Separating Truth From Fiction In Disney+’s The Right Stuff

Photo: Courtesy of Disney+.
Warning: There are mild spoilers ahead for The Right Stuff.
Space has been all the rage this year. First came Space Force, then Away, and then Challenger: The Final Flight. Now Disney+ is throwing itself in the television space race with The Right Stuff, which is based on the true story of getting the first American man to space.
Right when the series stars, a disclaimer tells viewers that it's a fictionalized dramatization of real events with some dialogue, situations, and characters altered or created "for dramatic purposes." But for the most part, many of the most dramatic parts of the show are actually completely rooted in reality. What happens when seven men vie for the chance to be the first in space? Great TV. It could have been a reality show and been just as interesting.
Here are all the major moments fact-checked, though, in case you were wondering what really went down. There are some spoilers below, simply because American history has already revealed how the series will go.

What happened to the Project Mercury rocket?

The first episode shows the lead up to the Mercury launch in 1961 only to quickly cut to two years earlier as the astronauts prepare. The results of the launch will likely come later in the series, but for now, history tells us that the launch of the Mercury spacecraft Freedom 7 went off without a hitch, propelling the first American man into space for 15 minutes and 28 seconds.

Who were the real Mercury Seven?

The seven lucky astronauts, chosen from hundreds of applicants, were Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Donald "Deke" Slayton, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Walter "Wally" Schirra, Malcolm Carpenter, and Leroy "Gordo" Cooper.
According to, all seven eventually made it into space, but not all of them did with Project Mercury. Grissom flew twice before tragically dying in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire. Slayton ended up finding out about a heart condition that kept him out of space until 1975 when the U.S. teamed up with the Soviet Union for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth and the oldest in space at 77. Shepard manned several flights and even eventually walked on the moon. Schirra took place in Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Carpenter flew to space once but was grounded after missing his re-entry target by 250 miles. And Cooper flew into space twice for the Mercury and Gemini programs.
All seven men have since died, with Glenn passing away last in 2016.

Who were the Mercury Seven astronauts' wives?

According to the Washington Post, all seven of the astronauts were married, but the show highlights three of their wives in particular: Annie Glenn, Trudy Cooper, and Louise Shepard. Like in the show, Annie had a speech disorder that made talking difficult. She worked hard to overcome her stutter later in life and went on to become an advocate for others with speaking challenges. 
Meanwhile, Trudy and Gordo really were on the rocks as The Right Stuff shows. The book Faith 7 reported that they'd been separated for four months after Trudy accused Gordo of infidelity. When NASA came calling for the astronaut role, Gordo begged Trudy to come back so he could look like a stable family man. She reportedly agreed because, as a plane pilot herself, it was an exciting opportunity to see Gordo go to space. They ended up later divorcing for good, and Gordo remarried in 1972.
Louise Shepard also dealt with her husband's alleged infidelity, and was reportedly nicknamed "Saint Louise" for everything she put up with. Despite rumors of trouble in paradise, Louise and Alan Shepard stayed married until they died weeks apart in 1998.
All of the Mercury Seven's wives have since died, with Rene Carpenter passing earlier this year.

The requirements to become an astronaut were stringent

The series shows all of the hoops that the hopeful astronauts had to jump through, and the real life qualifications were just as intense. According to NASA, the seven selected men had to be less than 40, shorter than 5'11", test pilot school graduates, qualified jet pilots with 1,500 hours of flying time, and have a bachelor's degree in engineering.

Those LIFE magazine profiles were real

In the show, the astronauts were each given $25,000 a year by LIFE magazine to give the outlet exclusive coverage of their work and family lives. That's 100% real, with reporting that the LIFE contract with NASA totaled $500,000, which would be about $4.3 million today. Several cover stories were run to make the astronauts look like American heroes in the space race against the Soviets. 

Alan Shepard's $1 car rental was also real

In the series, while training in Florida, Shepard negotiated a contract for the astronauts to rent Corvettes for only a dollar. That story is based on real events, but shifted slightly. In real life, Shepard was gifted a Corvette after going into space, and a deal was worked out for the other six astronauts to get the $1-per-year lease. That didn't happen until 1961, though, versus 1959 in the show.

The John Glenn and Alan Shepard rivalry

Much of the show's drama is centered on Glenn and Shepard as they competed to be the first men in space. Glenn was already very well known prior to becoming an astronaut, which only made him even more popular. He had just made history in 1957 when he flew the world's first supersonic transcontinental flight, nicknamed Project Bullet. Meanwhile, Shepard really was that private. Universe Today reported that he was rarely open with the press and never authorized a biography, unlike the rest of the seven. "He was stylish and cool and cocky," Neal Thompson, author of the unauthorized Shepard biography Light This Candle, said. "I've described him as Don Draper in a spacesuit. He represented that Mad Men era – cool and suave and all that.”
Not only did their personalities clash, but Glenn was outspoken about how he disagreed with some of the astronauts' alleged infidelity, which would have included Shepard. Things between them were likely only made worse when they were selected as lead astronaut and alternate for the first Mercury flight.

Who was the first man in space?

In The Right Stuff, all seven astronauts want to be the first man ever in space, but they were all beat to that by Russia's Yuri Gagarin in April 1961. A month later, Alan Shepard became the first American man in space when his small Mercury spacecraft finally launched. John Glenn was selected as Shepard's alternate for the flight, but didn't end up going to space himself until 1962.

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