"AND WAS BURNED beyond recognition." That's a hell of a way to begin a book, but that's Tom Wolfe's opening theme, repeated over and over again, describing young fighter pilots getting barbecued, decapitated, mashed flat and pulverized.And he has a point, for under such conditions were the Original Seven astronauts weaned. They survived, for they had the "right stuff," and they went on to become the nation's darlings. As an intermediate step, most of them served as test pilots, and a major share of this long-awaited book (it's been on his publisher's spring and fall lists for many a year) is devoted to unraveling the mystique of the test pilot.As a matter of fact, Wolfe spends more time gee-whizzing over Chuck Yeager and his exploits than on any one of the Immortal Seven.

Wolfe's profile of Yeager and his description of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base are absolutely first class. I've flown with Yeager and I lived at Edwards for four years and, improbable as some of Tom's tales seem, I know he's telling it like it was. He is the first gifted writer to explore the relationship between test pilots and astronauts -- the obvious similarities and the subtle differences -- and the first to notice that Bob White was zooming the X-15 rocket ship into space while John Glenn was waterskiing with Jackie. Yeager flew, man, he was in control! But the Edwards hotshots knew that the Mercury astronauts were just talking monkeys, sealed in their funny little cans and fired off onto some computerized trajectory, with damned little to do on board except blather about the view, so that the stupid newspapers could quote their stupid inanities -- on the stupid front page, no less. It was too much.

From Edwards the Shrine we move on to the Cape and the Seven, and here Wolfe falters a bit. He's obviously done a lot of homework -- too much in some cases -- and he gets bogged down with details that he apparently feels compelled to blurt out, just because he knows them. Some of this stuff could only be interesting to Al Shepard's mother. While the first part of the book is a paean to guts, to the "right stuff," it is followed by a chronology -- a damned good one, but one that might have profited from a little tighter editing. But it's still light-years ahead of the endless drivel Mailer has put out about the Apollo program, and in places the Wolfe genius really shines.

For example, he unveils the medics: The flight surgeon and pilot coexist uneasily, like two scorpions in a bottle, and psychiatry is a pseudoscience and 100 percent bad news as far as astronauts are concerned. In their wisdom, the shrinks decided that Pete Conrad's disposition was "not suitable for long-duration flight." A few years later Conrad spent eight days in earth orbit aboard Gemini Five and did a super job of it. Two men in a Gemini have about as much room as two orangutans in a phone booth, and Gordon Cooper isn't exactly my idea of Bunkmate of the Year, so Conrad really rubbed their noses in it on that one. But as far as the medics were concerned, "they looked at Conrad . . . as if he were a bug on the windsheild of the pace car of medical progress." You got the picture, Tom babe, you really got it.

Another superlative part of the book deals with the diversity of the astronaut group, as opposed to the homogenized mush of personality stereotypes that Life magazine and others pushed in Mercury days. Wolfe is absolutely priceless as he describes the taciturn Gus Grissom open-mouthed and flabbergasted at a press conference, listening to John Glenn reel off paragraph after prepared paragraph -- protestations of devotion to wife, God, country and not a few other favorite forces, qualities and institutions. I believe John is Wolfe's least-favorite astonaut, too much a Boy Scout, too goody-good for someone comfortable with Black Panthers and burned-out beach bums.

Which brings me to the main point. Wolfe has captured the essence of the astronauts -- the "right stuff" -- but they have captured him too. I think the problem is that he wants to be one. Not an art critic or a Ken Kesey, but a flying, drinking, driving, freaking astronaut! The boys got to you, Tom, or as Wally Schirra would say with a great whooping cackle, "Gotcha!" To a large extent the Wolfe has been tamed, his fangs worn down to the gumline. There was no envy at Lennie Bernstein's cocktail party. Tom was all cool detachment there, and Radical Chic was better for it. Now he's too close -- he's almost one of the boys -- and there's too much to admire and not enough to eviscerate.

Unfortunately, Wolfe wasn't invited aboard a Mercury spacecraft, as he was invited to Lennie's place. Naturally enough, he is more attuned to life on the ground than in orbit, and for flight coverage he has had to rely to a large extent on quotes from Al Shepard and the others as they rocketed by overhead. The result is long passages which read like a NASA press release. Another curious thing is that, although Wolfe did a tremendous amount of research in Houston on the Gemini and Apollo astronauts (practically living with Pete Conrad), he stops the book after the last Mercury flight. He dawdled over it for half-a-dozen years, and maybe that's enough, but personally (even recognizing the peril to Mike Collins) I hope he goes on to the moon. Please, Tom, don't let Mailer have the last word.

The Right Stuff is not vintage, psychedelic Tom Wolfe, but if you need a break from Salt II, or have ever been curious about what the space program was really all about in those halcyon Kennedy and Mercury years, then this is your book.