Yet when the magazine was published, the women’s lipstick had been altered to look red. As Lily Koppel writes in “The Astronaut Wives Club,” a book whose cover image is the Life photo in question: “The wives were completely shocked, worrying about how America would judge them. They would never wear such a bold colored lipstick. They were mothers, not vixens.”
Such anecdotes fill this breezy and entertaining book, which — like the women themselves — takes pleasure in both playing up and defying the stereotypes of the time. Koppel notes that the wives’ stories, or at least the unvarnished versions afforded by hindsight, have never been told, and she deserves credit for recognizing the richness of the subject matter. More than 50 years after its inception, many of us now take the space program for granted, but Koppel reminds readers just how bold and innovative it felt in the Sputnik era, and how mysterious the wilderness of space remains.
As their husbands changed overnight from anonymous military pilots to international heroes, the astrowives were pulled along, in some cases willingly and in others with reluctance. Each woman’s life was defined by an essential contradiction: To increase the chances of her husband being picked for a coveted mission position, she needed to make their marriage as stable as possible, or at least she needed to make it appear stable. If her husband then was picked, she had to endure the hellish stress of watching and waiting while, in view of the entire country and much of the world, he put himself in extreme danger.
The wives referred to the launches as death watches,and their fears weren’t misplaced. A NASA insider told Susan Borman before the 1968 Apollo 8 mission — in which Susan’s husband, Frank, and two others would orbit the moon 10 times — that the men had a “50-50” chance of survival. During the mission, in the presence of her 15-year-old son, Susan began composing her husband’s eulogy. Though those men returned safely, eight astronauts died in the program’s first 12 years.
Even if a marriage was on steady ground to start with, it turned out that having your husband launched into space was the perfect recipe for its undoing. With the men in Florida most weekdays for training, the wives were often raising young children almost as single parents. “When you come back next time,” one astrowife sarcastically told her unhelpful husband, “why don’t you take a room at the Kings Inn, so I won’t be tempted to bother you?” Extramarital female attention to the astronauts was so abundant that the wives had multiple nicknames for potential temptresses: a Suzy or, if the other woman sought out the men near Cape Canaveral, a Cape Cookie.