Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Astronauts Wives Club”

astronaut-wives-clubThe Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story. By Lily Koppel. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013. Illustrations (some color), author’s note, acknowledgments, 272 pages, hardcover with dustjacket. $28 USD.

On one level Lily Koppel’s new book is a breezy, entertaining account of the experiences of the wives of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts of the 1960s. The public persona of these women was always “proud,” “thrilled,” and “happy,” their watchwords. Their private well-being, however, was always something less. Read at this level The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story is a restatement of the lives of many wives of the 1960s whose husbands were in the public eye. They spent their time caring for their families, each other, and supporting the efforts of NASA in reaching for the Moon. Lily Koppel is to be commended for persuading many of the astronauts’ wives, widows, and ex’s to speak at length with her. This book is virtually entirely the result of interviews with a sizable number of them. Gossipy and one-dimensional, with more on fashion and family than on the space program, it is a fine beach read.

Koppel describes how the wives of the astronauts formed their own little clique in Houston in the early 1960s. Originally it was just the wives of the first Mercury seven astronauts, led by “Mother” Marge Slayton, wife of Deke, who commanded the group with an authority that even her husband must have envied. The author does not make this point—perhaps she is unaware of it—but these women transferred their lifestyle from their military experience, replicating its social networks, hierarchies, and priorities at NASA. Anyone who has ever spent any time on a military base understands the responsibilities and authority of the wives of senior officers. Essentially, this called for the wives of officers to set the standard for the moral and social well-being of the base, to serve as a support for group members in both good and difficult times, and to enforce the principles of the organization. That is exactly what the astronauts’ wives did, as relayed in this book.

They also locked arms in situations when threats to the members of the group arose. They could turn, seemingly at a moment’s notice, to offer aid and comfort or sanction and censure as directed by the leaders of the group. This took two central forms as related in The Astronaut Wives Club. First, and Koppel writes about this extensively and with grace, this took place when one of their number suffered the loss of a husband. Astronauts engaged in a risky profession, so did pilots from which the astronaut corps was drawn, and some died in the performance of their duties. Charlie Bassett and Elliot See were killed in an airplane crash. Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in their Apollo spacecraft during a ground test. Those events are chronicled here, and in both instances these women spun into action to care for the family, to offer support for the widow, and “to maintain an even keel” (a nautical term used by Alan Shepard in many situations). This was, of course, a situation they knew well from their experiences with their husbands’ active duty flying.

Second, and this was also something they transferred from their military experiences as well, the wives of the astronauts had to deal with their husbands’ infidelities. The opportunities for cheating husbands, however, were greater for the astronauts than for most other families. The astronauts spent a lot of time at Cape Canaveral through the week, leaving their families in Houston. They were celebrities of a pretty high level and found themselves pursued by women at every turn. Some of the husbands, but not all, lost sight of their marriage vows. Indeed, some were notorious womanizers, such as Gus Grissom. Grissom was not alone, and when Apollo 7 astronaut Donn Eisele divorced his wife Harriet to marry another woman that he had been seeing for some time, it pulled the covers off a longtime practice. The other wives surrounded Harriet with loving support and ostracized the second wife. It did not take long for Eisele and the scandal tied to him to be exorcised from the community.

At the same time, so much of the response to infidelity detailed in this book involved women talking about the husbands of others, not their own experience. This type of denial may have served to facilitate the peace of mind of the aggrieved wife, but it suggests that the astronaut corps was more of a Payton Place than anyone seems willing to admit. This is made clear by something mentioned but certainly not dwelt upon, the fact that a large number of the couples divorced, and it appears that some only stayed together as long as they did out of a sense responsibility not to embarrass NASA.

For all of what is positive in this book it is unfortunate that The Astronaut Wives Club is not much more than a beach read; it certainly could have been much more substantive. At no point does the author draw back from the anecdotes to ask larger questions and offer anything approaching a satisfying analysis. While this book is strong on anecdotes, I found myself asking the “so what” question as I read Koppel’s prose. What does it all mean?

It is unfortunate that Koppel did not offer a broader interpretive frame. Perhaps others will be able to use the oral histories that she conducted with the wives as source material for future analyses. In the end the voices of these women represent a valuable addition to what we know about America’s pioneering years of the space program and I congratulate Koppel on assembling those recollections. We do not learn much new that we did not already have a sense of from this book, and that is the real disappointment. It is an opportunity missed.

As it is The Astronaut Wives Club is an engaging, enjoyable book on a subject that has been under-appreciated in the history of the space program. The astronauts’ wives made an important contribution to the success of the effort—of that there is no doubt—but the parameters and the substance of that contribution remains for others to explore. As it is, Lily Koppel performs a good service in raising the consciousness of everyone to this neglected story, sketching out the broad contours of the lives of these women, and explaining how we still have much to learn about the people of NASA during the space race.

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