We tend to see astronauts as these brave, heroic, manly men. And handsome. Astronauts are sort of like firefighters that way. Even when they’re not that cute, they’re still cute. There’s just something about astronauts. Axe has the whole “nothing beats an astronaut” campaign and even Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon from 30 Rock has a spaceman as her perfect man: astronaut Mike Dexter.
But, as is so often the case, the reality pales compared to the fantasy. It’s what the wives of NASA’s Apollo-era astronauts learned the hard way in the 1960s, presenting a quiet glamour to the press while struggling with sudden fame and strained marriages. Their stories, which have run in the background of their husbands’ memoirs, finally takes centre stage in Lily Koppel’s new book The Astronaut Wives Club.
In the late 1950s, a man’s family was a kind of reflection of his worklife: a good home with a pretty wife and adorable children translated into a good career. And this is where the book starts, with the press descending on the wives of the Mercury 7 astronauts hours after their introductory press conference on April 9, 1959. And right off the bat Koppel brings the wives’ side of things to life with minute details, like how Betty Grissom, Gus’ wife, was running errands in spite of a head cold when reporters caught up to her asking for a statement.
From there Koppel takes us through the burgeoning friendship between these seven women. There were all from different backgrounds and used to different military traditions–there were three Army wives, three Navy wives, and one Marine wife–suddenly thrust into the unchartered waters of life as an astronaut’s wife. But they were in it together.
While a there was a friendly competition between the wives that mirrored their husbands’ vying for the prime flight assignment, they became a close network of support for one another. When Deke Slayton was pulled from the flight rotation for a heart condition in 1962 and his backup pilot Wally Schirra denied the chance to take his spot on the fourth Mercury mission, their wives, Marge and Jo, consoled each other and cried out their frustration.
By virtue of being the first cohort, these seven wives enjoy the most attention. Their individuality is brought such that they become most memorable characters. They form an exclusive club, one into which nine new women sought admission after their husbands joined NASA as the second astronaut class in September 1962. At the same time, the Mercury program was ending and giving way to Gemini, upsetting the balance in the astronaut office. Again, the women’s struggles parallel the men’s.
But it’s here that Koppel’s narrative starts to get murky. After the 1962 astronaut class, the third group joined in 1963, the fourth in 1965, and the fifth and final group the book touches on in 1966. With each of these groups comes another group of wives who quickly start to blend into one another.
John Glenn shows his wife Annie a mockup Mercury capsule in 1959. via
For Koppel, the missions that anchor this era of spaceflight take a back seat to the wives’ anecdotes. We follow some wives as their husbands’ missions are detailed with launch and splashdown dates but other flights are glossed over. A story about one wife’s experience might be told while we’re reading about a launch party for another wife’s husband giving blurred sense of time. Without a progressive parallel story line focussing the astronauts, the wives’ more recognizable counterparts, it’s hard to keep them all straight or know who was married (most of the Apollo-era marriages ended in divorce) to whom and where they fit into the Space Race timeline.
Koppel spends a fair bit of time with Harriet Eisele sometime in the late mid-1960s. But Eisele is one of the harder wives to place for those without an intimate knowledge of the Apollo program. Eisele is probably not a familiar name; her husband Donn, Command Module Pilot of Apollo 7, is perhaps the least well known astronaut.
But Koppel isn’t an historian offering a comprehensive look at the race to the Moon, she’s a writer committing a unique time in history to paper. It’s clear Koppel admires the astronaut wives, and she tells their stories from a woman’s perspective. There are passing references to the rise of feminism sweeping through the nation while NASA and “Togethersville,” the nickname of the closely knit astrowives community, stayed locked in the early 1960s mentality. She captures the pain these women felt when faced with the realities of infidelity, divorce, and the challenge of moving on as a widow.
The Astronauts Wives Club is filled with anecdotes of the women behind the nation’s spacefaring heroes, altogether a light, frothy book to read poolside with a malt shake. Or a cooler of champagne as the wives were wont to drink in celebration of a mission coming to an end.