In 1959, the wives of the seven original American astronauts posed for the cover of Life magazine. The space program was in its infancy, with the astronauts’ names having been announced only a few months before and two years to go before the initial flight. The Life article was to serve as the country’s official, in-depth introduction to the wives — the “astrofamilies” had all signed lucrative, multiyear, exclusive contracts with the magazine — and the seven women participated in a cover shoot in which they posed at Langley Air Force Base gathered around a model of the Mercury space capsule.
As instructed by NASA and Life, all the women wore pale shirtwaist dresses, with the exception of saucy Rene Carpenter, who defied orders with a flowered scoop-neck sundress. But even she was toeing the line when it came to the pink lipstick the women had agreed upon in advance.
Yet when the magazine was published, the women’s lipstick had been altered to look red. As Lily Koppel writes in “The Astronaut Wives Club” (Grand Central, $28), a book whose cover image is the Life photo in question: “The wives were completely shocked, worrying about how America would judge them. They would never wear such a bold colored lipstick. They were mothers, not vixens.”
Such anecdotes fill this breezy and entertaining book, which — like the women themselves — takes pleasure in both playing up and defying the stereotypes of the time. Koppel notes that the wives’ stories, or at least the unvarnished versions afforded by hindsight, have never been told, and she deserves credit for recognizing the richness of the subject matter. More than 50 years after its inception, many of us now take the space program for granted, but Koppel reminds readers just how bold and innovative it felt in the Sputnik era, and how mysterious the wilderness of space remains.
As their husbands changed overnight from anonymous military pilots to international heroes, the astrowives were pulled along, in some cases willingly and in others with reluctance. Each woman’s life was defined by an essential contradiction: To increase the chances of her husband being picked for a coveted mission position, she needed to make their marriage as stable as possible, or at least she needed to make it appear stable. If her husband then was picked, she had to endure the hellish stress of watching and waiting while, in view of the entire country and much of the world, he put himself in extreme danger.
The wives referred to the launches as death watches, and their fears weren’t misplaced. A NASA insider told Susan Borman before the 1968 Apollo 8 mission — in which Susan’s husband, Frank, and two others would orbit the moon 10 times — that the men had a “50-50” chance of survival. During the mission, in the presence of her 15-year-old son, Susan began composing her husband’s eulogy. Though those men returned safely, eight astronauts died in the program’s first 12 years.
Even if a marriage was on steady ground to start with, it turned out that having your husband launched into space was the perfect recipe for its undoing. With the men in Florida most weekdays for training, the wives were often raising young children almost as single parents. “When you come back next time,” one astrowife sarcastically told her unhelpful husband, “why don’t you take a room at the Kings Inn, so I won’t be tempted to bother you?” Extramarital female attention to the astronauts was so abundant that the wives had multiple nicknames for potential temptresses: a Suzy or, if the other woman sought out the men near Cape Canaveral, a Cape Cookie.
Though journalists turned a blind eye to infidelity, they were otherwise unrelenting: peeking in windows, accosting wives at the beauty parlor and even moving into their neighborhoods.
With their husbands away and preoccupied, the wives looked to one another for support. Particularly after the families settled in 1964 in the astronaut suburb nicknamed Togethersville, near Houston’s Manned Spacecraft Center, the women could dash in and out of one another’s backyards, push strollers together on walks and, during missions, hold sleepovers. At first informal, the support network eventually became official in the form of monthly meetings of the titular Astronaut Wives Club.
In one of the more poignant passages about the wives’ friendships, one of Harriet and Donn Eisele’s four children, 4-year-old Matt, develops fatal leukemia. Donn stays overnight in the hospital with him just once, finding Matt’s pain too upsetting. During this time, Koppel writes, the astrowives kept Harriet’s “freezer full of Tupperware dishes, with no names so she wouldn’t have to write thank-you cards. One wife came over and mowed the lawn without saying a word.”
Koppel clearly admires her subjects, which makes it a shame that they are increasingly difficult to keep straight. Additionally, without citations, the sources of Koppel’s facts and quotations — be they firsthand interviews or articles from the ’60s — are not apparent. The initial seven Mercury wives receive the most attention and emerge with semi-distinct identities, but by 1963, with several “generations” of astrofamilies populating Togethersville, I had given up on trying to remember who was who.
To be fair, Koppel is chronicling a cultural moment more than any particular person, and in this she excels. The details are superb, from the ham loaves the women cooked to the Virginia Slims they chain-smoked, the fur hot pants and Pucci dresses they wore, the luaus and shrimp-boil parties they threw, and the Mercury-capsule-shaped community swimming pool they shared. In a moment that perfectly summarizes time and place, Koppel describes Sue Bean and her friends lining up before a party so that Sue’s astronaut husband, Alan, a perfectionist engineer, could “put on their fake eyelashes for them. He could align and glue the black wisps ever so precisely.”
If the astronauts’ salaries were relatively modest, the perks for the families were practically unlimited: Corvettes rented for a dollar a year, hotel rooms rented for a dollar a night, tickets to Broadway plays, gift certificates to Neiman Marcus and visits to the White House, where two astrowives borrowed evening dresses from Lady Bird Johnson and the first daughters baby-sat their children.
In spite or perhaps because of such adventures, most astromarriages didn’t last. “It had been a patriotic duty to keep one’s marriage together in Togethersville,” Koppel explains, but the first divorce in the late ’60s “opened the floodgates.” Ultimately, of the original 30 space couples, only seven stayed together.
At the book’s conclusion, Koppel catches up with several astrowives who remember their time in Togethersville as “golden years.” Perhaps. But a particularly convincing statement comes from astrowife Barbara Cernan, who remarked, “If you think going to the Moon is hard, try staying at home.”
Curtis Sittenfeld, whose fourth novel, “Sisterland,” comes out this month, wrote this review for the Washington Post.