The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

I had an e copy of this book for quite a long time and then a friend gave my partner a hard copy. After immersing myself in the events of 1969 and all of the Apollo missions, I turned to this book and was completely blown away.

This book is about so much more than being the wife of an astronaut. It also brings these men (and they were all men at the beginning) firmly back to earth and dispels some of the hero worship people are wont to believe about the moon men.

The book covers the wives of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo mission astronauts. The period the book covers is from the 1950s to 1970. While people are familiar with the astronauts and their backgrounds in the military, as test pilots and as engineers, less are aware of the role of their wives in their success.

Astronauts were like rock stars. The derring do coupled with their clean cut good looks and the accolades and favors bestowed on men willing to sit on top of rockets that were potentially going to kill them is impressive. What was more impressive were the wives who in the background, provided support and encouragement; put their lives on hold and moved around the country with children in tow to support these endeavors and who also put up with absentee spouses who maintained girlfriends on the side and serially cheated.

The wives were often featured in magazines and most chose to look the other way because they benefitted from their husbands celebrity. State of the art homes, fast new cars and modern conveniences were supposed to fill in for the things they put up with. They had no real support except for one another and out of this, tight knit camaraderie grew between wives and families.

There were tragedies: some families lost astronauts in terrible accidents. Some astronauts divorced their wives and left them to join other women since wives were in Houston and girlfriends were in Cocoa Beach. At least one wife was unable to deal with the loss of her husband in a rocketry accident and committed suicide after years of desperate unhappiness.

Some of the women were superb pilots and drivers of fast cars in their own rights, but recognition was not forthcoming – a wife is nothing compared to an astronaut. Each woman had a wonderful personality with all the complexities each human being possesses.

Not only did these truly amazing women hold down the home front, they did it with style planted firmly in the glare of the flashbulbs from Life magazine. They were painted as style makers and breakers and shaped by the publicity machine of NASA. They were able to hold their own. They were in the middle of major changes in a woman’s role in society. Women in the 50’s were the happy homemakers and by the 60’s, women’s liberation was on the rise and the astronauts wives were not immune to the same influences that the rest of American society was undergoing.

Some of the most poignant moments in the book did occur when the astronauts were on missions. NASA installed squawk boxes in the homes so that the wives and the children could listen to the conversations between their husbands and fathers and mission control. At different points in the orbit, the astronauts were not in contact and if there were problems or potential disastrous problems (and there were) mission control would silence the box. Frankly, when the box was silent, a wife’s worst fears must have been going through her mind.

All these years later, although marriages have come and gone and deaths have occurred among many of the men and some of the women, The Astronaut Wives Club lives on. They support one another and only another wife or child can truly understand what that period in the space race was like.

This was so good I read it in one sitting and have given the book to several other people. You will not be disappointed. This is a fascinating bunch of women. They may have looked like June Cleaver or Carol Brady but they were more interesting like Marlo Thomas or Jessica Lange in the movie “Blue Sky”. Loved this book!

 

 

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