The Astronauts' Wives Club

The Astronaut Wives Club

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel is a must-read for history buffs or for anyone who remembers the excitement of the era of NASA’s manned space flights. Those of you who either  lived during those years or who read Tom Wolf’s The Right Stuff or enjoyed that movie , will get great pleasure in this behind-the-scenes story of what life was really like for their wives.

Based on interviews with the women themselves and written in a very readable news-reel style, this actual life narrative covers the early years of the original Mercury seven, on through the Gemini nine, and touches on the experiences of the third group of fourteen and some of the later astronaut families. Many joined the original staff as the program expanded. But the story of these particular women who were among the first, in many ways matches the stories of women all over the country who moved from the expectations for women in the fifties to the changing roles of women in the decades that followed.

The original Mercury seven were charting unmapped waters. The military wives who came from all different backgrounds before their marriages found support from each other as they put on a brave face for their husbands and the public, in spite of living with the danger their husbands faced as test pilots and later as the first space travelers. But they also braved the intrusive press, who relentlessly hounded them for information about the state of their emotions, their personal habits and their marital relationships. Their appearances, their housekeeping, and every other aspect of their lives was under scrutiny, and each had to conform to the image of the perfect astronaut wife.

These women: Louise Shepherd, Betty Grissom, Annie Glenn, Rene Carpenter, Trudy Cooper, Marge Slayton and Jo Schirra, all dealt with long separations from their husbands. They raised their children mostly by themselves. Probably the hardest part was pretending  not to hear rumors about many of their husbands’ shenanigans with the flirtatious women who were attracted to them. These men who were painted larger than life by the image makers in the government and the press were natural magnets for women wanting to share some of the astronauts’ glamour.

But in spite of the hardships, the wives also enjoyed some of that celebrity shine. Their pictures were featured in Life magazine, both in articles about them and on the cover. Eventually they inhabited dream houses outside Houston, and were invited to all the social events put on by Houston’s high society. Later the wives of the Gemini nine joined them as neighbors. Jane Conrad, Marilyn Lovett, Joan Aldrin, Susan Borman and Sue Bean were among those who were added to the astronaut community outside Houston that came to be nicknamed “Togethersville.” They shared coffee while they chain-smoked cigarettes, and when the first astronaut to lose his life, Ted Freeman, was killed in a T-38 crash before he could even be selected for a space flight, they were there to comfort his wife Faith.

Eventually, they and other astronaut wives who moved into the community rubbed shoulders with Presidents and first ladies and with royalty and movie stars. They wore designer gowns to prestigious balls, although some of those were bought from consignment shops. They supported each other during space flights and they swam in each other’s pools. But they also went to the funerals for each other’s spouses who died either in test flight accidents or in space shots or landings that went wrong. The emotional toll on these stoic women was high, since eventually they added divorces and alcoholism and at least one attempted suicide to their collective experiences. But they supported each other through it all, even with the usual relationship ups and downs that women endure with each other and their families. Before women’s solidarity was a widely recognized aspect of our society, these women formed a sisterhood.

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