Book review: The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

As America’s astronauts set off on death-defying space missions in the 1960s, TV cameras focused on the brave smiles of their young wives, transformed overnight from ordinary housewives to US royalty.

Behind the scenes and those front-page pictures, the women found the pressures of publicity overwhelming but instead of turning to their busy husbands for comfort, they turned to each other.

Each time a space mission launched, a diverse group of military wives met over tea and Tupperware at a house in the aptly named Houston neighbourhood of Togethersville for a gathering they nicknamed the ‘Death Watch.’

There they shared coffee and cigarettes, champagne and cocktails, laughter and tears, triumph and tragedy as their husbands raced through space.

The women – from Annie Glenn with her picture-perfect marriage to the first American to orbit the Earth to JFK’s favourite, platinum-blonde Rene Carpenter – called themselves the Astronaut Wives Club and their friendship still endures over 50 years later.

Lily Koppel charts the rise of their celebrity, the divorces and the deaths that have touched their lives over the years in an authoritative, revealing and entertaining account set against the atmospheric backdrop of the Space Age.

Being an astronaut’s wife meant taking tea with Jackie Kennedy, appearing on the cover of Life magazine, balancing an extravagantly lacquered rocket-style hair-do and teetering around on high heels.

She had to prepare herself for the onslaught of press attention and a world eager to scrutinise her hair, complexion, clothes, figure, parenting skills, charm and, most important of all, her patriotism.

Annie Glenn was the envy of the other wives with her many magazine features, homely Betty Grissom worried her husband was having affairs, Louise Shepard just wanted to be left alone to her card games and licensed pilot Trudy Cooper arrived on base with a secret.

Many became next-door neighbours and helped to raise each other’s children by day while going to glam parties at night as the country raced to land a man on the Moon.

In the home of the woman whose husband was ‘going up,’ each wife was assigned a different duty including manning the coffee pot and emptying brimming ashtrays (chain-smoking was an occupational hazard for Astrowives).

Solidarity was essential but, of course, the harrowing worry and stress was something that each wife had to suffer alone.

Ultimately, the wives’ story is about female friendship and American identity. Whilst their other halves travelled new territory in space, the wives were being launched as modern women for a brave new world.

Koppel’s colourful book follows their amazing journey in a story that is sexy, sophisticated and rich in melodrama and reminds us that if not for the women who supported their brave husbands, man might never have walked on the Moon.

(Headline, paperback, £7.99)