Lily Koppel’s The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story will be released Tuesday, June 11, by Grand Central Publishing. It illuminates the victorious and sometimes heartbreaking stories of the women behind the first several groups of NASA astronauts. This book is less of a history of the space program’s early years and more of a history of the era’s moods and characters, focusing on the trials and tribulations of the wives of the Mercury Seven (selected in 1959), the New Nine (1962), The Fourteen (1963), and The Original Nineteen (1966).
The book begins with the stark reality of what it was like to be married to these intrepid men who, in their humble beginnings, were merely test pilots with the most unenviable jobs in the world and were grossly underpaid. Before the glitz, celebrity, and glamour, many of Koppel’s “Astrowives” were “slumming it” in bleakly-decorated military base housing, with few of life’s luxuries. As a result of their husbands’ work, the wives went into “Superwoman” mode.
“They had endured years of waking up alone, making their kids breakfast, taking them to school and picking them up, fixing dinner and kissing them good night, promising that Daddy was thinking of them all the time,” Koppel writes.
These small victories were accomplished daily despite the specter of death hanging over the families, especially at gritty, dusty Edwards Air Force Base, frequently a site for fatal plane crashes and pilots’ funerals.
When the wives’ husbands were selected to be among the first U.S. space travelers, flying on Mercury, Gemini, and ultimately Apollo—the nation’s main space goal in the 1960s—they were overwhelmed with freebies, fashions, and the stresses that arrived with their instant celebrity. With fame came many challenges—over time, many of the marriages grew troubled and degraded. One Astrowife’s marriage was already in danger before she even arrived in Houston; she arrived with a “dirty secret.” In addition, the sexy “Cape Cookies” (essentially, tanned, buxom space groupies on Florida’s Space Coast) provided fun diversions for the men and much anxiety for the women.
As times (and marriages) changed, the story goes from detailing the wives’ bombardment with sudden fame to a redemptive tale of liberated womanhood. Rene Carpenter, Mercury Seven wife, goes on to become a dynamo on her own terms. Many of the women learn they must attack life, with gusto, on their own terms … and they do.
Several of the women, sadly, must contend with life following the tragic deaths of their husbands. Some of the women become empowered by their husbands’ absences and moved on, heads held high. Sadly, this was not the case for some of the wives, as the sacrifices of their men would leave resonances and scars not healed by time.
This book reads more like a gripping novel than a mere history, and the reader becomes emotionally invested with the brave women depicted. The wives are depicted richly and vividly, down to their individual quirks and fashion choices. Also, the book has a dreamlike, surreal feel to it; it is the ideal companion to the 1965 World Book publication, The United States Astronauts and Their Families, which is illustrated with glossy, rare photos of many of the book’s main principals. Also, let the reader be warned: some major bombshells (no spoilers here) are dropped about some space travelers we know and revere, which may change the way one sees them, forever.
The Astronaut Wives Club, while being an emotional roller coaster for those invested in the days of “old school” space, ultimately proves to be a story of triumph. In 1966, The Beach Boys sang in a popular hit of the day, “I had to prove I could make it alone.” And many of the Astrowives did just that, proving themselves to be fine on their own or proudly beside their husband, no matter what.
For more information about The Astronaut Wives Club, visit www.astronautwivesclub.com
This review is the express opinion of the author.
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