Authors: Lily Koppel
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Biography, #Adult, #History
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For the wives, who have the “right stuff”
To be an astronaut wife meant tea with Jackie Kennedy, high-society galas, and instant celebrity. It meant smiling perfectly after a makeover by
magazine, balancing an extravagantly lacquered rocket-style hairdo, and teetering in high heels at the crux of the space age.
The astronaut wives were ordinary housewives, most all of them military wives living in drab housing on Navy and Air Force bases. When their husbands, the best test pilots in the country, were chosen to man America’s audacious adventure to beat the Russians in the space race, they suddenly found themselves very much in the public eye.
As her husband trained for every possible aspect of spaceflight, each woman had to prepare for the day when she would have to face the television cameras, when the world would be scrutinizing her hair, her complexion, her outfit, her figure, her poise, her parenting skills, her diction, her charm, and most of all, her patriotism. She had to appear calm and composed while her husband was strapped atop what was essentially the world’s largest stick of dynamite, seconds away from being blasted off into space.
To help cope with the astronomical pressures of publicity, the wives couldn’t turn to their husbands, who were too busy training, or to NASA, which was too busy figuring out how to get their husbands to the Moon. So the wives turned to each other.
Louise Shepard, wife of the first American to go into space, had learned the hard way that she needed to prevent overeager photographers from pressing a lens to her window and sneaking a shot of her living room. Drawing curtains against the press was only the first of many tips, tactics, and secrets that would be passed among the astronaut wives, for enduring what was known to the public as the launch report, but which one of the wives renamed the Death Watch.
Years later, by the time NASA put a man on the Moon, this excruciating pageant, with the wives’ photogenic children, helpful neighbors, and publicity-seeking preachers, had evolved into a gathering somewhere between a celebration and a wake. In a singular Houston neighborhood known as Togethersville, this diverse group of women—over coffee and cigarettes, champagne and cocktails, tea and Tupperware, society balls and splashdown parties—shared laughter and tears, triumph and tragedy, as their husbands streaked through space.
The Astrowives learned that they needed to comfort each other during the agonizing minutes, hours, and days they had to wait at home for their husbands’ safe return to Earth. They brought potluck spreads—Jell-O molds, casseroles, frosted cupcakes stuck with little American flags, lasagna, deviled eggs, pigs in blankets, strawberry angel cake, marshmallow brownies, and homemade “Moon Cake,” a coconut cream pie topped with meringue swirled to look like the lunar surface. There was always champagne on hand, ready to be popped upon a successful splashdown. The wives dressed in their fashionable best: Doris Day–like finery for the Mercury missions, ’60s mod for Gemini, and ’70s suburban psychedelic for Apollo.
magazine had been awarded exclusive coverage of the astronauts, and always sent its top photographers to cover them.
In the home of the lucky woman whose husband was “going up,” each wife was assigned her duty. One manned the coffeepot while another dumped out heaping ashtrays, chain-smoking being the occupational hazard of the Astrowives. Solidarity was essential; who but another Astrowife could understand what the wife of the moment was enduring? Of course the harrowing worry and stress was the wife’s alone. If she did ever care to share it, newsmen were stationed right outside, eager for a quote.
The ever-growing group of astronaut wives relied on each other more and more to negotiate their own roles at the forefront of history. As next-door neighbors in the space burbs, they kept each other grounded while their husbands headed to the Moon.
“We formed our own traditions as we went along,” said Marge Slayton, who was essential in organizing the wives’ get-togethers, “and they were good traditions.”
The astronaut wives instituted official monthly coffees and teas; everyone knew their unspoken promise: “If you need us, come.”
The story of the astronauts is well known, but this is the first time the wives’ story has been told. We have heard and seen so much about the technological aspects of the space race, but not enough about the extraordinary day-to-day lives the wives experienced behind the scenes.
This book tells the story of the women behind the spacemen, from Project Mercury of the Kennedy Camelot years (1959 to 1963, which launched 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.
Ultimately, the wives’ story is about female friendships and American identity. While their husbands were launched into space, they were being launched as modern American women. If not for the wives, the strong women in the background who provided essential support to their husbands, man might never have walked on the Moon.
hey had endured years of waking up alone, making their kids breakfast, taking them to school and picking them up, fixing dinner and kissing them good night, promising that Daddy was thinking of them all the time. There had been lonely nights when they fell asleep wondering how they were going to get by on their husbands’ measly pay for another month. During tours of duty in World War II or Korea or both, their husbands had nearly become mirages. Navy deployments had taken their men away on six- to nine-month cruises to the far corners of the Earth. They’d each wait for half a year imagining their man, trying not to forget what he looked like, only to have him come home hungry and tired. They’d miss him even before he left.
Things were no easier in peacetime when he was back home on base serving as a test pilot. There were times when squadrons would lose as many as two men in a week. The wives couldn’t do a thing about it but pray for their prowess over the 5 a.m. skillet, hoping they’d cooked their husbands a good breakfast of steak and eggs before they left to go fly, so they’d be alert up in the air. They went to friends’ funerals, sang the Navy hymn, and wore white gloves and clutched a handkerchief to catch the tears. They’d become conditioned to living with the daily fear that their men might not be back for dinner, or ever.
For Marge Slayton, whose wide, pale Irish face and expressive eyes made you want to hug her, it was the sound of a helicopter that sent her into a tailspin of fear and nausea. Hearing the blades of a chopper whirring overhead almost always meant that the men were searching for a plane that had gone down. Long after she stopped living on remote air bases, such as Edwards in the Mojave Desert, the sound of a helicopter still struck fear in her heart.
If a husband was out testing a new experimental plane and didn’t come home by five o’clock, almost all of the wives experienced the same waking nightmare, imagining the dark figure of the base chaplain ringing the doorbell, telling her she was now a widow. They had rehearsed that awful scene in their minds, over and over. Such was the life of a test pilot wife. They could not possibly have imagined all that would be in store for them as astronauts’ wives.
The United States was well behind in the space race. Soon after launching
in 1957, the Russians launched
with its passenger Laika (“Barker,” also known as Little Curly), the Soviet space dog. She was a female stray found on the streets of Moscow (and those godless Soviets let her
in orbit). The United States had responded by trying to send up its own satellite on a Vanguard rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, but it disastrously exploded on the launch pad, leading the press to call it “Kaputnik.” In the following months and years the United States tried to send up bigger rockets, such as the Atlas, but nearly every one of them had exploded before reaching outer space. Now the United States was determined not only to catch up but to pull ahead. It was a national priority in those fervent days of the Cold War.
America’s space age was officially announced on April 9, 1959. In Washington, D.C., at the buttercup-yellow Dolley Madison House, across Lafayette Square from the White House, the seven men who’d been chosen to be the nation’s first astronauts were officially presented to the world. They sat onstage at a blue felt–draped banquet table under NASA’s round red-and-blue logo of a planet and stars, nicknamed the Meatball. Onstage with them was a model of the tiny Mercury capsule on top of an Atlas rocket, which would fall off once the capsule had passed through the Earth’s atmosphere and entered outer space. At promptly 10 a.m., the press conference began. T. Keith Glennan took the podium. A natural-born showman who had previously worked at Paramount and Samuel Goldwyn, he was now the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “today we are introducing to you and to the world these seven men who have been selected to begin training for orbital spaceflight. These men, the nation’s Mercury astronauts, are here after a long and perhaps unprecedented series of evaluations which told our medical consultants and scientists of their superb adaptability to their upcoming flight. It is my pleasure to introduce to you—and I consider it a very real honor, gentlemen—Malcolm S. Carpenter, Leroy G. Cooper, John H. Glenn Jr., Virgil I. Grissom, Walter M. Schirra Jr., Alan B. Shepard Jr., and Donald K. Slayton…the nation’s Mercury astronauts!”
The ballroom burst into applause. The Mercury Seven astronauts were instantly beloved, embodying the country’s optimism and excitement. Space capsules and rocket launchers and men in silver suits in outer space; it was a brave new world. The stuff of science-fiction novels was now coming true. These seven young flyboy test pilots, with their strong jaws and military buzz-cuts, were the best America had to offer. Glennan explained how the seven were chosen out of 110 test pilots considered for the job. Most of all they were healthy small-town Americans. None was older than forty.
Glennan touched on how fierce the competition had been. The Mercury Seven had been exhaustively tested and checked out down to their innermost orifices at the famed Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, selected for its secluded location. There were all kinds of “wild theories” about zero gravity, as one NASA doctor later put it. “Some people said the astronauts’ hearts would explode, or that their blood pressure would fall to nothing. Some said they would never be able to urinate, and others said they’d never be able to stop urinating.” Physicians did a complete medical, psychological, and social evaluation of the astronauts. NASA looked into the backgrounds of not only the men but also their wives.