Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Review of "The Astronauts Wives Club" by Lily Koppel

When the U.S. space program went into high gear in 1959 the original Mercury 7 astronauts were a sensation. People wanted to know about them and their families - and their lives were avidly followed by the public. Life Magazine paid for exclusive access to the 'astrofamilies' and articles and photos were published to accompany each space flight. In time, the wives formed the 'Astronauts Wives Club' - for friendship, advice, help, and support during stressful times. Eventually the club also came to include the astrowives of the Gemini and Apollo projects - a total of 30 women.

The women needed each other because being an astrowife could be stressful indeed. Separated from their husbands for long periods while the men trained at Cape Canaveral, the wives had to take care of their homes and children by themselves. No matter what, the ladies had to keep up the appearance of a blissful home so their husbands would get plum flight assignments; the public wanted to see happy families. This facade became especially difficult to maintain because the celebrity astronauts attracted women like magnets and infidelity was rampant (a fact which NASA apparently was aware of).

In addition, the space program was inherently dangerous, and a number of astronauts lost their lives. Each space flight had a real threat of death hanging over it, and - to cope - some of the wives were driven to chain-smoking and drinking. Through it all the astrowives formed lasting friendships with each other, and were immediately there if tragedy struck - bringing food, comfort, and company.

Of course there was an upside to being an astrofamily as well. They were able to build lovely homes at cost and they could travel and stay in expensive hotels for practically nothing. The families got fancy cars and gifts of every description from corporations and department stores. They also met presidents, foreign dignitaries, movie stars, and so on. And some of the astrowives got to hobnob with first ladies, get tours of the white house, and borrow designer evening gowns. Those were heady times for sure.

There are so many astrowives mentioned in the book that it's almost impossible to remember who's who. Still, we get the impression these were mostly well-educated, talented, capable women - though many went unfulfilled (in my opinion) by being coerced by circumstances to accept 'housewife' status. (These were the days before women's lib.)

Eventually, the stress of their lives became too much and most of the astrocouples divorced. The author reports that of the original 30 astrocouples, 7 remained together. Some of the wives then suffered from depression while others went on to establish careers and blossom in other ways.

The story is well-written and provides a fascinating view of the space program from the perspective of the astronauts families. Good book.

Rating: 4 stars

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