June 27, 2013

Lily Koppel

The emotional side of the Space Race
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Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club offers a fascinating peek into the lives of the extraordinary women married to America's first astronauts. Over the years, the Astrowives formed a close-knit community, celebrating, encouraging, helping and comforting each other, ultimately creating dear friendships that are still going strong today. We asked Koppel some questions about her experience of writing the book and what it was like hanging out with America's first reality stars.

What sparked the idea for the book?

I saw a Life magazine photo of the wives in their skyrocketing beehives, outfitted in their swirling candy-colored Pucci minidresses, and turned to my husband, who is also a writer—and said, “Has a book ever been written about the wives?” I’ve always loved The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, and of course Mad Men, but I never realized how much I wanted to know more about these women until I saw that vintage picture. It was just the tip of the iceberg. It was an interest in the personalities, especially the women. When I found out that they actually have a Club—and that they raised their families in the Houston “space burbs” near NASA’s operations, in a community known as “Togethersville”—the whole thing was just amazing! I knew I had to write the book and tell their story. The emotional side of the space race.

How many of the wives did you interview? Were there any Astrowives who declined to participate?

I started by visiting the wives across the country, unlocking the secrets of this very exclusive club of women behind the astronauts with the “right stuff.” I let their stories, missions and characters guide me in an organic way, focusing on the wives who had the most interesting—and at times difficult—tales. I was lucky that the women were so forthcoming with me. Now in their 70s, they finally felt it was time to come clean. They told me about their friendships with Jackie Kennedy. Joan Aldrin, Buzz’s wife, gave me her diary to explore, which she kept on the Apollo 11 “Giant Step” world tour as her husband’s life was spiraling out of control. Finally, I sat down at my MacBook and started to write, which all in all took about three years. Although it is serious history, I always wanted it to read like a page-turner.

I interviewed more than 30 women, individually and together in groups. They were very encouraging of one another and felt this was the right time to participate in this book. A few I was not able to meet, but with stars like platinum-blonde Rene Carpenter (whom JFK made clear was his favorite), Betty Grissom and Marilyn Lovell (whom people are already familiar with from Apollo 13) all opening up their lives and homes to me, sharing their stories and memories (photo albums, scrapbooks—the Pinterest of the 1960s—and in the case of Betty Grissom, her vintage designer wardrobe purchased mostly from Neiman Marcus in the 1960s, including a pair of fur hot pants), I had more than enough material to work with.

At the height of their fame, the astronauts and their families were offered tons of freebies. What was one of the most wacky, outrageous things/services they were given? Did they ever turn anything down, for whatever reason? Did you get the sense that cash was ever in short supply for them?

These were like the first celebrity endorsements. There were dollar-a-year Corvettes provided for any astronaut. There were dollar-a-night rooms at the Holiday Inn in Cocoa Beach for any astronaut. With this instant celebrity came all of the Astro Goodies, as I like to call them. And there were many. And many that had to be refused, because it really turned into quite a scandal in the early ’60s when they moved to Houston and a contractor wanted to give all of the astronauts and their families free dream homes. The public absolutely erupted over this. The Astro families ended up building their own dream homes with the land and contractor rates given to them at bargain rates.

Cash was certainly in short supply for them back when the astronauts were military men. (The average pay for a military test pilot was $7,000 a year.) Then when the original seven were made spacemen overnight, the Astro families were splitting $500,000 from Life magazine for exclusive coverage of their lives, which meant about $70,000 a year for each family. It was like winning the lottery.

Later, financial hardships would hit home for some of the astronauts (after the Apollo program was canceled) and especially for the wives who were divorced from their husbands. In many cases, the women sold off valuable space memorabilia from “the good old days” just to survive and pull through and raise their kids.

In the book, you reference the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. What effect do you think it and the subsequent Women’s Movement had on the wives?

The wives’ story isn’t all martinis and deviled eggs—it is also the launch of the modern woman. We see the Women’s Movement emerge through characters like platinum-blonde Rene Carpenter, who was opinionated, savvy and went onto write her own women’s newspaper column. People magazine described her as the “archetypal astro wife.” By the end of the book, she has adopted a Gloria Steinem-look and is hosting her own feminist television talk show, essentially taking on the patriarchy. There are many women among the Astrowives ranks who would “lean in” today.

What surprised you the most about these women?

The wives were like America’s first reality stars, with reporters embedded in their suburban homes. After their husbands became astronauts (and Life magazine bought the rights to the couples’ “personal stories” for half a million dollars), the astronaut families were all thrust into the spotlight. The wives' mantra throughout the space race was "Happy, proud, and thrilled." It was their "keep calm and carry on" motto, the women’s way of coping with having their lives turned inside out and the press camped out on their lawns during the missions. On top of dealing with your husband riding a giant stick of dynamite, the women had to worry about how all of America would receive them on television and the cover of magazines.

On the one hand, the wives were such integral parts of each other’s lives, sharing experiences no one else could possibly relate to. At the same time, though, they didn’t really get to commiserate with one another over the stresses, the dangers, the infidelities that plagued their lives and marriages, which gives their relationships a tinge of inauthenticity. Did this occur to you? Was it something you were able to reconcile over the course of writing the book?

Many wives experienced severe heartache and tension, and I felt deeply for them and tried to put myself in their shoes. It was because of this pressure-cooker environment that they had to rely on each other. Of course, all of the wives wanted to believe that their own husbands stuck to their training for all those weeks at the Cape, resisting the "Cape Cookies"—the pretty, tanned groupies who followed the astronauts as if they were The Beatles. Sadly, they also lost them to the space race. After the men came back from the Moon, many of the marriages fell apart as a result of a decade of living under severe strain. They hadn't known just how much their husbands' trips to space would change their lives on Earth. "It was hard for them to come home," said one wife, Faye Stafford. "Who could ever compete with the Moon? I was lucky if I could come in second."

To cope with the unique pressures of being married to a spaceman—from trying to live up to NASA’s impossible standards for the ideal housewife to dealing with absentee husbands constantly tempted by Cape Cookies—the wives banded together in the Astronaut Wives Club. Their saga, with its countless launch parties and endless bottles of champagne, at times seemed less like The Right Stuff and more like Valley of the Dolls Goes to the Moon. The women in the Astronaut Wives Club supported each other, but there was also a kind of competition between them. The women tried to remain above the competition, but sometimes that was impossible.

In the cutthroat NASA environment—where every man was vying for a flight position and the ultimate, a chance to go to the Moon—the women were terrified to say anything that could reflect badly on their husbands and cause them to lose out on a choice flying assignment. I don’t see the wives inability to share some of the innermost fears and loneliness with one another as inauthentic. I see it as part of the enormous burden they had to bear. The wives’ relationships have also evolved and today they are much closer than ever before, a symbol of the changing times we live in today and the fact that without all the competition they can finally be honest with each other. They still meet and get together with their friends—and remain closer than the astronauts. Astronaut wife Marilyn Lovell characterized the wives' enduring female friendships as proving ultimately more powerful than many of the marriages, saying, "I felt like we were on a mission together.

It seems like there could be a whole other book written about the children. What did they have to say about what it was like growing up as Astrokids? 

I talked to many of the Astrokids, and in many ways, growing up in a close-knit community of astronaut families who lived together in the Houston “space burbs,” as they were called, back when the space program was ramping up in the '60s, was growing up in the cradle of the American Dream! Journalists called their neighborhood “Togethersville,” a place where the astronaut families helped raise each other’s children and supported each other through triumph and tragedy. The Astrokids describe having an astronaut daddy as nothing unusual since all of their friends in the neighborhood had astronaut daddies too, or fathers who worked for NASA as engineers or contractors. Their mothers often had to pry them away from Star Trek to watch their dads' launch into space. It was also hard on the kids having a hero dad who was often an absentee father figure, so the Astrowives took on the role of “superhero mom” while the astronauts were away training for most of the week down at the Cape.

Can you share one of the more memorable (touching, funny) moments from your interviews with the wives?

Spending a girls’ weekend in Texas with Marilyn Lovell and her best friend Jane Conrad at the Lovells’ home. It was a girls’ slumber party, and I felt privileged to be made honorary Astrowife for the night. Jim “Houston, we have a problem” Lovell, played by Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, took us for a ride in his Cessna. At night, we kicked back over glasses of wine, and I took notes as me and “the gals” sat around talking late into the night in PJs and robes.

What’s up next for you? 

I remain dedicated to telling unforgettable, never-before-told stories. Perhaps unusual for a writer who has written two non-fiction books, I love reading the Harry Potters and books like that. One of my books in the near future will be a novel I’ve been dreaming about, and working on, for some time . . . but I can’t yet divulge what it is about. I’m superstitious like that. (The Astrowives, of course, had many superstitions and guards against jinxes, too.)

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Astronaut Wives Club

Get the Book

The Astronaut Wives Club

The Astronaut Wives Club

By Lily Koppel
Grand Central
ISBN 9781455503254

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