Monday, August 3, 2015

Literary Wives #16

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

Check out the other co-hosting bloggers' reviews: 
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J
Naomi of Consumed by Ink
Kay of whatmeread

I would like to begin this review with a bit of a personal dislcaimer: I have never really found myself overly enthused about NASA space programs. As a child I was not particularly enamored with the idea of being an astronaut or the specific space missions, etc., though I do remember the disbelief and awe I felt as a teenager watching the moon landing on TV. I was always amazed that any human could endure the physical challenges to become astronauts and fly these missions. At that point in time I never considered much about these men's wives and families. Of course, I was a self-centric teen at the time, and I don't recall much coverage other than showing photos once in a while of the respective wife/wives. As this book demonstrates, it was a time when U.S. society was still strongly patriarchal, overwhelming much thought of the females or children connected to these males, other than depicting them as the quintessential support systems for these men. For example, although I lived through these times, I honestly can't recall much about the wives or families of these men, but I was still young, perhaps I would have paid more attention as an adult. I would highly recommend this book as a way to better realize life at that time in U.S. society. Wives were just wives for the most part at that time; still directly linked to their husbands and not considered as independent individuals overall. 

Each of the original astronauts were selected from the group of military test pilots who could endure the physical hardships believed necessary for successful space missions and who came from small towns. As for the wives:
They knew the stoic code of the test pilot wife. If any one of them lost her husband in a crashing hulk of metal, she'd have to take it quietly and bravely. That was part of the job. (29) 
Something as simple as the sound of a helicopter could (and did for some) literally strike fear in the hearts of these women whose husbands had been test pilots and were now being tested then train to become astronauts. 
  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. (2)
  They had spent the best years of their lives raising kids and supporting their husbands' careers and moving their families from one end of the country to the other, from one dismal base to the next. Now their husbands were astronauts, and they, too, were instant celebrities. 
  NASA didn't provide the wives with any instructions....The wives would have to handle the reporters the way they'd handled all the ups and downs of service life--with slightly knitted eyebrows, perfectly applied lipstick, and well-practiced aplomb. (5-6)

Marge Slayton (wife of astronaut Deke) had actually been married and divorced but did her best to hide this information from NASA,
  Divorce was taboo at the space agency, which believed that stable home lives were essential for success in orbit. One of the first among NASA's many unofficial rules was: if you don't have a happy marriage, you won't have a spaceflight. (15) 
So, basically, no matter what happened in your marriage, you were expected to put on a "happy face" and pretend all was well, or your husband's career as an astronaut was over. 

I appreciated all the personal vignettes about the various astronauts and their wives in this book, many humorous and many poignant. One that caught my attention was that Betty Grissom "often joked about her heard-earned 'P.H.T.' degree--Putting Hubby Through." (6) She worked full-time to support them while he earned an engineering degree at Purdue. The invasiveness of the press at this time appalled me, though I don't know why, except for the fact that I consider the press now to be overly-invasive! I couldn't have imagined how bad it was for these women! To have photographers and journalists barge right into your home! Not only uninvited, but unannounced, etc.! How awful would that be? There was no respect for the wives' or children's right to privacy--none! They literally had to learn to live with curtains drawn at all times, and not just opening the door when someone rang the doorbell, just in case! Unbelievable!

Interestingly, Trudy Cooper, Gordon's wife, was a "damn good pilot" in her own right and had separated from Gordon due to his extramarital affair. However, once he had completed the initial astronaut testing including "sperm counts, electrical stimulations, five barium enemas," he showed up at her door begging her to reunite with him. 
  He was about to be an astronaut; all that was left for him to succeed was to produce a loving wife. A Good marriage would ensure his appointment. After all, how could an astronaut handle the pressures of getting shot into the heavens if he couldn't even handle his wife on Earth? (18)
Trudy felt Gordo was the best pilot she'd ever seen, and that "If anyone was going to outfly those Russians, it was Gordo." It was likely the fact that Life magazine offered $500,000 to be split equally among the seven astronauts in exchange for exclusive rights to stories about each astronaut and each wife that may have 'sealed the deal.' These men were typically drawing about $7,000 per year in military pay, so over $70,000 per family was like winning the lottery! I was shocked that NASA did not pay these men more. Basically, if not for Life Magazine, their wives/families would have still been living on those test pilot wages, and that wasn't much, in my opinion, not to risk your life each and every day in such 'experimental' pursuits. 

When the other wives finally asked Louise Shepard how she could abide Alan's "fooling around," she replied: Because I'm the only one he really loves. (49) The others felt as if she stuck her head in the sand and was in permanent denial. Surprisingly, Louise established the Astrowife ritual of the post-flight press conference on the lawn--
  Though still not thrilled that their own husbands hadn't been picked to go up first, the other wives did have to admit Louise made a wonderful First Lady of Space (57)

This book continues on with more personal information about these wives and their children. Competition among the men was fierce, and it was sometimes tough for these women to maintain their own relationships with each other regardless of their husbands' competitiveness. I did appreciate the fact that the New Nine wives and Mercury wives did not immediately bond, to say the least, it took quite awhile for them to come together and form any type of cohesive group. I rather think this may have been due more to societal changes (feminism, etc.) than to their own personalities, however. 

We learn that the Apollo I test explosion was likely caused by NASA not doing due diligence in the design and testing of the apparatus in order to meet deadlines. Gus Grissom had helped design other space mission vehicles and had warned that this one was not yet ready...and then died as a result. So very sad...and then NASA chose to send a security detail to the Grissoms' house afterward, ostensibly to provide protection from the press, though Betty felt it was to protect themselves from her "the loosest cannon" who "might shoot off about that lemon." (166) The wives certainly had no power, especially with NASA. When it came to burying Ed White, his wife Pat was unable to stand up to NASA about the burial site Ed had wanted, though Frank Borman called NASA and arranged it for her. 

Additionally, we learn that President Johnson basically moved NASA headquarters to Texas only to help his home state, and in the wake of that move, the astronauts then had to travel from Texas to Florida for training each week. One of the big perks to the guys was the fact that the military provided each of them with a T-38 jet (I hope that nomenclature is correct!) to fly back and forth each weekend. This led to the astronauts having access to some 'extracurricular' activities if you will, or more precisely, as they were called, Cape Cookies, girls who made themselves available to the astronauts during the week when they were in Florida "training." Groupies, might be a more accurate term?In effect, each astronaut had the open opportunity to have affairs with these women during the week and many, probably most, took advantage of it. As closely as NASA monitored everything with these men and their lives, that was obviously deemed acceptable by the powers that be... Definitely the old patriarchal double standard at play. :( This truly angered me! What the hell?!? Though I shouldn't be surprised, after all, government positions have overwhelmingly been occupied only by male WASPS... When one astronaut gets a divorce and remarries, the new/second wife is NOT welcome to join the Astronaut Wives Club, though she tries to do so. If for not having read this book, I probably would not have understood their attitude toward her, but I definitely can see it from their perspective now...

Richard Nixon threw a celebratory ball for the Astronauts after the moon landing:
  All the astronauts were at the ball, from the Nineteen to the Fourteen to the New Nine to the original Mercury Seven. Eight astronauts had been lost along the way--Ted Freeman, Elliot See, Charlie Bassett, Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee, Ed Givens, and C.C. Williams--but with six months to spare, America had landed on the Moon, fulfilling Kennedy's goal to reach it before the end of the sixties. It was perhaps the greatest adventure America had ever undertaken, a Manhattan Project for peace. (233)
However, in the aftermath there was at least one mental health breakdown and one suicide among the astronauts and their wives. Although perhaps those simply reflected comparable stats among society at large at that time. In relating Buzz Aldrin's difficulty adapting to civilian life back on Earth, it was clear that the experience of traveling through space for so long and actually stepping foot on another celestial body, the Moon, was life-altering. I assume it may have been a bit similar to PTSD, returning from such an all-consuming experience to 'normal' everyday life would probably be tougher for some than for others. And coping with those changes would be quite the challenge for their spouses. 

During my tenure of working on higher educational campuses, I had the pleasure of working with a Physics professor who was adamant in his belief that there was no functional reason for human lives to be risked in space exploration--that it could all be accomplished remotely using robotics, etc. His contention was that NASA chose to use humans simply to encourage the general public to accept and support space exploration so that the vast amount of money spent wouldn't be questioned or cut. At the time I felt this was a rather cynical view, but in the years since I have begun to agree with I learn more about the meaningless public relation ploys used by both business and governmental entities, my own cynicism about much in the U.S. society has taken wing...

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I believe it is rather obvious that in the U.S. in the '60's as part of a HUGE governmental program, these wives' experiences were directly linked to and virtually controlled by NASA. If their husbands were to be successful in their careers, they would have to play their own roles! astronaut's wife did not disclose her fears to anyone. They all knew fear was contagious. Even though most of the ladies harbored the exact same dark thoughts, they couldn't risk sharing them." (206)
The expectation was for the wives to accept anything and everything and keep on smilin'--to be Primly Stable as they nicknamed it themselves. As Jane Conrad stated:
  I think we look like the Stepford Wives, don't you?...Because we all tried to be so calm and so cool and everything, but we were a far cry from Stepford Wives. (257)
I have been struck in this book as in the majority of those we've read thus far for Literary Wives, by the ability of these females to assert themselves in whatever way was possible given the limitations of their current-day society/culture and their plights within. These wives demonstrated an immense diversity, just as with any group of people, and yet, they learned to care for each other and cooperate to a great extent, regardless of all the challenges to overcome. Females are so resourceful and resilient! 

2. In what way does this woman define "wife"--or in what way is she defined by "wife"?

These wives' husbands' careers defined their lives for them to such a great degree, particularly for those original Seven. They had to be successful in their roles for their husbands to have the opportunities to succeed in their careers, plain and simple. There was no women's lib or feminism allowed! At least not in the public eye. 
  Susan [Borman] knew the code of the military wife. Her whole life revolved around supporting Frank's career. 
  "Hey, Chris, I'd really appreciate it if you would level with me. I really, really, want to know what you think their chances are of getting home."
  "Okay, how's fifty-fifty?"
  Susan wasn't sure if that made her more or less worried. 
Worrying and waiting was what these women did, and they seemed to form very supportive friendships among themselves to endure their roles as "astronaut wives." ...Marilyn Lovell, with tears in her eyes, spoke for many of the wives when she said, "Those were the best years of my life." (264)
One of the wives stated of the astronauts:
  "They were like rock stars. It was sickening." All the same, it was absolutely thrilling. 
And realistically, 
..."Who could ever compete with the Moon? I was lucky if I could come in second." (257)

Have you read this one yet? It was informative on many different levels. Though it's main subject is the spouses of the astronauts, it also provides some political backdrop of the time, as well as other aspects of society. Let us know your thoughts! :)


  1. I guess you liked it a lot more than I did, but that's nothing new. I thought the personal information about the wives was very restricted and superficial. although we found out a lot about them as a group, we found out very little about them as individuals. I was surprised when I watched a TV special a week or so ago to learn that almost all of them ended up divorced. The book didn't mention that, did it? I know it mentioned a few divorces.

    1. I think I felt this was meant to be more of a portrait of that time and their lives during that time, rather than a follow-up from that time on...though there was a bit of that. The divorce rate doesn't surprise me at all, given the setup, etc. The boys could definitely do anything they pleased, but the girls, well... :(

  2. I'm with you on never being extremely interested in NASA. I think that apathy made it hard for me to get into this book, but the writing just cemented that for me. I slogged through, but it was a tough read. I LOVED hearing their stories, but I just wish they could have been presented in a better way.

    1. You know, I felt much the same way when I first completed reading this about 6 weeks ago. I wanted it to have been written in a format I would feel was more enjoyable, and yet I honestly couldn't readily imagine how I might have improved upon it. Then as I reviewed it to compose a review, I realized I truly liked it much more than I thought I had... Perhaps a bit more time away helped alleviate that initial disappointment. :)

  3. I liked hearing about your own memories of the space program. I have never been overly interested in it, either. But, like Emily, I did love hearing about the women's stories - I just wish there could have been more. There were just too many women and not enough book.
    I love that you point out how resourceful women can be - so true! Their lives were certainly not easy - so stressful. It doesn't surprise me that there were so many divorces in the end.

    1. Yes, I can't imagine making a marriage work in the long-term under these circumstances. I didn't mention, though it did stick with me that the doctors were saying they were all changed/different in the aftermath of their flights. I can't imagine what that must have been like, and just as "space travel" has many physical side effects (bone loss, etc.), who knows what types of psychological effects it may have... :)