On one level, Lily Koppel’s new book is a breezy, entertaining account of the experiences of the wives of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts of the 1960s. The public persona of these women was always “proud,” “thrilled,” and “happy”—their watchwords. Their private well-being, however, was always something less. Read at this level, The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story is a restatement of the lives of many wives of the 1960s whose husbands were in the public eye. They spent their time caring for their families, each other, and supporting the efforts of NASA in reaching for the Moon. Lily Koppel is to be commended for persuading many of the astronauts’ wives, widows, and exes to speak at length with her. This book is largely the result of interviews with a sizable number of those women. Although the book seeks to introduce readers to the lives of these women and raise awareness about their contributions to the space program, the one-dimensional focus on gossip, fashion, and family ends up too often leaving these women in the kitchen, even if Koppel does show Rene Carpenter and Annie Glenn as more political, liberated, public figures.
Koppel describes how the wives of the astronauts formed their own little clique in Houston in the early 1960s. Originally, it was just the wives of the first Mercury Seven astronauts, led by “Mother” Marge Slayton, wife of Deke, who commanded the group with an authority that even her husband must have envied. The author does not make this point explicitly—perhaps she is [End Page 179] unaware of it—but these women transferred their lifestyle from their military experience, replicating its social networks, hierarchies, and priorities at NASA. Anyone who has ever spent any time on a military base understands the responsibilities and authority of the wives of senior officers. The U.S. military developed this informal structure in the frontier outposts of the trans-Mississippi West, honed it to a high standard in the far-flung outposts of the American empire during the twentieth century, and replicated it in a variety of other circumstances. This was one of those circumstances. At some level, Marge Slayton and Louise Shepard took charge of this club because their husbands were in charge of the Astronaut Office at Houston’s Manned Spacecraft Center. Essentially, the space program called for the wives of astronauts to set the standard for the moral and social well-being of the center to serve as a support for group members in both good and difficult times, and to enforce the principles of the organization. That is exactly what the astronauts’ wives did, as relayed in this book.
They also locked arms in situations when threats to the members of the group arose. They could turn, seemingly at a moment’s notice, to offer aid and comfort or sanction and censure as directed by the leaders of the group. This took two central forms. First, and Koppel writes about this extensively and with grace, this took place when one of the women suffered the loss of a husband. Astronauts engage in a risky profession—so do pilots from which the astronaut corps is drawn—and some die in the performance of their duties. Charlie Bassett and Elliot See were killed in an airplane crash. Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in their Apollo spacecraft during a ground test. Those events are chronicled in this book, and in both instances these women spun into action to care for the family, to offer support for the widow, and “to maintain an even keel” (a nautical term used by Alan Shepard in many situations). This was, of course, a situation they knew well from their experiences with their husbands’ active duty flying.
Second, and this was also something they transferred from their military experiences, the wives of the astronauts had to deal with their husbands’ infidelities. The opportunities for cheating husbands, however, were greater for the astronauts than for most other families...