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'The Right Stuff' cast delves deeper into Mercury 7 astronauts

Patrick J. Adams plays John Glenn in The Right Stuff. Photo courtesy of National Geographic
Patrick J. Adams plays John Glenn in "The Right Stuff." Photo courtesy of National Geographic

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 8 (UPI) -- It took more than "the right stuff" to launch Americans into space, say the cast members of National Geographic's new adaptation of The Right Stuff.

In the series premiering Friday on Disney+, Patrick J. Adams, Jake McDorman and Colin O'Donoghue play three of the test pilots who made up the Mercury 7, the astronaut team for NASA's first manned space program.

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"Part of being an actor in this part was figuring out exactly what the right stuff is," McDorman, who plays Alan Shepard, told UPI in a phone interview.

Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff, became an acclaimed movie in 1983. Even at three hours, the film limited its scope to the technical hurdles NASA overcame to launch men into space.

The show covers how NASA recruited Shepard, John Glenn (Adams), Gordon "Gordo" Cooper (O'Donoghue) and the other astronauts from a pool of test pilots in 1959. Shepard, Glenn and Cooper, along with Scott Carpenter, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton, would become the first American astronauts.

"If you were a surviving test pilot then you were already very special," O'Donoghue told UPI in a separate phone interview. "They had the right stuff. That's where the saying comes from."

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Many test pilots in the 1950s died in crashes. For Adams, that line of work informed him about where his character began the Mercury program.

"In the 1950s, your chances were 1 in 3 that you were going to die doing this," Adams said in a separate phone interview. "It was that stuff that we needed to understand to get into the mindset of these guys."

Part of the right stuff, O'Donoghue said, was the willingness of such test pilots to get back into a cockpit after a deadly crash.

"They have to keep flying because if they keep thinking about it too much, then they won't be able to do it again," O'Donoghue said. "For them to be able to do what they do, they have to believe that they're the best pilot in the world."

In addition to the pioneering efforts of NASA scientists and the Mercury 7 pilots, the series explores other hurdles the program faced on the ground. Efforts to maintain funding garner more focus in the series.

"They had to scramble for resources at every turn," Adams said. "They had to fight for their place and they were at risk of people playing politics and pulling their funding at any moment."

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As the series shows, Glenn spearheaded efforts to promote the Mercury 7 in the media. Glenn also had a relationship with John F. Kennedy, then a senator, which he parlayed to gain political support for the program.

"I think Glenn joyfully ran into that responsibility," Adams said. "He fancied himself the de facto leader of this group of people based on his age and his military experience, [and] his ability to be in front of the camera and understand how to work the media at that time."

Those efforts did not always endear Glenn to his bosses. Adams said the series will show how many NASA superiors just wanted Glenn to stay out of their way.

"He was endlessly frustrating to them, sticking his nose where they felt it didn't belong," Adams said. "John kept trying to put out fires and solve everybody's problems for them, thinking that he'll prove his worth and his value. Most of the time, it backfired."

The media coverage of the Mercury program put the astronauts' families into the spotlight, too. Cooper did not want NASA to find out he was separated from his wife, Trudy (Eloise Mumford), so he invited her to move back in with him.

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"Gordo and Trudy were separated when Gordo got accepted into the space program, which was very much frowned on at the time," O'Donoghue said. "Even to be a test pilot, it was frowned upon, so nobody knew that that was the case."

The professional lives of the Mercury 7 were not harmonious either. They were competing to be the first American in space and fighting among themselves. The seven candidates. Glenn and Shepard, in particular, disliked each other.

"We're going to follow these men who are so alike in so many different ways but also at opposite ends of the spectrum," McDorman said.

Adams felt Glenn's social skills got under Shepard's skin.

"Shepard was never a warm and fuzzy guy and John prided himself on being that way to people," Adams said. "There was no world in which they were going to be best friends."

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