June 2013

Rebecca Silber


The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club recounts the true story of a group of women who, in the throes of America's space program, lived lives unimaginable to the rest of America. Koppel possesses a journalistic panache for mainstreaming nonfiction, and this book is no exception. Koppel has launched her talents into another orbit by writing a book about America's space program that is not only smart, but also fun and sexy.

In her author's note, Koppel explains that

This book tells the story of the women behind the spacemen, from Project Mercury of the Kennedy Camelot years (1959 to 1963, which landed the first American into space and eventually into orbit around the Earth), to the Gemini missions (1962 to 1966, notable for two-man space travel and the first U.S. space walk), through the Apollo program (1961 to 1972), which finally landed a man on the moon.

These groups of former military wives faced sudden stardom when their husbands were selected to participate in America's race to space, and subsequently to the moon. Because no American had ever been in space before, astronauts were celebrities in the space program's early years. In the spring of 1961, President John F. Kennedy boldly announced that Americans would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Americans were in a competition with Russia and enthralled by the group of men selected to participate in America's space program, men who NASA insisted must come from a happy marriage. Just before and even during the women's liberation movement, the wives of the new astronauts were living at the mercy of their husbands' risky line of work among the new, sprawling suburbs of Houston, Texas. Koppel writes of both the internal and external struggles and victories that these women, wives of astronauts, shared with their families and with each other.

The Astronaut Wives Club is organized chronologically, and it begins with the story of the seven wives of the Project Mercury astronauts. This group enjoyed their sudden stardom and regularly glammed it up. They had an exclusive personal story contract with Life magazine, visits with the Kennedys in the White House, and big new houses. In Texas, they became society women. On a visit to the state capitol, "one senator told the ladies he was so happy to see them. 'I've never met women who make love to men from outer space!'" The subsequent groups of astronaut wives enjoyed similar perks of fame, but alongside these perks came risks for all of the women. There was the risk of marriage strain while their husbands were away all week training. There was also the obvious risk every time one of their husbands was launched into space.

Koppel sympathetically explains that the astronaut wives had to remain composed while the world watched them, and needed to have complete faith that their husbands had the skills needed to get to space and back alive. The women, left alone to raise their kids -- essentially single mothers -- relied on one another. They all lived near each other in Houston, and therefore had sisterly support whenever it was needed. Koppel writes of the astronaut wives' pre-feminist duty to their husbands, including directives from NASA that, "He should never have to worry about the plumbing, or the dental bills, and he should never be nagged about his lack of initiative in the bedroom." The astronauts were all driving around in Corvettes, eventually flying around in their own personal T-38 planes, while their wives were left driving the kids around Houston in station wagons. It isn't entirely shocking to learn that many of the astronaut marriages ended in divorce.

There were many opportunities for the astronaut wives to lose their sanity. After all, their husbands were being launched into space, NASA ordered them to keep a peaceful marriage, and the astronauts' celebrity status was attracting all sorts of flirtatious women. The astronaut wives used their friendship as a means to remain levelheaded. So often we read or hear about women in competition with one another. In this instance, however, it was the men who were in constant competition with each other. They were vying for crucial positions in the space program, but the wives "tried not to let feelings of unfairness come between them." In the event of a disaster or even for a launch party, the astronaut wives all gathered together, surrounded by Jell-O molds, deviled eggs, and lots and lots of emotional support.

Koppel tells the astronaut wives' stories in a casual and accessible writing style. She includes vignettes that give personalities to the women, making them relatable characters. One of my favorite examples of this is the story behind the colorful photo of the first group of astronaut wives that graces The Astronaut Wives Club book cover. The reader learns that Rene Carpenter (wife of astronaut Scott Carpenter) went against NASA's pressed pastel shirtwaist dress orders for that particular photo shoot. Instead of a plain, solid-colored frock, she showed up in the bold rose-patterned dress that she wears in the cover photo. Koppel also includes cultural information and details that give the wives' stories a context in American pop culture. Early on in the book, she mentions that Barbie dolls were just hitting store shelves, that Dr. Spock's childcare book was gaining popularity, and everyone, it seems, throughout the book was smoking cigarettes.

Koppel's flair for describing and setting scenes that occurred before she was even born made me feel as if I were a part of this alternate suburban Houston 1960s universe. Here was America, in the throes of the space program, essentially using the astronauts and their families as positive PR for the country. Meanwhile, there was tumult over the Vietnam War, a handful of high-profile assassinations, riots, the women's liberation movement, and racial inequality. The juxtaposition between the two worlds is startling. Koppel, in her writing, ensures that the reader is aware of the historical framework that the NASA timeline is set in, or set apart from, rather.

As entertaining as The Astronaut Wives Club is to read, Koppel also captures moments of poignancy in her writing. She has included many scenes in which the reader pauses and realizes just what an enormous historical moment the country was having during the space program's youth, and how these astronaut families carried that weight. While Jim Lovell circled the moon in the Apollo 8 mission on Christmas Eve 1968, his wife Marilyn left church just as the clouds parted, and there was the moon. "'My God, my husband is going around the Moon at this moment,' Marilyn thought."

The Astronaut Wives Club is a clever and engaging book celebrating a group of women who, today, are often overlooked -- if not forgotten. It is reasonable to claim that these women held the space program together in its early years. Koppel pays tribute to their emotional stamina in a sympathetic yet unburdened manner. The Astronaut Wives Club will most definitely be embraced in the celebrity-thirsty world that we still live in today; its universal appeal is guaranteed to span generations and demographics of readers. Pack this book along on your summer vacation and you are assured to have a good read, as well as a conversation starter, wherever your spacecraft takes you.

The Astronaut Wives Club, by Lily Koppel
Grand Central Publishing
ISBN: 978-1455503254
288 pages