There are a few books every year that I really look forward to. The award for that book this summer goes to Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club. I saw it in the Hachette catalogue a few months back and I fell in love. I love the cover. I loved the concept. I generally love when women's stories are told but I was especially interested in this one.
I haven't read a whole lot about the space program. A professor (who taught a totally unrelated topic) introduced me to The Right Stuff -- both the movie and the book. A few years later I'd fill a short-term temp position at the Canadian Space Agency, which immediately followed and was related to Chris Hadfield's first space walk. (This is an all the more amazing thing due to my almost complete and total lack of French.) I didn't meet him but I did get to go on a tour of CSA and see things that not everyone sees. There was no other word for it other than "cool".
I wouldn't say I know much about space, the Canadian space program, or NASA but I dabble a bit here and there. As fascinating as space can be (and it CAN be) I've always been more interested in the people. When we're talking about the early years of NASA, I especially find the dichotomy between the public image of the astronauts and their families and their private lives to be fascinating. There were huge efforts made to make them appear to be perfect, and given the backdrop of the Cold War I understand it. But the astronauts weren't perfect... nor were their wives.
The astrnaut wives appeared to be perfect -- Stepford even -- but beneath the pastel dresses and the perfect hairstyles they were something far better than perfect -- they were real women. They were women put in extraordinary circumstances. Imagine it was your partner being placed into a rocket that had a sketchy track record and being flung up into the sky. Imagine being married to the person who was going to be the first American to orbit the earth. Imagine your spouse being one of three people who would be the first humans to orbit the moon and knowing that no one was really sure they'd make it back from the far side of the moon. Now imagine doing it with the press camped on your front lawn, peaking through your windows and following your every move -- your every facial expression -- with their cameras poised to record it all during what they called the Death Watch.
Add into that the fact that your husband was rarely home. When he was home you weren't supposed to add stress to his life. You had to deal with things on your own. Sick kids? Deal with it. Building a house? Have fun! Something broken? Fix it or find someone to fix it.
We haven't even gotten to what those husbands may or may not have been doing while they were at the Cape. Ah yes, the other women. The Cape Cookies. You didn't want to know, they didn't want you to know and if you did you might have to do something about it. Divorce wasn't an option for anyone who seriously wanted to go into space. NASA just simply wasn't down with that. Their astronauts and their families had to be more American than apple pie and that left no room for divorce.
The wives, thank goodness, had each other. The Original Seven, The Next Nine, The Fourteen, The Nineteen... they may not have all gotten along and they not have liked each other all the time but they knew how to band together when they needed to. With just a phone call people would be there with drinks and food. They'd be there to help, to cry, to let you lean on them. They'd be there for you during the Death Watch and they'd celebrate with champagne at the end of the succesful mission.
Lili Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club gives you a peek at the extraordinary circumstances through which these women attempted to live their lives. They weren't always happy times and very few of the marriages of the early astronauts would last. Some of the women went on to find their happy endings, others did not, but they got through the NASA years with a little bit of help from their friends.