There’s just something about the early ’60s: the drinks, the conservatism, the consumerism, the Cold War. And the astronauts. “Mad Men” fans and history buffs alike won’t want to miss a new book about a relatively unexplored aspect of this era: the lives of the astronauts’ wives. NASA encouraged the women to be “thrilled, happy, and proud” of their space-bound men, but really they experienced so much more.
We meet the Mercury Seven women in the first chapter of The Astronaut Wives Club, and author Lily Koppel does a nice job of staying close to their stories. By the time you see the women’s faces in the pictures, you’ll feel like you’re a member of the gang. Amazing anecdotes include Annie Glenn’s refusal to visit with Lyndon B. Johnson following the delay of John Glenn’s launch. Unbelievably, NASA tried to get John Glenn (while still loaded in the rocket) to persuade Annie to participate in the impromptu press conference. Glenn let them patch him through in a conference call and then said, “Annie, if you don’t want to visit with him, I’ll back you a hundred percent.” Other wives—and marriages—fared worse under the awesome weight of instant fame, enormous wealth and death-defying missions.
For readers already familiar with the space program, these stories will deepen the portraits of the astronauts, and not always in flattering ways. (Don’t miss the fight between Buzz and Joan Aldrin on their European tour.) The wives faced incredible pressure and often banded together in the midst of it: serving champagne following liftoff, conducting a press conference on the lawn following landing; living in the densely astronaut-populated corner of Texas nicknamed “Togethersville”; suspecting (usually rightly) that their husbands were cheating on them with “a cookie on the cape”; raising their children largely on their own. And while the wives formed lasting bonds, competition and envy also shaped their interactions from the earliest days. As one wife recalled, “We were complete traditionalists: hats, gloves, entertaining machines, eyes glued on husbands’ careers.”
Reading The Astronaut Wives Club, you might find yourself shaking your head and thinking, “Could this be real?” It almost feels like a dream, and occasionally like a nightmare. But for these women it was life, complicated and messy, adventurous and emotional. It’s hard to believe no one has already written their story, and this reader is glad Koppel finally did.
RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Lily Koppel for The Astronaut Wives Club.