Nearly everyone who was old enough to remember witnessing it on their televisions, can recall the moment Neil Armstrong beamed back to Earth his famous words, “The Eagle has landed.” The successful and historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon was the pinnacle of the decade-long space program and the greatest of NASA’s achievements during its heyday in the 1960’s. The three astronauts who took part in the most famous space mission were not the first or the last, but were a part of a larger NASA family.
It had long been President Kennedy’s dream to see a man on the moon during his time in office, and the original seven Mercury astronauts were the first phase of that ambitious plan. With Kennedy’s charisma and enthusiasm leading the way, the country rallied behind the project, and the astronauts were greeted as heroes. So, too, were the seven wives who NASA unveiled in dramatic fashion.
In her engrossing book, “The Astronaut Wives Club,” author Lily Koppel, reveals the support system that existed behind the very public personae the astronaut families were contracted by NASA to maintain.
Many astronauts came out of the military, and their wives were accustomed to unpretentious and bare-bones living, in cramped, no-frills military housing. Unfamiliar with the sudden glare of the public spotlight, the women turned to the only people who would understand the upheaval in their worlds—each other. Koppel describes how the wives joined together to support each other through the stressful hours of a mission, as well as through the pitfalls of managing an over-eager press corp.
The women were analyzed with a zeal very akin to the modern scrutiny of the Kardashians, with every nuance up for examination, and with their carefully crafted images, the Mercury wives were instantly taken into the hearts of Americans, with a fervent and patriotic eagerness. The men knew their wives were pivotal to their success; their support had been vital to get them to where they were. NASA believed a stable home life was a cornerstone to an astronaut’s success in space. All the astronauts needed to show a loving family as part of the criteria; any marital unrest, as well as the common philandering by the men, was downplayed or outright ignored.
With the opportunity to be a part of making history the women agreed to play the happy wives. Their new job was to be beautiful, ever-stylish, supportive, optimistic, and polite. While much of the country was going through the painful growing pains of the civil rights era, and the rise of feminism, the women of NASA had agreed to carry on in the provincial and outdated framework of the 1950’s.
The narrative of the book picks up the pace as the missions became more daring and more involved, and the focus widens to include the new families added in to the mix with the Gemini and Apollo missions. By the time Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon’s surface, everything the initial Mercury wives represented had vanished into the tumultuous fog of the late 1960’s, when the women of the 50’s were seen as hindrances to the feminist movement, and America could no longer sport as squeaky clean an image, coming as it was out of the decade of the assignations of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, violent racial tensions across the country, and the unpopular and disastrous war in Vietnam.
It seemed fitting, then, that as the 70’s got under way, and the space program was retired due to a funding drain from the burden of Vietnam, some of the shiny images of the “perfect” space families began to tarnish, and of the thirty families in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs only seven couples stayed married. In addition to the broken marriages, alcoholism, suicide attempts, and depression were common.
There is no doubt that those first astronauts made history and thrilled a nation with their exploits far beyond Earth’s atmosphere, but Koppel’s captivating book makes it very evident that as they gained their rightful places in the history books, the families of NASA lost their innocence, as well.