The Astronaut Wives Club

There is a great story to be told about the wives of our first astronauts. This isn't it.

This was my book's club's selection for this month, and we are as one in wondering where Koppel got her citations, because there are no foot- or endnotes, nor is there any bibliography. It reads like the Life magazine stories cribbed together with a few original quotations from the wives themselves, most of which are unattributed by name or source. The writing is exhaustingly repetitive and painfully ungramm

There is a great story to be told about the wives of our first astronauts. This isn't it.This was my book's club's selection for this month, and we are as one in wondering where Koppel got her citations, because there are no foot- or endnotes, nor is there any bibliography. It reads like the Life magazine stories cribbed together with a few original quotations from the wives themselves, most of which are unattributed by name or source. The writing is exhaustingly repetitive and painfully ungrammatical. Koppel will change characters in the middle of a paragraph without signifying the change, so all too often you're left wondering which wife she's writing about now. In re content, I'm wondering if Koppel let the wives dictate terms; if, like the Life reporter who practically lived in their homes during the Mercury and Gemini and Apollo missions Koppel gained what access she got (and it wasn't much) by promising not to write anything they didn't like (in Life's case it would have been anything NASA didn't like). I'm guessing here, as I have no special knowledge, but that's how the book reads. It's a piece of anecdotal puffery with no real attempt made at getting to any kind of truth. Koppel makes a few ineffectual stabs at comparing their lives to the chaotic times in which they lived but most of these attempts are, well, I’m sorry, but they’re laughable, as in

In the summer of 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed, just around the time of the first official meeting of the Astronaut Wives Club.

You’d have to have read the book to understand just how outrageous that juxtaposition is. While I didn't love what Tom Wolfe wrote about the wives in The Right Stuff, as macho and as gender-biased as it was that book was more insightful about them than this one isn’t.Still, I'll say here what I said in book club, that I'm not sorry I read it, because it made me think a lot about that time and place and how much the role of women has changed in my lifetime. These women were all of them expected to act like Stepford wives--perfectly coiffed, perfectly dressed, with the perfect children and the perfect home perfectly cleaned. Never a hair out of place or an intemperate word spoken in public, or for that matter in private. NASA leaned on the wives to support their husbands at all costs and in any situation, on earth or in

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orbit, without offering any support to the wives in return. When LBJ built NASA Mission Control in Houston, Texas, his home state, their houses were built with no windows facing the street so the press couldn't peer inside. NASA couldn't pay for a couple of lousy security guards, even during a launch?Appalling, the way these women were used. Their husbands were literally never home, so what difference did it make if they were on planet or off? Here is Betty Grissom after husband astronaut Gus died in the Apollo 1 fire

People would call up worried that she was alone now, but Betty had to admit that things weren't all that different. "Well, I'm going to miss the phone calls," she said. "That's mostly what I had of him. The phone calls."

and

An astronaut son playing house with his kid sister was overheard by a Life reporter a saying, “I’m going to work, I’ll be back in a week.”

And then there were the Cape Cookies, as NASA sequestered the wives in Togethersville (!) in Houston, while the astronauts worked at Cape Canaveral/Kennedy and tooled around in their dollar-a-year Corvettes

As the husbands escorted them in, the women were alarmed to see a crowd of astronaut groupies waiting in the lobby. Stewardesses with flexible flying schedules, hotel clerks, and diner waitresses seemed to magically appear wherever an astronaut was to be found. Two of these Cape Cookies, as the boys [note the author's use of "boys" here, certainly these weren't grown-up men responsible for their own actions, oh no] called them, dropped to their knees as the group entered, prostrating themselves before the astronauts.

Virtually every astronaut with the possible exception of John Glenn exploited the fawning attentions of the Cape Cookies, and the worst thing is that all the wives knew it and put up with it, because to have made a fuss or, horrors, gotten a divorce would have screwed with their husbands' chances at going into space, not to mention lost the wives all those lovely perks like free designer clothes. The hypocrisy is unbelievably pervasive. Alan Shepard was an adulterous byword in the space community and finally the other wives asked Louise how she put up with it, because surely she knew. She says, “Because I’m the one he really loves."Maybe he did, but all I wanted to do was puke right there on the page. I know I'm bringing Oughts' sensibilities to a '60s and 70's time, but, I mean, really? With very few exceptions, Rene Carpenter, Betty Grissom and Trudy Cooper among them, Koppel writes about these women as if they thought they were marooned in the 1880’s and were venal simpletons to boot. I don’t buy that for a New York second. It will surprise no one to hear that of all the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo marriages, only seven survived the program. I bet the spouses of the shuttle astronauts looked at the Mercury and the Gemini wives and thought, "I'm so glad we weren't first." ...more


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