Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Reading | The Astronaut Wives Club

The Astronaut Wives Club | Lily Koppel

Millions of words have been written about the American astronauts. Not just their countrymen but the entire world idolized them - from their go-go days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo glory right up to the current day - and not only for their space cowboy bravado and smoking slide rules, but their freckled face Boy Scout 'aw shucks' demeanor, and their heart-warming heroics as family men. But precious little consideration has been given to their actual wives. Oh sure, back in the day, Life magazine held an exclusive contract on interviews with the astronauts and their families, so plenty of puff pieces were pushed onto the pages, with the wives calmly and confidently looking on as their husbands strapped into claustrophobia-inducing spacecraft attached to gigantic bombs, and maintaining their stylish hairstyles and carefully manicured wits until their astro husbands safely fell back to earth. 

But what is the truth of these ladies' lives? What were the pressures, the politics, the pure and simple realities of being an astro wife? Intrepid author Koppel sifted through reams of source documents and tracked down these real-life ladies decades after the fact, and convinced a good many of them to tell her their stories. The result is this tightly woven compendium of interesting facts, juicy tidbits, occasional tragedy, and the over-arching surge of pride and triumph that the wives of America's first astronauts experienced during their lives. 

* * * * *

Okay, I don't mean to be a snob about it, but I've been reading quite a bit about the astronauts lately, and when I first cracked open this book, I didn't think I'd find much new information between its covers. Sure enough, as I zoomed along through the highly readable early chapters, I recognized many of the colorful anecdotes offered up, and haughtily stifled a few intellectual yawns. However, when I wasn't shaking my head at the redundancies of the plot, I was a bit shocked by the unflattering ways in which the wives were portrayed. In the early years of the Mercury program, where the story kicks off, these women come across as naive, small-towny, under-educated, and well, just kinda plain. And definitely in way over their heads.

Only about two-thirds of the way into book did I begin to understand. At the beginning, the astro wives were indeed deer in the NASA headlights, unsure of how to cope with the tsunami of fame that was suddenly sweeping them off their feet and out into dangerous waters. But they changed. And they grew. And in not much more than a quick ten years, those same women found wisdom and self-esteem and genuine poise. They discovered within themselves deep wells of courage and self-confidence, not just as astro wives but as women who could stand on their own two feet and reclaim their own individual lives. And they did it together, helping each other along, every step of the way. 

By the time I'd finished this book, I realized my heart and mind had been opened to a completely new understanding of the American space program. I sill admire my astro men, but against the velvety blackness of their stupendous space accomplishments, their wives now twinkle like stars. 

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