Saturday, September 7, 2013

Astronaut Wives Club

The Astronaut Wives Club
© 2013 Lily Koppell
288 pages

When a gang of test pilots joined the Mercury program, they and those who followed them didn't have an inkling of what was to come-- and their wives, their unwitting partners in an unexpected story -- knew even less.   In part, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo only prolonged the misery they knew as the wives of test pilots: they were married to men who were never home, who had a one in four shot of dying every time they went to work, and whose military career seemed more like juvenile adventurism than noble service.  But when pilots became astronauts, those worried wives became the partners of instant celebrities, subject to more scrutiny than they could have ever anticipated.

The Astronaut Wives Club is the story of the harried women who kept the home fires burning while their men, basking in glory and adulation, put fire in the sky. Lily Koppell is a chatty social historian whose account demonstrates how the ladies of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo adapted to the new stresses of their celebrity-wife status, whose homes became the backdrops of national dramas every launch, who were accosted in grocery stories by reporters -- including news hacks who beat a path to the doors of new widows to ask how they felt about their husbands' demise, arriving even before the NASA officials who were to respectfully deliver the bad news. In addition to facing the prospect of their husbands dying horribly -- running out of air and leaving bodies to circle in lunar orbit forever, perhaps?  --  and living under the public eye, having to keep the home and kids looking shipshape to satisfy the Powers that Be and shut the mouths of gossip columnists -- the wives also had to contend with the fact that their superstar husbands were taking an endless stream of "Cape Cookies" to bed. The combination of  cocky, accomplished, and adulated men working in Florida states apart from their wives in Houston, and the presence of young things in miniskirts batting their eyes at the big ol' heroes -- was a bad one for the astronaut's home lives: few marriages survived the space program.

Although early on Koppell fancies the idea of the story of the astronaut wives being one of American women coming into their own, a link with the feminist movement never strongly materializes:  the manners and mores of the astronaut homes were a decade behind those of the popular culture at large, though 'progress' in the form of splintering marriages  increased when it became obvious that NASA didn't really care if the astronauts cheated, so long  as public scandal was avoided So long as they were landing on the Moon, who cared about serial affairs?   Absent of precedent, and left to fend for themselves by NASA, the astro-wives fell back on one another, relying on one another for moral and personal support. They met in one anothers' homes to share their worries and woes, especially helpful given that they were under orders not to burden their husbands with anything -- hence why Jim Lovell didn't realize that all three of his children had their tonsils removed until after he and his wife were leaving town. This is more evident in the Mercury program, when there were only seven wives in a tight-knit circle: as their numbers expanded, first with the New Nine and then additional astronaut classes each with a dozen men at least, cohesion faded.  This is sadly true of the book as well. Though it starts out with a clear focus on the response of the Mercury wives to their new role as being to national icons, as more subjects enter the picture, Koppell drifts, and this combined with her casual  approach means the book loses much of its potential punch, feeling scattered by midway.

The Astronaut Wives Club is an interesting  if weak look into the 'home front' of the space program, with appeal for readers who want to learn a little more about an aspect of the space race that is only lightly touched on at best elsewhere, or readers interested in the lives of accidentally-famous women. Though based in part on interviews with living astronaut wives, it's more serviceable as a diversion than a comprehensive treatment of the subjects.

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