Harder Than Going to the Moon

The Mercury astronauts were famous–John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Alan Shephard, “Gordo” Cooper and the rest.  But while they were the ones who were blasted into space, it was their wives who played an equally fascinating, if largely unheralded, role in the space program.

That’s the subject of The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story by Lily Koppel.  Koppel was on the show last night talking about Annie Glenn, Rene Carpenter (whom JFK had his eye on!), Louise Shephard, Trudy Cooper, Jo Schirra, Marge Slayton and Betty Grissom.

The women knew that — for PR purposes — NASA wanted the astronauts to have “perfect” marriages and there was intense pressure on them to come across as ideal fifties housewives.  No matter what they were asked, their answers were expected to be variations of being ”proud, thrilled and happy.”  In fact, that phrase became their unofficial motto.  Imagine having to put on that public face when:

  • Your husband was being strapped to the world’s largest stick of dynamite
  • There were young and attractive groupies constantly trying to score an encounter with an astronaut
  • The press would literally barge into your living room during launches — which the wives privately referred to as “death watches”
  • Any embarrassing misstep as a wife could cost your husband a cherished ride on a launch

The book reads like a cross between Mad Men and The Right Stuff.  As one of the wives said, “If you think going to the moon was hard, try staying at home.”  Check out the book and my interview with Koppel.

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