Before reality TV stars, there were astronaut wives. During the space race of the 1950s-1970s, the lives of the women married to astronauts played out in the public eye, splashed across covers of LIFE magazine and live interviews on TV sets.
Troubled marriages and infidelity were hidden from the public eye, painting a portrait of all-American families sending their men into space.
Lily Koppel’s book “The Astronaut Wives Club” captures the women behind the men who made history. The ones who took care of everything while their husbands were guinea pigs in the untested waters of spacecraft. Sometimes their astronaut didn’t return, and the wives were the ones who rallied together to hold each other up.
The biography highlights The Mercury Seven (NASA’s first spacemen in 1959), The New Nine (second group of astronauts announced 1962 and the next phase of the space program: Gemini) and The Fourteen (third group announced 1963. Includes Gemini and Apollo moon missions).
For The Original Seven, as their military test pilot flying husbands went through the rigorous examinations and testing to become one of the country’s first astronauts, the wives painted a “Leave it to Beaver” appearance of their family, even if it was far from it. They feared if the men didn’t have a stable home life, they would be grounded from space missions and passed up by someone else who would write their names into history.
It was amazing to read of all the couples within The Mercury Seven, The New Nine and The Fourteen, only seven ultimately stayed together.
The women remained stoic during launches, during lost communication signals, during times of distress (“Houston, we have a problem”) and when their astronaut didn’come home. Thanks to Koppel’s research and interviews, the astronaut wives are telling their stories and receiving their time in the spotlight.
Some of it was glorious, like meeting the Kennedys, and some of it was gritty, like looking the other way when a husband was caught cheating.
I read “The Astronaut Wives Club” during Women’s History Month, to learn of the brave women who stood by their astronauts, but were pushed to the background by their rock star status.
Even some of the astronauts whose own accomplishments fill history books, have spoken up to say their wives deserve to have their own story told and Koppel did just that.