The adventurous spirit of the space era of 1960s America feels awfully far away. Spending billions of dollars for the sake of science and exploration — are we still doing that in any way anyone notices, or wants to know about? I have no idea.
Lily Koppel’s new nonfiction book, The Astronaut Wives Club, out this week, takes its readers from the inception of the astronaut program in 1959 through Apollo 17 in 1972, the final manned moon landing. It effectively — and rivetingly, I found — goes through those 13 years of U.S. history by telling the NASA story through the domestic sphere: specifically, through the wives’ lives. And for most of the space program, a wife and children were a job requirement for the astronauts — though fidelity and being physically present were not — so there ended up being a lot of them.
And they became close to each other. There was a literal Astronaut Wives Club. “They really had to sort of rely on each other to make it through the space race — and they were on this parallel mission to their husbands,” said Koppel in a recent telephone interview.
Most of the wives went from being military spouses just scraping by to celebrities with cash they’d never had and reporters trailing after them. “It was intoxicating,” said Koppel. “The whole country had space fever. And they were a part of it. They felt very much like they were playing a really important role.”
Their marriages, like that of the space-championing Kennedys’, whom some of the astronaut families got to meet and befriend, were meant to reflect an ideal. It was a fulltime PR job. “All the astronauts, even today, fully attest to the fact that without them, it would have been sort of impossible, because they were just working all the time,” said Koppel. “The women kept the whole public relations image that everything was still perfect back on Earth.”
Koppel shared some photographs with BuzzFeed that she had gathered during the reporting of The Astronaut Wives Club.
This photograph was taken in their home in Dec. 1968, a few days before Apollo 8, which was the first mission to orbit the moon, and “was given a 50/50 chance by NASA,” Koppel said. Describing the Lovells, Koppel said: “In a way, they’re representative of many of the astronauts and their wives: they were high school sweethearts, they got married after Jim graduated from Annapolis. Marilyn was with him all throughout his test pilot career. These are careers that were sort of built on partnerships. Although they started in the ’50s when we don’t think of women as particularly liberated, you had to be adventurous to the point of almost being a superwoman to be married to one of these guys. Because their job was so dangerous, and they were so macho.”
Koppel: “On Christmas morning, Marilyn answers a ring at her door, and there’s this chauffeur in a cap, driving a Rolls-Royce.” He was from Neiman Marcus, bearing a gift from her husband Jim, who was orbiting the moon at the time. “There’s this model of the moon and the Earth, and a little spaceship going around the moon. With a mink coat.” Koppel calls this item, and others like it, “space bling.”
“It’s such a romantic moment,” said Koppel.
“It’s just such a vision into the space burbs,” said Koppel. “For those kids, it would be absolutely mundane to make a sign like that. Because they lived in a neighborhood of astronauts, they figured everybody’s daddy was an astronaut and a hero.”
Koppel: “Marilyn said she felt like she receded into this little shell within her home. There were these dire, dire prognostications. She said she didn’t even realize that the whole world was praying with her until Jim came back to Earth and the Nixons flew her on Airforce One to go meet him on his recovery ship. She was just so within herself, and so afraid that he might not come back. I think that pasting into the scrapbook has a lot of meaning. It was an acknowledgment that she wasn’t in this alone, and how amazing the support from around the world was.”
“These are, like, the first celebrity endorsements,” said Koppel. “There were dollar-a-year Corvettes provided for any astronaut. There were dollar-a-night rooms at the Holiday Inn in Cocoa Beach for any astronaut. With this instant celebrity came all of the astro goodies, as I like to call them. And there were many. And many that had to be refused, because it really turned into quite a scandal in the early ’60s when they moved to Houston and a contractor wanted to give all the astronauts and their families free homes. The public absolutely erupted over this.”
Pete Conrad was the commander of Apollo 12. Here is the Conrad family.
“He was called the first Ivy League astronaut,” Koppel said about Conrad. “Everyone made a big deal about that. He brought preppiedom to the spaceburbs. And Jane, who was his wife, went to Bryn Mawr, and she was the only Astronaut Wife who was in the Junior League.
“She has said to me, ‘We look like Stepford Wives, but we really weren’t Stepford Wives.’ She has really pointed out how much pressure there was to look the role of the Astronaut Wife and his family. She, of course, was raising four rambunctious boys as well.”
“Gene is really known as the last man on the moon,” said Koppel. “He was the commander of Apollo 17, which was the last mission to land on the moon in ‘72. He’s the bookend to Neil Armstrong.” In the photograph above, Barbara Cernan is wearing some of that “space bling” around her neck. “I think she probably got a belt that matched the necklace. Barbara is from Texas. She’s a Texas blonde that knows how to dress and do her hair.”
Koppel: “After the missions, they would have these pin parties. It would be a party that was completely closed to any outsider, or any press; it would be when the astronauts and their wives and people close to them got to celebrate together. The husbands would present gold jewelry to the women that was emblematic of their mission. So for each mission, there’s a patch that’s designed: an insignia. They would fly them into space. And if they were landing on the moon, the pieces would actually touch down on the lunar surface in a PPK — a personal preference kit. And then it would be flown back.
“It’s almost like the astronauts were in this fraternity, and the wives were in a sorority.”