The Astronaut Wives Club
When America entered the space race, a new era began and a new kind of American hero emerged. These fighter pilots, test pilots and military men were selected, the first seven from a field of over a hundred men, to train as astronauts. They would eventually ride powerful rockets into outer space and put their very lives on the line to prove that man could indeed conquer another formidable frontier: space. They were the best of the best --- physically, mentally and emotionally able to withstand a grueling training program. That program and the toll it extracted on the astronauts’ families would certainly challenge and test their wives in ways to which no one had given much, if any, thought. NASA insisted on happy, solid marriages for the men they chose to conquer the heavens. Naturally, it fell upon the wives to create and maintain this image of a perfect union.
"Although the wives were (and still are) less well known, their stories are told quite frankly. They deserve a lot of respect and credit for the way they conducted themselves in the public eye during a very difficult, challenging and exciting time in their lives."
Lily Koppel’s book is about those wives, the young women who were left behind for long periods of time. It was up to them to raise their children, mow their lawns and live in a fishbowl, all the while smiling and being supportive of their spouses. Once the first set of astronauts had been named, their wives also became instant celebrities. One day, they were military wives and mothers living ordinary lives like everyone else they knew. The next day, they were being followed around the supermarket by a horde of reporters. Life had received, for a hefty fee that would enrich the finances of the astronauts’ families, exclusive rights to follow them around, take photos of their children, and, for all practical purposes, destroy any privacy they previously had. The space program did not give the wives any pointers on how to manage the press, when they could/should turn down a reporter's personal question, or how to refuse a photo session. The women were expected to appear perfectly groomed and be gracious, no matter what.
The men were away training much of the time, so naturally the women turned to one another for companionship. They forged tight bonds because they spent so much time together dealing with the loneliness and worries that were uniquely due to their husbands' jobs. No one else really understood the way their lives had changed already, to say nothing of how their lives would be turned upside down if the unspeakable happened to any of their husbands. Some of the wives actually enjoyed being in the public eye, while others hated having reporters camped out on their front lawn. They formed their own unofficial club, a rather exclusive club with only one rule: if you need us, come.
Life in a fishbowl is not pleasant unless one is a fish. There were moments when the wives competed with one another. Each wanted her husband to be the first to travel into space or land on the moon. Some of the astronauts strayed from their marriage vows, and there were resentments. One wife hid her previous divorce. Still, there were considerable perks offered to and accepted by the astronaut couples. Who wouldn't want to rent a Cadillac for one dollar a year? Who wouldn't want to be invited to tea at the White House with Jackie Kennedy? Who wouldn't want to ride in a ticker-tape parade in New York City?
THE ASTRONAUT WIVES CLUB covers the first several space missions and the astronauts’ families. Much attention is given to Mercury Seven, the first mission and possibly the best known. Stories about Gus Grissom, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter --- whom Americans think they know --- populate the book and bring history to life. Although the wives were (and still are) less well known, their stories are told quite frankly. They deserve a lot of respect and credit for the way they conducted themselves in the public eye during a very difficult, challenging and exciting time in their lives.
Reviewed by Carole Turner on June 14, 2013