True story of the women behind the astronauts
"The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story" by Lily Koppel is the fascinating story of the wives of some of America's first astronauts and their sudden rise to fame in the late 1950s through the early 1970s.
Through Koppel's research, the author has pieced together what it was like to be an astronaut's wife: from hosting reporters and "Life" photographers in their house from sunup to sundown, to waiting for their husbands to safely return to Earth, to dealing with the day-to-day life of raising children with a man who was gone most of the time.
The book begins with the "Original Seven" wives of the Mercury astronauts from Louise Shepard (Alan Shepard) to Annie Glenn (John Glenn) and Rene Carpenter (Scott Carpenter). A majority of the book is dedicated to these first wives who had to watch their husbands struggle with scientific research and spacecrafts that weren't always up to par. They went from the wives of pilots living across the country to the cover of Life magazine in September 1959 and in the national spotlight. They weren't all perfect or with perfect marriages — much to NASA's chagrin.
Many of the husbands had affairs, and some of the wives were less sophisticated than others. Betty was known as the Hoosier from Indiana; Annie Glenn tried to hide a terrible stutter. But the wives joined together and became a support system for each other like no one else could: They formed the Astronaut Wives' Club.
The author includes how the women supported each other during space missions and media mayhem. They celebrated with one another when a successful mission was complete, and the astronaut and his wife were invited to the White House to meet President Kennedy and his incredible wife, Jackie.
They mourned with each other when the first Apollo mission caused the death of three astronauts, and they dealt with the extreme pressure NASA put on them to play the perfect housewives and mothers — no matter what their husbands might be doing in their off time.
After spending about half the book on the Mercury 7, including wonderful photographs, Koppel brings in the next two sets of astronaut wives: The New Nine and The Fourteen. The New Nine were the wives of the astronauts chosen for the Gemini space program, announced in September 1962, which brought Janet Armstrong (Neil Armstrong) into the group; The Fourteen were for the Gemini and Apollo Moon missions, including Buzz Aldrin's wife, Joan.
Koppel states in her author's note at the beginning of the book, "To be an astronaut wife meant tea with Jackie Kennedy, high-society galas and instant celebrity. It meant smiling perfectly after a makeover by Life magazine, balancing an extravagantly lacquered rocket-style hairdo and teetering in high heels at the crux of the space age."
This is something many of us who were born once man had already stepped on the moon never thought about, especially in an age where all celebrities grace magazine covers and for reasons much less gritty than having a husband shot into space.
That's what makes this an amazingly interesting book: It's a real look at a time in history that's been written about before. But in this account, the story is covered from the inside — what it was like to live with these astronauts and become a celebrity because of whom you chose to marry — the most modern-day example we have of this is Kate Middleton.
In her acknowledgments, Koppel states her surprise at discovering that the Astronaut Wives' Club had never been written about in book form before. She writes, "I still find it amazing that there is more computing power in my iPhone than in the technology that took the astronauts to the Moon."
When you think about the space age in those terms, it is amazing the faith these women put in their husbands and in NASA. "The Astronaut Wives' Club" reveals graceful, faithful women who did their jobs as well as the men who are in the history books.
Margo L. Dill is the author of "Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg," a middle grade historical fiction novel. She often reviews books as a columnist for "WOW! Women On Writing" e-zine and her blog, "Margo Dill's Read These Books and Use Them" (http://margodill.com/blog/). She lives in St. Louis with her family.