The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

astronautThe US space program began in 1958, with an original group of seven astronauts. Their seven wives were expected to be the classic 1950’s perfect housewives; and that blissful domestic harmony was considered as important a job qualification for the men as was their athleticism and stamina. (Later rounds of astronauts would be highly educated engineers and technologists; the early ones emphasized physical attributes a little more.) The Astronaut Wives Club studies those original seven wives, and later additions which swelled the group toward 50. Lily Koppel examines the lives of these women and their husbands: marital dramas, difficulties with the press, lifestyles, tragedies, and lives after NASA was done with them. She interviewed the available surviving women. It comes across as a truthful depiction of them: women whom, unlike their husbands, we have surprisingly never thought to study until now.

The first space program was based out of Cape Canaveral in Florida, moving to Houston (my hometown and current place of residence) in 1962. It was fun to read about the early suburbs of Clear Lake and Friendswood, which I’m familiar with in slightly different forms today. A guide at the front of the book to “the astronaut wives” groups them by wave: the original seven (Mercury), the new nine (Gemini), the fourteen (more Gemini and Apollo), and the nineteen that came in 1966. The original seven are those we get to know the best, and their influence would remain on those that followed, but even the later waves of wives receive good personal treatment. From 1950’s stereotyped domesticity to the hesitant beginnings of women’s lib (which, unsurprisingly, came later to Space City wives than to certain segments of the population), these women tended to stick together, presenting a united front against the intrusive media and comforting each other in times of tragedy. But there was also competition: just as their husbands competed for the honors of “firsts” (outer space, moon orbit, moon walk), their wives had to compete to present the proper image on husband’s behalf. And as later waves of wives rolled in, the earlier ones were, perhaps predictably, a little distrustful of newcomers; they had worked hard to establish a tight-knit, protective club that still had its own internal issues to boot.

Koppel treats these women with sensitivity and respect. Their stories, and their collective story, is moving, poignant, and brought to life. On the night I finished this book, I dreamed about the astronaut wives. I can’t tell you much about my dream, because it faded so quickly, but I had been planning a trip, and I think I was consulting with the wives about some of my plans. I don’t dream about many books I read (at least not that I can recall), so this should be taken, probably, as a vote of confidence in the reality and staying power of what I’d read.

The Astronaut Wives Club is a well-deserved first look at a particular and unique group of women in history. As a bonus, it’s a fun glimpse into Americana of the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s. There is almost no science involved, so if you’re looking for the specifics of space technologies, look away; this is the homebound perspective on the man on the moon. While they suffered widowhood, divorce, and even suicide, this group of women is charming, funny, likeable, and amusing. I found it fascinating to consider this period through its unsung background heroes.

Rating: 7 Valium.

3 Responses

  1. The book was ok, I just finished it. However, frankly I was taken aback by how similar it was to Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Many of Lily’s descriptions and phrasings are lifted directly from Tom. Arthritic Joshua trees at Edwards AFB? Wolfe. The entire Primly Stable script? Wolfe. Describing the astronaut groupies as cookies? Wolfe.
    I enjoy reading about this subject, but had a hard time getting past the similarities.
    Also – she kind of drops a bomb a runs with the statement that a soundstage was used for a moon walk because one of the astronauts burned out the color camera lens. So – they just instantly put together a back up plan? Or was this a plan all along? No mention of how this got linked with the moon landing conspiracy theories? Lame.
    Great subject to read about though. Wish there were more books about this subject..

    • I thought it was a great subject, too. I haven’t read The Right Stuff, so naturally can’t comment on those similarities! Are you saying that Koppel actually lifted phrasing? Sounds like plagiarism; on the other hand, I got the impression that the astronaut groupies were called “cookies” at the time, in which case that’s a historical fact that Koppel would naturally share with Wolfe.

  2. I was extremely pleased to find this great site.
    I need to to thank you for your time just for this fantastic read!!
    I definitely appreciated every little bit of it and I have you saved
    to fav to look at new things on your website.

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