Read, The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel, last weekend and my eyes were open to the stresses of unwanted publicity. In 1961, it was announced that an American would be the first to walk on the moon, but all seven Mercury space candidates were announced in 1959. The spacemen were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.
The Mercury seven were famous overnight and divvied a Life magazine contract for $100,000 which gave Life the exclusive access to their wives and families. These wives, from years of experience as test pilot spouses, did not count on their husbands for much. They were gone for weeks and it was left up to the wives to do everything from mow the yard to discipline the “astrokids.”
All the “astrowives” were blindsided that second Thursday in April, 1959. Their husbands, in Washington D.C. for a special meeting, told the wives via phone to be on the lookout for journalist. Betty, Gus Grissom’s wife, was living in hell. She had been sick all week, running a fever of 102, when she claimed the reporters were practically crawling through the curtains to get pictures of her and the messy house.
In 1959, America was still abuzz over the Soviet launch of Sputnik, October of 1957. John F. Kennedy responded with the “Space Act,” July 29, 1958, that resulted in the organization of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The new astronauts were instant heroes and the wives snickered at the title.
Most of the wives knew each other through the test pilot program. Staying on military bases and living Spartan existences, their lives were to remain the same while the “heroes” became a whole lot richer. For example, the wives continued driving the family clunkers while the husbands were given new corvettes for a dollar. They also stayed in rent free apartments in Cape Canaveral while the wives continued to pay the bills at home.
There were other benefits the wives did not know about. Each, except for squeaky clean Glenn, had a girl on the side. The wives later came to call these groupies, “Cape Cookies.” Out of the 110 candidates for Mercury, the seven men were chosen because of their “happy” marital status.I am torn. The book leaves me unsatisfied; although, I read it faithfully and repeated passages. To me, Koppel spoke through interpretations of photographs and articles that appeared in Life instead of personal interviews. It also felt gossipy like a Kitty Kelly or Andrew Morton book. At the end Koppel thanks the wives for participating in interviews, although, these interviews might have been in (1959-1973) and done by Life.