Finding the Right Stuff

By Jon Timothy Anderson, EAA 1052244

John Glenn stands at the edge of the long inclining concrete ramp of Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral. He looks up in the direction of what will one day be an Atlas rocket and the launch site of his historic Mercury Friendship 7, the capsule in which he will become the first American to orbit the Earth. 

It is nighttime and there is a glow about Glenn as he looks pensive. He is mulling over the news that Alan Shepard has become the first American in space, a title that Glenn wanted for himself. For weeks Shepard and Glenn, along with the other Mercury astronauts, have been campaigning to be the first. But for now, Glenn will have to settle for knowing he will one day have his day in space. What he couldn’t know in that moment was that he would go on to enjoy a long career in politics and eventually return to space as the oldest American to travel aboard the space shuttle. 

It is a mild night in December 2019. John Glenn is actually actor Patrick J. Adams and he is standing at the edge of the actual site of Launch Complex 14, 57 years after John Glenn took his historic space flight from that very site. He is surrounded by an array of high-tech lighting equipment as the concrete structure is lit aglow, an odd sight as the “structure” is just the concrete ramp. The gantry tower was demolished years ago, and the Sabal palms and brush that have grown up around it had been cleared to make way for the production but also to help preserve one of the nation’s most historic locations.

The Right Stuff is a new TV series based on the book by Tom Wolfe, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way in conjunction with Warner Bros. for National Geographic. The eight-part series is set to premiere on Disney+ on October 9.

Production began in summer 2019 all around Central Florida. The producers of the series wanted to give this great American story the justice it deserves to be told correctly by using every chance to properly portray the events with as much historical accuracy as possible. This included being as a close as possible to the actual sites where these events took place and recreating the era of NASA’s early days in the 1950s and ‘60s. 

One day in spring 2019, I got a call from a former student of mine asking me where she could find a 1950s vintage P-4 helmet, backpack parachute, and a few other things that a pilot would need in 1960. I live in Orlando, Florida, have been an aviation buff since the last century, and I have a plethora of oddities from my many excursions to SUN ‘n FUN and, of course, AirVenture over the years. I also have taught film for 20 years and the smarter students have always known to ask me for advice when faced with a challenge. When I told her that I had all those things she asked for, she told me, “My boss wants to talk to you.” So, I packed up a parachute bag of vintage flight gear and was on my way. When I found out what the show was, they had a hard time getting rid of me. 

Visualizing the early 1960s on film represents a tremendous investment on the part of the production company — particularly when it comes to the recreation of the early technology employed by NASA. Every prop, piece of set dressing, costume, and hairstyle all has to accurately reflect the time, or the audience will not believe the story. Adding to this challenge, there were several other major productions set in the same era filming during the spring and summer of 2019. This meant that all the large prop rental houses across the country were hard-pressed to supply all the productions at the same time. Properly supplying this series with enough vintage props of scientific, military, and civilian nature was going to be a mammoth task. It wasn’t just the flight gear and early technology for a burgeoning space program, it would also be dressing out the neighborhoods and homes of the astronauts, the newsmen, the throngs of photographers following their every move, and everything else that you would find in America in 1960. More challenging would be the parameters of film production; it had to be done quickly, within a certain budget, and correct for the period. And that’s how I was able to barge in. I had many of the props on the list, I knew where to get those I didn’t, and I love a good scavenger hunt. In short, I had the right stuff. 

The series stars many of today’s well-known actors—Patrick J. Adams from the popular series Suits stars as John Glenn. Jake McDorman portrays Alan Shepard and was previously seen in What We Do in the Shadows.

However, the real star is the Mercury spacecraft. The capsule and its creation will be the narrative of many of the episodes, and there are many versions of the “man in the can” in the show. I’m certain the producers didn’t ask the Smithsonian to borrow a capsule, and even if they did, I’m sure we could guess the answer. Luckily, there are a few companies in Southern California that specialize in obscure props, and this isn’t the first time a Mercury C capsule has been needed for a film production. However,  The Right Stuff would require a few variations of the capsule and a very detailed interior. 

Prop master John Harrington was the perfect fit for the job: a veteran of the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, a master craftsman and a space enthusiast—so much so that he and his wife were married wearing replica Apollo spacesuits on the surface of the moon, actually the lunar surface set from Earth to the Moon. Harrington took on the task of creating the very intricate and detailed interior of the Mercury capsule as well as some of the aircraft cockpits in the series. Gone are the days when a trip to the Army-Navy surplus store would yield all you would need to create such a set. With the aid of 3D printing, CNC cutting technology, and the knowledge of what final products needed to be, Harrington and his team created some incredible, spot-on replicas of the historic machines. It was the perfect blend of passion for history, the latest technology, and movie magic. 

To complete the cockpits and capsules, some details needed to be added such as oxygen hoses, miscellaneous practical instruments, vintage aircraft lighting, and various aircraft fittings. This happened to be July 2019 and, coincidentally, I was on my way to AirVenture 2019. I knew the Fly Market and Aeromart would be just the pace to find exactly what was needed to complete these projects. I know many reading this already have visions of the treasure trove of aviation artifacts this shopping area of the air show can be, and sure enough, I found just about everything on the list including a few aircraft seats that found their way into becoming the multi axis trainers in the show. I also managed to acquire several handfuls of the classic NASA logo stickers at the NASA tent and those too found their way into the show. I highly recommend a trip to AirVenture for anyone needing to recreate the American space program of the 1960s! 

 With all seven of the original astronauts being military men, there are bound to be some war stories. One of the more fascinating tales in the show is the story of John Glenn’s exploits in the Korean War flying his personalized F-86 fighter,  MiG Mad Marine. In what will be an exhilarating recreation of his combat flying, there are multi-perspective views of his dogfights in MiG Alley. Lending to the realism is an actual F-86 fuselage that was used for the close-ups with Patrick J. Adams in the cockpit portraying John Glenn. The fuselage was an actual U.S. Air Force fighter that saw action in Korea and was later acquired by 20th Century Fox studios for use in the Robert Mitcham film The Hunter. It was auctioned off and spent several years as outdoor restaurant decor in Southern California before being rescued by an aircraft collector. On loan to The Right Stuff, the front fuselage was restored with a complete cockpit and nose art for Glenn’s combat aircraft. 

The legendary Lockheed F-104 Starfighter will also be seen in the series flown by the astronauts. Hollywood magic will have the aircraft and pilots soaring through the sky, but in practical filming, there was not a Starfighter to be had — at least not one that the owners were willing to have cut in half and placed on a motion simulator. Starting with only a Plexiglas canopy and a throttle quadrant, the art department created a forward fuselage of the Starfighter from scratch for close-ups of the actors in flight. In a testimony to the craftsmanship of carpenters, metal workers, digital artists, and scenic painters, the audience will see the classic aircraft in all its glory circa 1961. 

One challenge the production would face many times was finding physical locations in Florida that still had the same look as the Cocoa Beach and Titusville area of the late 1950s and early 1960s. As well, there are several scenes that take place at the Cape, which has long since been modernized in many respects. No surprise to many an EAA member that Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, Florida, was the perfect choice to double as many aviation locales in the series.

“When we designed the first phase of Fantasy of Flight, I wanted it to capture the feeling of the golden age of aviation and have a proper backdrop for the ‘world’s greatest aircraft collection.’ We did a lot of research in designing the buildings here so it would have just the right aesthetic,” said owner Kermit Weeks. “Over the years we have hosted many events and productions that have taken advantage of our unique architecture and atmosphere, but The Right Stuff has utilized just about every corner of the property.”

For a production of the scale of The Right Stuff, Fantasy of Flight offered the filmmakers a unique opportunity to capture some of the iconic scenes from the story of the Mercury astronauts in one location. Aside from the challenge of moving to several locations, there were many instances where the production completely took over a location. At Fantasy of Flight, the production was able to have free reign on ramps and runways that would not be available at public airports. As well, the location had a perfect stand-in for NASA’s historic Hangar S, one of the first buildings to be erected for the space program and the Mercury program. 

If you have ever been fortunate enough to spend any time at Fantasy of Flight when it was fully open to the public, there are a few scenes in The Right Stuff ranging from Navy bases to Virginia airports that may remind you of your visit. When asked if he is now looking for a space capsule for his aircraft collection, Weeks retorted, “Of course not, it doesn’t have any propellers on it!”

There is just something about the space program that captivates and inspires anyone who has ever gazed at the evening sky. As filming got underway and with each day a new adventure in history, the crew really got into what the show was about. NASA hats and T-shirts began to appear on the crew as they felt a sense of pride in being part of this experience. I have been on a few large productions and it was very different this time. The sense of history of the story being told through the outstanding scripts and performances, as well as being on the locations of where these events took place, was awe-inspiring. 

Another aspect that really impressed me was the attitude of the lead actors. They fully understood what a responsibility it was to properly tell this story and to tell it correctly. Many times I overheard them discussing the script and question about whether or not a person in 1961 would use a certain phrase and even react to a joke the same way we would today. As the production approached its first day of filming, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission was taking place and the lead actors were invited to attend. Afterward, they really adopted an attitude of “we have to do this right.” (It is called The Right Stuff after all.)

One advantage of the Mercury program having been such a press mega event was the fact that it was well documented; we know what everything looked like because there are photographs of every detail including the press corps. But it was also a disadvantage because if it wasn’t done right, the purveyors of history would call us out. We were able to find and rent many vintage film cameras including a borrowed antique Mitchell 35mm movie camera, but unfortunately it had a standard lens — and we needed a very long telescopic lens to be part of the press pool covering the first manned space flight. Again, the rental house couldn’t help and we started to come up with some movie magic ideas to fake the appearance of a long lens. I started to evaluate every tubular object such as a drain pipe, exhaust stack or even an actual telescope to double for the long lens, but there was still an issue mounting it to the antique camera without damaging it.

On the day we were to film what may be the climax of season one — the launch day of Alan Sheppard — we had a mid-morning call time. On my way to set, which was at the Cape that day, I had time to stop at a flea market on U.S. 1 in Titusville. We were still searching for many props such as suitcases, lawn chairs, and other everyday objects from 1961, and this flea market had probably been in existence since 1961. I did find a good load of relics from the 1960s but on the last row I spotted the perfect object to be our long movie camera lens. It was an actual long camera lens, 700mm to be precise. I could not believe it. Then the scramble was on to make it work. Ian Rylance, our second prop master, suggested bailing wire. I thought he was joking but he showed me a picture on his phone of the actual event with the press pool and sure enough there was a cameraman with a long lens that was somehow rigged to his camera with, believe it or not, bailing wire. It was amazing, but we had fortuitously, recreated the very man and prop in the 1961 picture. As we were shooting the scene it dawned on me: that lens was from that time period, found just miles away from the actual location. It may have been the very same lens used on May 5, 1961. 

Special permission was granted by NASA for Warner Bros. to film on the actual site of the blockhouse and liftoff site for Alan Shepard’s flight, back areas of the Cape and Launch Complex 14, the site of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 launch and the 3 other Mercury missions. The Mercury 7 Memorial is at the entrance to Launch Complex 14. The night of filming for the season finale was incredibly special. The base camp for the production was flanking either side of the memorial and when “lunch” was called at 10 p.m. that night, it seemed as if it was visited by the ghosts of those who made history over 50 years ago on the very site. The original Mercury 7 have all passed on. The anniversaries of the date have been celebrated and accumulated but that night was something special. The pad was alive once more with lights, technology, and human curiosity about what comes next.

The TV series is not a remake of the 1983 film. You will not see Chuck Yeager, at least not in the first season. Instead the producers are focusing more on the Mercury 7 astronauts, their interpersonal stories, and a few other legends in aviation. There are stories of the scientists, the administrators, and others not often in the limelight. In addition, the show will also portray Gerry Cobb, one of the 13 women who also went through the same tests as the original astronaut pool. There are the stories of how these heroes vied for the chance to be the first into space with rivalries and unexpected friendships among the first astronauts. For aviation buffs and those who love the space program, this series will be a delight to watch and leave you wanting more. 

Photos courtesy of 21st Century Fox.

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