More than 40 years after man first walked on the moon, Americans are still captivated by that tremendous accomplishment. It was a moment of national pride and a lasting symbol of American ingenuity. Aldrin, Lovell and Armstrong became household names and people all over the country were in awe of the men who had walked the lunar surface. But what about the women who kept the astronauts' lives together back on Earth, specifically here in Houston? In her new book, The Astronaut Wives Club, author Lily Koppel explores what it meant to be a "space wife" in the 1960s. Through in-depth interviews with the wives themselves, the author pushes past the public relations facade to reveal the true story of these very different women. Kopel will be in Houston this week for several book events and an invitation-only event at the Sam Houston Hotel.
VisitHouston: How did the idea for this book come about?
Lily Koppel: I am a journalist and I had also written a book called The Red Leather Diary which was the true story of a young woman growing up in 1930s New York. I found I enjoyed being able to tell the stories of women that had never been told before. I sort of stumbled onto this story of the astronaut wives. I was reading the book Moonfire, which brought together Norman Mailer's magnum opus on the Apollo 11 mission with photos from NASA and LIFE magazine. As I turned the pages, I saw this picture of the astronaut wives--all in these candy-colored dresses and these skyrocketing beehives. I was very much in a Mad Men kick at the time and I remember turning to my husband and saying, "why haven't we heard about these women?"
The space race and the formation of NASA has always been very much a male story. But when you think about it, these women were America's first reality stars. They were thrust into the national spotlight in a very big way. While not having any real training from NASA, they were expected to hold up the public relations arm of the space race and convey the American way of life to the world. They had to portray the image of the perfect housewife.
VH: That's a lot to expect out of these individuals, who as you say, were not given any formal training. Did any of them crack under such pressure?
LK: You know the astronauts were a sort of fraternity, and their wives were really in a space sisterhood. They had basically been told by NASA to just stay home and smile but they realized if they didn't band together and support one another, they wouldn't survive this. And that's what they did.
Each woman dealt with the pressures of maintaining that perfect Jell-o mold façade in her own way. There was certainly a huge emotional toll that came with having your husband riding a rocket into space. There's the example of Apollo 8 which was the first mission to orbit the moon that took place Christmas 1968. Jim Lovell was on that mission and his wife Marilyn and the other wives were told by NASA that there was basically a 50/50 shot that their husbands would make it back home alive. Marilyn is an eternal optimist and she was able to keep it together. But Susan Borman, the wife of the mission's commander Frank Borman, absolutely cracked under the pressure. She started drinking pretty heavily at the time and that developed into alcoholism.
See a clip from CBS Sunday Morning on the Astronaut Wives Club
VH: What role did the city of Houston play in these women's stories?
LK: Moving to Houston was incredibly exciting time for them. The program had begun in Langley, Va. The situation had always been that the wives stayed home and during the week their husbands would go down to Cape Canaveral for work. There the guys would be followed around by these groups of women they called "Cape Cookies," sort of groupies, and there was a lot of running around on the astronauts part. So the wives are having a harder and harder time projecting that image of the perfect marriage.
In 1962 the families start moving to Houston and they're feted by the whole town. Houston is rechristened Space City and there's tremendous fanfare. On the Fourth of July, 1962, the crew members from the original Mercury missions are met at the airport by the mayor and the governor and the men given Stetsons and the women pinned with corsages. Then they're whisked to their new homes by motorcade. There were these Houston society ladies who were dying to have an astronaut and his wife at their parties. The wives were invited to join the Junior League and the Garden Club, they were asked to model clothes at Neiman Marcus and attend ladies' luncheons. They were highly sought after.
The neighborhood that they settled in near Johnson Space Center was known as the Space Burbs. Journalists at the time called it Togethersville, because that's how tight knit it all was. Everyone worked at NASA or was a contractor. It was a normal way of life to have a friend whose dad was an astronaut...During the day, tour buses would actually go around these subdivisions to show off the homes of the astronauts.
I think that the wives story really helps bring back into focus the glamorous time that this was. Man was going to the moon, fashion was changing, everything was becoming more futuristic. And in a way these women were representative of all of that.
VH: How did this experience change the couples? Was it hard on their marriages?
LK: Out of 30 space couples only seven of their marriages survived. If you ask any of them whether their marriage was a casualty of the pressure cooker environment, they absolutely think it was. Many of the women will tell you they wish they could do it over, knowing what they know now. But I haven't heard any of the women say they would trade the experience for anything. It was an incredibly exhilarating time--for the whole country but especially for these couples who were on the front lines.
Still, the experience of traveling to space changed many of these men. Some became more religious. Others came back agnostic. They were changed in many different ways...When the Apollo 11 crew returned to Earth, President Nixon sent them around the world to meet with heads of state, part of our new space society. They met with Queen Elizabeth and had an audience with the pope. On one evening during this trip, Buzz Aldrin, who is falling apart at this point, and his wife Joan who was an actress are getting rather drunk and Joan says to him "I think things are going to return to normal soon." And he tells her "Joan, I've been to the moon, nothing's ever going to be the same again." The moon changed everything for some of them.
VH: We've gone from the heyday of NASA in the 1960s to the discontinuation in recent years of the shuttle program and an uncertain future for space exploration. Did you talk to any of the women about this?
LK: I think they all fervently hope that we will continue to explore space. For them, it was such a huge part of their lives and they don't want to see that lost. I think that people are more interested in space now than ever really. Certainly the tack has changed a bit and there's sadness that NASA has lost funding, but when you look at these old LIFE magazines and all of the things published back in the 1960s, you realize how close the future seemed back then.
VH: What kind of lasting impact do you think these astronauts and their wives had on Houston?
LK: We think of Coca Cola, apple pie and the moon as being quintessentially American. And somehow the whole idea of being a "space cowboy" and an explorer fit together with Houston. They became a part of Houston high society and the whole city saw them as their own. The legacy of the space race lives on in Houston today. The reason why we all look to the moon still today is because this original group of astronauts and their wives made it seem so heroic and exciting. It was their patriotic duty to explore beyond our known perimeters--and that's what they did.
Another day, another list that H-Town is rocking. This time the Bayou City is once again getting props from TripAdvisor.com for affordability, ranking seventh on the travel site's list of most cost effective destinations in the U.S.
The annual list takes into account city averages for hotel stay, taxis, dinner and cocktails to determine a typical trip cost. According to TripAdvisor, a room for two at a four-star Houston hotel is around $241 a night, while dinner for two with a bottle of wine runs about $72. A roundtrip taxi ride going a distance of 2 miles clocks in at just over $18 and cocktails for two at a local five-star hotel bar are roughly $23.
According to TripAdvisor.com, Honolulu is the most expensive domestic spot (no surprise) and Las Vegas and Miami are the most affordable (they mustn't be counting the hotels in South Beach).
It's little shock that the South continues to be the most affordable region year after year. Five of the ten most affordable cities were in the South, including Dallas, Atlanta and New Orleans.
One possible sign of increased stability in the travel market, the average nightly hotel rate for a four-star property is up 18% over summer 2012.
And here's some food for thought: travelers can spend one night in Honolulu hotel or three nights in a Las Vegas hotel for the same price.
For more details and the complete list, visit TripAdvisor.com. And to check out rates and book a Houston hotel, click here.
To hear Chandra Wilson tell it, her hometown and its support of the arts gave her the skills and confidence to succeed as an actor.
The Grey's Anatomy actress and Houston native first hit the stage at age four with Theatre Under the Stars. She went on to study drama at Montrose's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Wilson was between acting gigs and working for an investment bank in 2005 when she auditioned for the role of Dr. Bailey on Grey's. She's won a Screen Actor's Guild Award and received four Emmy nominations for her work on the series, which is now entering its 10th season.
We recently sat down with her here to catch up on her work and the influence Houston continues to have on her personal and professional life.
VisitHouston: What are some of your fondest memories of growing up in Houston?
Chandra Wilson: How simple life here seemed to be. Every time I come back to town and drive through old neighborhoods, the sentiment is always still the same. It doesn't matter how the real estate changes or what opens or closes, I always get the same great feeling of the neighborhoods. Of being home.
VH: How did your experience growing up in Houston contribute to your success?
CW: My mom was very interested in not having an idle child, so from the time I was four years old I was modeling in local pageants, I was taking dance classes, I was taking acting classes at Theater Under the Stars. Then I got to go on to High School for Performing and Visual Arts where I graduated. So certainly all of those years of being in front of audiences at Theater Under the Stars and performing at Ensemble Theater--all of those things contributed to the professionalism that I learned as a young person that I carried with me as an adult once I became a card carrying actor.
VH: When you talk to people about Houston, what do you tell them about the city?
CW: When I tell people I'm from Houston the first thing they say is "is it really hot down there?" and I say "yes, yes it is" (laughs). I'm very proud to say that I'm from this place, that my family is still here and that I get the chance to come back. My roots are still here.
VH: What do you do when you come back to Houston?
CW: Well, I love coming back around Mother's Day because it gives me a chance to spend time together with my Mom...I love coming back to HSPVA, just to see how everything is going. I also have a scholarship program that I started at HSPVA a few years ago. I get a chance to audition seniors for that and hang out a bit. Mostly it's about connecting with family and friends. It just feels like home.
VH: When you were growing up, what did you do for fun here?
CW: I loved Downtown and Tranquility Park. I loved the museums and driving through River Oaks and Memorial. When I was growing up the Medical Center was expanding and so it's always neat to see how large it's become now. I do miss Astroworld. I feel like starting a campaign to get a park back in Houston. That was a major part of my childhood and I miss it.
VH: What do you like to do for fun these days, regardless of where you are?
CW: I love being outside, I'm a little crafty. I like to do my knitting and crocheting. And I got my daughters to start knitting and crocheting, so that's something we can do together. Things that we can do together as a family are important.
VH: What do you enjoy about Houston's performing art scene?
CW: Because I was fortunate to get to work at Theater Under the Stars for some time growing up, I had early experience with performing in front of an audience and how you can carry an audience away with your performance. You can really help them forget about whatever else is going on outside in the world and just get caught up in the show. I always wanted to earn the privilege to work at like the Alley (Theatre) and I still haven't gotten a chance to do that yet, but that was something as a local performer here you aspired to. I would also get to see plays at Stages and Ensemble. And then, as a treat, I would get to go see a performance at the Houston Ballet, or the Grand Opera...We had such access to wonderful performing arts organizations here and that's what I got a chance to grow up with and get nurtured with and what I would carry forward with me.
VH: How do you think the quality of the performances here stacks up?
CW: I believe that the professionalism expected here in Houston with our major artistic companies puts us far ahead of where we need to be for those of us who end up in New York or Los Angeles. I felt so incredibly well trained that I would spend time backstage in Broadway houses with other actors who hadn't received the training that I had in high school. Everything I learned at HSPVA or TUTS or watching other arts groups-it matches or surpasses what I did in New York.
VH: What's been your experience with the Museum District and other attractions?
CW: The cool thing about the Museum District is that whether you're at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Natural Science, Children's Museum, it's all there right in the same area. So you get to have a great day with the family and you don't have to go far...Growing up, one of the required field trips was going down to NASA (Johnson Space Center). So we had an early appreciation for the space program. And it was a great field trip too because it was one of the places you knew would take the whole day (laughs).
VH: What do you tell the uninitiated about Houston?
CW: I really think that people should come to Houston because as big as we are, we really are kind of like a small town because people are very connected to their neighborhoods. I like that. And there are restaurants and entertainment galore.
VH: In fact, Houston's getting a lot of recognition as a dining hotspot. What's your experience with the food scene here?
CW: I'm a cook at home person for the most part myself, but every now and then I like to get out and try new places. You know a lot of places that I grew up with aren't here anymore but there are now amazing new places, and I get to try a few when I come back to town. I let my mom take the lead on that so I never know where I'm going to end up or what I'm going to try!
VH: It's been several years since you first joined the Greater Houston CVB's My Houston campaign, what are your thoughts about participating in the campaign.
CW: It's been a treat actually to see the finished product. I saw one of the posters that going to the George R. Brown (Convention Center), and I've seen the ads in airports and in travel magazines. I'm still very flattered that I'm able to represent my city, it's really cool. And I like for people to know where I'm from. ...You know, no matter where I end up, where I'm working or where I'm currently living with my family, Houston is always my home. And it's good to be home.
It's been 86 years since William P. Hobby Airport started welcoming passengers to its airfield. Though it's welcomed a few name changes and improvements throughout the decades, the changes currently underway may just be the airfield's most exciting yet.
On the horizon, passengers can expect an additional parking garage, roadway modifications, new concourse and an expanded terminal, all of which will help accommodate international flights to and from Houston.
The expanded terminal will make room for a new ticket counter, six additional security checkpoints, five new gates and a Federal Inspections Services facility for Customs and Borders Protection. Together, the upgraded facility will allow for 400 to 800 additional passengers to travel through Hobby during peak hours.
Hobby's upgrades are expected to cost Southwest about $150 million. Groundbreaking started in May 2013 and is slated to wrap up by September 2015.
For more information about the expansion, visit Fly2Houston.com/HobbyExpansion. To see the renderings, click here.
The website Causes.com has ranked Houston the 10th greenest city in America.
The organization cited the city's efforts to become more environmentally conscious, developing a city Office of Sustainability, increasing recycling efforts and more. City-sanctioned farmers markets, electric municipal vehicles and a growing bike share program were other elements that probably helped Houston's placement on the list.
Meanwhile, the city is also getting attention for the Bayou Greenways Initiative, a bond-funded effort that will connect all of the city's bayous via hundreds of miles of hike and bike trails.
Click here for more details.
Air China said this week it will begin new nonstop service between Beijing and Houston Bush Intercontinental in July.
The new route, which is pending federal approval, will significantly improve access between Houston and China. Plans call for four flights a week on Boeing 777-300ER jets. China-bound flights will leave Houston at 1:40 a.m. and land in Beijing at 5 a.m. the next day. The return flight will leave Beijing at 3 p.m. and land in Houston at 3:30 p.m. on the same day.
"We've seen a steady growth of air travel between Houston and China in recent years, and now it will become the first scheduled passenger destination in the U.S. that we've added in three decades," says Air China President Jianjiang Cai.
Houston will be Air China's fifth destination in North America, joining Los Angeles, New York JFK, San Francisco and Vancouver.
Service is slated to begin July 11, 2013.
Click here for the full press release.
Is Houston on your radar in 2013?
The New York Times thinks it should be. The newspaper of record ranked Houston No. 7 on its list of the 46 places to go this year. Houston was the only U.S. city in the top 10. NYT writer Ingrid K. Williams had this to say about the city:
Houston is probably best known as the Texan center for energy and industry, but it's making a bid to be the state's cultural and culinary capital as well. The Houston Museum District is a formidable coterie of institutions that includes the Rothko Chapel, the Museum of African American Culture, which made its debut last February; and the Asia Society Texas Center, which opened in a stunning Yoshio Taniguchi-designed building in April. And last summer, the Houston Museum of Natural Science opened a 30,000-square-foot hall of paleontology in a new $85 million wing. Meanwhile, the city's dining scene is also heating up, with three of the city's newest restaurants - Oxheart, Underbelly and Uchi - placing on national best-new-restaurant lists.
That Houston is being called out for its restaurants and cultural institutions is no surprise to us. The latest research compiled for the GHCVB shows most visitors come to Houston for the city's cosmopolitian offerings--including chef-driven dining and performing and visual arts. That's why our 2013 ad campaign will draw upon those strengths, profiling the trendsetters in these industries.
Rio de Janeiro ranked No. 1 on the list.
Look for a lot of excitement in 2013 as some of Houston's most notable organizations celebrate milestone anniversaries.
Founded in 1913, the Houston Symphony is renowned among major municipal symphonies. Each year, the organization performs more than 170 concerts for approximately 350,000 people, with shows that include a broad range of music from classical to popular. After a century in business, the symphony shows no signs of slowing down. Upcoming shows include Dvorak's New World Symphony, Aladdin & the Arabian Nights and the Songs of Simon and Garfunkel.
Also hitting the century mark is the Port of Houston. The nation's second-largest port processes 200 million tons of cargo annually, carried by tens of thousands of vessels and serves as the backbone of Houston's industrial economy. In 2013, the port strikes out in a new direction, welcoming two cruise lines to its $108 million Bayport Cruise Terminal. Princess Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Lines will begin service later this year from Houston to ports in Caribbean and beyond.
Over nine decades, millions of people have enjoyed free performances at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park. Offering quality programming to patrons free of charge was a founding principal of the organization in 1923, one that it holds fast to still today. From March to October each year, performance groups from across Houston and around the world-from ballet, drama and musical theater to acrobatics, dance and beyond-grace the Miller stage. In 2011 alone, nearly half a million people grabbed a seat under the amphitheater roof or on the hillside lawn.
A local chain has been serving an American classic since 1923. James Coney Island, best known for its Coney Island hot dog, celebrates 90 years in Houston. Other favorites include chili pie with Fritos, cheeseburgers, cheese fries, Italian sausage sandwiches, tater tots and milk shakes. With more than a dozen locations today, the restaurant has a cult following and offers merchandise from t-shirts to collectibles with the James Coney logo.
The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau commemorates its 50th anniversary in 2013. The organization charged with marketing and selling Houston and Harris County to the world launched in a meeting room of the Rice Hotel in 1963. Today, the GHCVB continues to promote restaurants, hotels, convention facilities and other elements of the local hospitality industry. In 2011 alone, Houston hosted 230 conventions and other events that drew more than half a million attendees and an economic impact of $531 million.
Tex-Mex taqueria that launched a national chain still looks and tastes as authentic as it did when "Mama Ninfa" opened the doors in 1973. Forty years later, Tex-Mex purists continue to delight in the kitschy décor, the fajitas and the Tecate at Ninfa's on Navigation. Now there's an expanded patio bar with craft Mexican cocktails to mix with the ladies hand-pressing tortillas.
Begun in 1993 as a means of creating community pride in Houston's largely African American Third Ward neighborhood, Project Row Houses has been hailed as one of the most unique art installations in the country. Since its inception, PRH's campus has grown from the original block and a half of 22 shotgun houses to six blocks and 40 properties, including 12 artist exhibition and/or residency spaces, seven houses for young mothers, artist residencies, office spaces, a community gallery, a park, low-income residential and commercial spaces. The group celebrates its 20th anniversary year starting in October.
More Texans are expected to travel this holiday season than in 2011, according to AAA.
The national travel organization projects that 7.7 million Texans will leave home during the upcoming holidays, which they define as the period from this Saturday through January 1. That's a 2.4 percent increase over last year.
Analysts with AAA say it's likely that the improving economy and low fuel costs are leading more people in the Lone Star State and elsewhere around the country to take to the road.
And most of them are indeed traveling by road. The vast majority, 7.1 million will be traveling by vehicle, with the remaining travelers moving by train, air and bus this season.
Texas travelers are expect to log an average of 749 miles round trip during the 11-day period.
City officials unveiled plans in early October for the Center for Texas Cultural Heritage-a $40 million project that will serve as a visitors' center, museum and tourism hub in Downtown Houston.
At a kickoff event held Oct. 4, Mayor Annise Parker and others discussed the importance of the new center, which will be a place for visitors to explore and experience the history that built and continues to define Houston and the region. Project Chairman John Nau also announced his contribution of $8 million to the $40 million fundraising goal. Nau will also lead the fundraising effort for the project, which is set to break ground late next year.
"The Center for Texas Cultural Heritage will become the flagship for cultural and heritage study, a gateway for heritage tourism, and an essential amenity to attract visitors to southeast Texas," says Mayor Annise Parker. "The center will immerse visitors in authentic stories of the visionaries and entrepreneurs who built and defined our region - and who perpetuate the living spirit of Texas."
The center will be comprised of a multi-story, 60,000-square-foot facility. It will include the only two remaining structures from Houston's original Quality Hill neighborhood -the Foley and Cohn homes. Located between the George R. Brown Convention Center, Discovery Green and Minute Maid Park, the center will take up the block bordered by Texas Avenue, Capitol Street, Hamilton Street and Avenida de las Americas.
The Center will introduce visitors to the historic sites and offerings of southeast Texas, which includes a number of counties such as Brazoria, Brazos, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Jackson, Lavaca, Matagorda, Montgomery and Walker just to name a few.
The center will also highlight historical and archeological treasures in the region such as Johnson Space Center, Galveston Bay, the San Jacinto Monument, the Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park, Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, and Spindletop to name a few. For visiting business people, conventioneers, tourists and heritage visitors, the center will help turn a one-day visit into a multi-day adventure.
Officials cited a study that shows the center has the potential to create $31.4 million in additional tourism revenue and generate $9.5 million in industry earnings.