, a jumbo jet in outer space, landing on a dime--even with this, our attention wanders.
Meanwhile, in The Right Stuff the locusts descend (you can hear them on the soundtrack whenever photographers crowd around the astronauts or their wives) while the Mercury missions go up, the White House and NASA getting what it wants--but that is incidental. Director Philip Kaufman understands at least a part of Tom Wolfe's book: that the heart of the "space program" is Chuck Yeager and the boys on the salt pan in the Mohave standing on a rise like the ghosts of buffalo hunters, a John Ford Western blasting away down there at the drive-in. They smile at the foolishness, but what else is there? Where else does memory reside? The images move only once--the clouds zipping past, the black and stars hovering--and afterward it's just still pictures a widow might keep, the grown grandchildren finding them after she's gone.