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.