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The stuff of legends: Disney+ series chronicles nascent years of newly created NASA program

From left, Micah Stock as Deke Slayton, Jake McDorman as Alan Shepard, Aaron Staton as Wally Schirra, Michael Trotter as Gus Grissom, Patrick J. Adams as John Glenn, Colin O’Donoghue as Gordon Cooper and James Lafferty as Scott Carpenter make up the Mercury Seven in National Geographic’s “The Right Stuff” on Disney+. (Gene Page/National Geographic)

The crews. The crafts. The clashes. The controversies. The Corvettes. The cocktails.

The coolness of it all.

More than a half-century after humans began orbiting the Earth and eyeing the moon, the stories of the astronauts and their families and colleagues have continued to attract Hollywood, from the ABC series “The Astronaut Wives Club” (2015) to the feature film “First Man” (2018) to the recent Netflix docuseries “Challenger” to the Apple TV+ series “For All Mankind,” which re-imagines the outcome of the space race and other historical events of the 1960s.

Now comes the new Disney+ drama series “The Right Stuff,” based on Tom Wolfe’s iconic 1979 book of the same name and chronicles the nascent years of the newly created NASA program and the best-of-the-best test pilots who made up the original Mercury Seven. And while it would be next to impossible to duplicate the shining brilliance of Philip Kaufman’s 1983 theatrical adaptation of the same material (IMHO the best astronaut movie ever made), show creator Mark Lafferty has delivered a visually striking, well-acted period piece that plays like “Mad Men: The Flyboys Edition.”

In the opening sequence set in 1961, Mercury astronauts John Glenn (a solid Patrick J. Adams) and Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman, the standout of the series) engage in a competitive predawn run and then get ready for the day as we catch a brief glimpse of the Freedom 7 capsule on the morning of America’s first human spaceflight. They sit down for a breakfast of steak and eggs, but when Glenn tries to talk about the importance of the day and how they should think about what they’re going to say in public, Shepard cuts him off and says, “You’re a great pilot, John … but you went behind my back, and I know all about it. Now we’re going to go out there and turn on the wattage for the cameras … but right now, we don’t have to sit here and pretend we’re best buddies.” The rivalry and stark contrasts between Glenn and Shepard are established and become a running theme of the series.

Shortly thereafter, we get a title card saying, “TWO YEARS EARLIER, 1959,” with Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly” blaring on the soundtrack (just like in the Kaufman movie) as we’re introduced to the seven men – all cocky, hotshot pilots from various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, each convinced HE’S the most qualified to be the first American in space – who were chosen from hundreds of top candidates to become the Mercury 7 crew. In addition to Glenn and Shepard, there’s the Don Draper-esque, womanizing married playboy Gordon “Gordo” Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue); the rough-edged Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter), who has a running feud with Cooper dating back to their Air Force days; the jokester Wally Schirra (Aaron Staton, who actually was in “Mad Men” as Ken Cosgrove); along with Scott Carpenter (James Lafferty) and Deke Slayton (Micah Stock), two fine pilots and astronauts mostly relegated to the background in this version of the story.

We also meet the wives, who were turned into props by Life Magazine and had to put on a brave face and smile every day for the ongoing marketing campaign by NASA to win over the hearts and minds of the American public – and, more important, the politicians holding the purse strings for much-needed funding. Nora Zehetner is Glenn’s shy, almost reclusive wife, Annie, who dreaded the spotlight mostly because of her pronounced stutter; Eloise Mumford is Trudy Cooper, who had left Gordo over his drinking and philandering but reluctantly agreed to a reconciliation effort after Gordo told her he’d be on the outside looking in if the NASA PR machine learned they were estranged, and Shannon Lucio as Louise Shepard, who seems oblivious to her husband’s numerous one-night stands.

The domestic scenes often delve into soapy melodrama but serve as a tone-changing counterpoint to the jazzed-up, revved-up, souped-up scenes of the dashing flyboys in their AO pilot sunglasses and their flashy convertibles, who seem to spend as much time partying as they do training. (With the notable exception of the righteous and judgmental Glenn, who rarely joins the group and spends his free time angling to become THE public face of the Mercury program and working every room like the politician he would eventually become. Shepard et al. are hounds in their pursuit of women, while Glenn is an unabashed glory hound.)

This is Nat Geo’s first original scripted series for Disney+ and it’s a successful launch, pardon the pun. It’s about the technologically amazing and bold and sometimes recklessly rushed American effort to win the space race, the behind-the-scenes creation of heroes who more than lived up to the hype, and the flawed but incredibly brave and talented men who lived up to the term “astronaut,” which is derived from the Greek words for “star” and “sailor.”

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