John Glenn (front right), played by Patrick J. Adams, during an exam for Project Mercury in National Geographic's "The Right Stuff" streaming on Disney+. (National Geographic / Gene Page)
California School of the Arts

A look into new Nat Geo show ‘The Right Stuff’ with James R. Hansen, two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee

National Geographic premieres its first ever scripted show to be released on Disney+. “The Right Stuff,” an adaptation of the 1979 book by Tom Wolfe of the same name, follows the lives of U.S. fighter pilots in the 1950s-60s and their journey in testing experimental aircraft to becoming the first people in space. 

NY Times best-selling author and professor of history James R. Hansen was brought on as a historical consultant for the series. A former historian for NASA, Hansen has written 12 books on the history of space and is a two-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in history. I had a chance to talk about the series over the phone with him.

“I look at all of the scripts that the writers have come up with for all the different episodes and I read them … to make sure that things are as accurate as possible,” Hansen said. “It’s a mix of good storytelling and good history. It’s not meant to be a historical documentary per se so I know that there are some compromises and in how they put the material together but I give them every possible comment that I have on it.”

The eight-hour drama series isn’t your typical nostalgic documentary series about the race to space. Similar to Neil Armstrong’s film “First Man,” a hit film based on the biography written by Hansen, the episodes dive deep into the gritty realness and personal lives of these astronauts. 

“They’re real people. They do extraordinary things, but they’re us. They’re nuanced people. They’re flawed in some ways. They’re very very human. That doesn’t mean that they don’t do courageous and heroic things,” Hansen said.

From left to right: 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 speak to the press (Credit: National Geographic/Gene Page)

Born in 1952, Hansen grew up with the space program, fascinated by how people approached constructing such complex rockets. He studied to earn his doctoral degree in the history of science and technology and has since served on a number of important advisory boards and panels related to aerospace.

“I was interested in how people created, how people solved problems. My focus has always been on people and creativity. I’m not interested in the machines as much as I am in the people who imagine, design and build the machines. In studying the Space Program, you’re studying creative people [and] creative organizations,” Hansen said. 

The story of the Mercury Seven inspired many back in 1959. Hansen was only in the second grade when Alan Shepherd became the first American in space. Although the younger generations may not have seen the wonder and awe of the first ever launch, Hansen believes immersive series can truly bring the audience back in time. 

“I really do hope that young people watch it. I think you’ll find it very exciting and find the characters pretty extraordinary. It’s a very, very exciting remarkable story that people your age, even middle-aged didn’t live through. So to them, it’s really, you know, it’s brand new to them. All of the details of culture of the time — the cars, the streets, the buildings, and the businesses…It’s almost like a time capsule has been opened up for people,” Hansen said. 

“The Right Stuff” premieres on Oct. 9 on Disney+.