This is one of the few books I brought home with me from England as a last-minute buy at Manchester Airport. When I saw it in the shop, I remembered having read about it on somebody's blog, but I am not sure now whose blog it was.
Anyway - me having been interested in (human) space flight for many years, with an entire shelf in my bedroom dedicated to the topic, it was clear I "needed" this book.
Lily Koppel tells the story of the wives of the first three sets of NASA astronauts, spanning the period from 1959 (when the "Mercury Seven", the first astronauts, were announced) until 1972 (when the Apollo missions ended with the last man leaving the surface of the moon).
A lot has been written about the astronauts and their missions, but this is the first book about their wives. The first seven had no idea what was in store for them when their husbands were chosen out of the many applicants. Up until then, they had been test pilot's wives, moving from base to base with their husbands, raising their children in ever-changing environments, trying to establish new friendships with the other families living on base all the time.
All of a sudden, their husbands were in the limelight - and so were they, gaining celebrity status from one minute to the next. None of the ladies was prepared for this, and nobody did prepare them or help them. They did make a few mistakes at first, but quickly learned, and found they could cope much better with the pressure from being constantly under the public eye when they helped each other.
Of course, there were also the plus sides: meetings with "Jackie" at the White House, balls and dinner parties with a host of Hollywood stars, nice dresses given to them by well-known fashion companies to be worn as living advertisments, dream houses and cars for symbolic amounts of money (such as a corvette for just 1 $ a year).
The price to pay was their privacy; a deal was struck up with LIFE magazine that reporters and photographers would have access to them and their homes nearly 24/7, covering every meal they prepared for their children, every outfit they wore, and every emotion in their faces during launch and mission times.
The second set of astronauts were nominated, and their wives were no better prepared than the first ones. Because there was always a competitive undercurrent between their husbands as to who was going to fly the next mission, the first wives were at first reluctant to welcome the new wives into their circle. Eventually, though, they all became members of the Astronaut Wives Club, being there for each other in times of need.
While flawless All-American families were presented to the world, it often was a different story behind the scenes. There was cheating and alcoholism, coldness and jealousy, and one couple even gave up their separate lives in order to make sure the husband got the job, and moved in together again, hoping their secret would not be found out (it wasn't until long afterwards).
Inevitably, some women became closer friends than others, but whenever their husbands were up there, or when disaster struck and terrible accidents happened, they all put their differences aside and rallied round.
The book ends with a chapter about a reunion of the wives in the mid-1980s. I enjoyed it very much, although I must admit I was a bit disappointed at times with the writing style. Some chapters read like a simple row of paragraphs having little to do with each other, jumping from one wife (or couple) to the next, without a recognizable thread between them. But the overall reading is good, giving what I believe to be an accurate picture of life in "Togethersville", the nickname given to the "space suburb" in Clear Lake City, where most of the astronauts' families lived.
If you want to know more, click here to go to the official website for the book.