Apart from when astronauts post on Twitter and/or Instagram, we Earthlings rarely (if ever) hear about their private lives, including those of their families. Scott Kelly, who spent a year in space, is (I think) the most recent astronaut to grace the cover of a Time-Life publication. However, as Lily Koppel tells us in “The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story,” the privacy astronauts currently have was not always the case.
Back in the 50’s and 60’s, America was well into the space race against the Soviet Union, and the public had a vested interest in the day-to-day lives of its astronauts. Since the astronauts were ineligible for life insurance from most companies, “Life” magazine offered life insurance in exchange for publicity rights. Not only were the astronauts put into the spotlight–their families were, too.
When it comes to the history of virtually anything ever, historians and biographers, forgetting Abigail Adams’ immortal plea to remember the women, often focus solely on the men of any given era. You rarely hear stories about female nurses who served, or the wives of sailors and politicians. In fact, in the public historical record, women are really noticeably absent. Where were they? What were they doing?
Koppel provides an answer to that. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Tom Hanks and HBO’s series, “From the Earth to the Moon,” but even the one episode about the wives looked at them in terms of their husbands rather than as women who existed as individuals. What a bummer, right? You don’t hear about how Betty Grissom worked to pay for her husband’s education, and you definitely don’t hear about her legal battle with NASA over possession of her deceased husband’s spacesuit. In fact, in the episode detailing the Apollo I capsule fire, you really only see Betty receiving the news of her husband’s death. Here’s this really incredible woman who winds up reduced to the role of a grieving widow.
Luckily, Koppel tells us about the women, and she doesn’t have to take any biased shots against their husbands in the process–even though the majority of the original astronaut couples ended their relationships in divorce. You learn that Rene Carpenter was a writer and personality in her own right, and that Trudy Cooper was a pilot like her husband. You also learn why the wives club was necessary to begin with; these women were different, but being brought together because of their husbands made them each others’ best support while NASA sent man to space.
The story that’s being told within the pages of this book is important.
That said, I’m not always a fan of Koppel’s writing style. It has the kind of brisk, business attitude that I’d equate more with a reporter than with someone trying to tell me the story of someone’s life, and at times the language itself comes off as hokey–especially when it tries to mimic the up-and-at-’em attitudes of the women. There’s a difference between being authentic in your prose and how you use any local color comes down to whether or not your reader can believe you’d ever use it yourself. I’m not totally convinced a lot of the time. Her voice did bother me a number of times and had me rolling my eyes, but it wasn’t enough to make me put down the book.
Pros to the book include the fact that it is told in a linear fashion, so you see the wives introduced with the changes in the still-young space program, and you also get to see the attitude differences between the wives of the Mercury 7 astronauts versus the later Apollo astronauts. Koppel’s descriptions give as much a history of the people as the shifting views of society from the late 50’s to the 70’s, and it is interesting to see how in many ways being the wife of an astronaut ironically meant having to stick to past ideals instead of being able to move forward into the future. As science progressed, NASA did seem to want to keep the “Leave It to Beaver” idealistic family within its astronaut candidates, despite the fact that with scientific progress we usually see social progress, too.
Koppel consulted with many of the wives who were still living while she wrote the book, and it was nice to see their reflections back on the time as the book tied itself up.
While it didn’t bother me much that the perspective shifted regularly between the wives, I could see it being a potential narrative issue for some people. Koppel does jump frequently from wife to wife, and while it does make sense because their lives were tangled up together, it also can get pretty confusing if you forget which wife is taking center stage and when. Even though it is primarily about the wives, they’re talked about as groups in the same way their husbands were paired or grouped together for their missions. It makes sense, ultimately, but at the same time I’m not sure I necessarily liked it.
If you like space, mid-century America, and stories about people, this book is probably one that you should at least borrow from the library. It isn’t bad, and I was able to finish it, even though I had to start over a few times. I personally ended up getting it from a rewards point program my previous job at Staples had, and the reason why I picked this particular book over any of the others was because a show had recently come out on ABC based on it. I don’t know if I would have spent actual money on it if I had to, but it’s still a good beach read.
You can check out more information about “The Astronaut Wives Club” at the book’s official website here.
If you have a suggestion or a book you’d like to see a review of, tweet me at @Jill_Boger. I’m pretty good at responding.