Book review: ‘The Astronaut Wives Club,’ Lily Koppel
Nearly everyone who was old enough to remember witnessing it on their televisions can recall the moment Neil Armstrong beamed back to Earth his famous words, “The Eagle has landed.” The successful and historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon was the pinnacle of the decade-long space program and the greatest of NASA’s achievements during its heyday in the 1960s. The three astronauts who took part in the most famous space mission were not the first or the last, but were a part of a larger NASA family, which began in 1959 with the inaugural Mercury missions.
It had long been President Kennedy’s dream to see a man on the moon during his time in office, and the original seven Mercury astronauts were the first phase of that ambitious plan to beat the Soviets to the ultimate prize. With Kennedy’s charisma and enthusiasm leading the way, the country rallied behind the project, and the astronauts were greeted as heroes. So, too, were the seven wives who NASA unveiled in dramatic fashion.
In her engrossing book “The Astronaut Wives Club,” author Lily Koppel reveals the grounded and often challenging support system that existed behind the very public personae the astronaut families were contracted by NASA to maintain.
“To be an astronaut wife meant tea with Jackie Kennedy, high society galas and instant celebrity.” Who would have thought a scientific endeavor would bring such fame and status — certainly not the women who had been thrust into the middle of it. Many astronauts came out of the military, and their wives were accustomed to unpretentious and barebones living, in cramped, no-frills military housing.
Unfamiliar with the sudden glare of the public spotlight, the women turned to the only people who would understand the upheaval in their worlds — one another. Koppel describes how the wives joined together to support one another through the stressful hours of a mission, as well as through the pitfalls of managing an overeager press corps.
LIFE Magazine was chosen to be the official mouthpiece of the astronauts, charged with presenting the seven Mercury families to the world in all their perfection. The women, especially, were analyzed with zeal very akin to the modern scrutiny of the Kardashians, with every nuance up for examination — with one critical difference. Unlike with celebrities today, with the tabloids paying a pretty penny for any news of a flaw or foible, LIFE was instructed to present a perfected personification of an astronaut wife, not the least because the United States was eager to show the Soviets how modern and advanced Americans really were.
With their carefully crafted images, the Mercury wives were instantly taken into the hearts of Americans, with a fervent and patriotic eagerness. The men’s backgrounds had been closely examined by NASA, as had their wives, and all were deemed to be upright Americans, without any communist leanings, and they were worthy of representing the U.S. in the new era of space-age exploration.
The men knew their wives were pivotal to their success; their support had been vital to get them to where they were. NASA believed a stable home life was a cornerstone to an astronaut’s success in space. All the astronauts needed to show a loving family as part of the criteria; any marital unrest, as well as the common philandering by the men, was downplayed or outright ignored.
With the opportunity to be a part of making history, and with the lucrative LIFE Magazine contract to sweeten the deal, the women agreed to play the happy wives, in spite of how challenging it proved to be. The women’s new job was to be beautiful, ever stylish, supportive, optimistic and polite. While much of the country was going through the painful growing pains of the civil rights era, and the rise of feminism, the women of NASA had agreed to carry on in the provincial and outdated framework of the 1950s.
Koppel delves into each family’s story, and the book is filled with a good selection of photographs of the carefully controlled and staged moments captured by the ever-present magazine. As the women strove to become closer to one another, the men grew more competitive, knowing they were in a race to have the chance to be the first man in space. But while preparations were still being made, the Soviets jumped the gun and made history, sending Yuri Gagarin into orbit first.
With the success of NASA’s first sub-orbital flight, Kennedy announced plans to reach the moon by the end of the decade, and the already intense attention went into overdrive. The narrative picks up the pace as the missions became more daring and more involved, and the focus widens to include the new families added to the mix with the Gemini and Apollo missions.
By the time Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon’s surface, everything the initial Mercury wives represented had vanished into the tumultuous fog of the late 1960s, when the women of the ’50s were seen as hindrances to the feminist movement, and America could no longer sport as squeaky clean an image, coming as it was out of the decade of the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, violent racial tensions across the country and the unpopular and disastrous war in Vietnam.
It seemed fitting, then, that as the ’70s got underway, and the space program was retired due to a funding drain from the burden of Vietnam, some of the “perfect” space families began to fall apart. The shiny images began to tarnish, and many more practically minded people began to think that Tang, Teflon and Velcro were the only tangible things average Americans got from the costly and distracting space program.
For the astronauts and their wives — though there were some exceptions, most notably John Glenn — most of the families sank back into obscurity, or at least into a calmer existence. A stunning fact that Koppel shares, though, highlights just how challenging those Golden Years of NASA really were for the men and women involved: Of the 30 families in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, only seven couples stayed married. In addition to the broken marriages, alcoholism, suicide attempts and depression were common.
There is no doubt that those first astronauts made history and thrilled a nation with their exploits far beyond Earth’s atmosphere, but Koppel’s captivating book makes it very evident that as they gained their rightful places in the history books, the families of NASA lost their innocence, as well.
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