Lily Koppel is the author of the new book The Astronaut Wives Club, which focuses on the wives of the early U.S. astronauts, and The Red Leather Diary. She has written for The New York Times and the Daily Beast, among other publications, and she lives in New York City.
Q: Why did you decide to write about the early astronauts' wives?
A: I saw a Life magazine photo of the wives in their skyrocketing beehives, outfitted in their swirling candy-colored Pucci minidresses, and turned to my husband, who is also a writer—and said, “Has a book ever been written about the wives?” It was an interest in the personalities, especially the women. I knew I had to write the book and tell their story. The emotional side of the space race.
Q: Was there anything that particularly surprised you as you researched the book?
A: The wives were like America’s first reality stars, with reporters embedded in their suburban homes. After their husbands became astronauts (and Life magazine bought the rights to the couples’ “personal stories” for half a million dollars), the astronaut families were all thrust into the spotlight.
The wives' mantra throughout the space race was "Happy, proud, and thrilled." On top of dealing with your husband riding a giant stick of dynamite, the women had to worry about how all of America would receive them on television and the cover of magazines.
Q: You write of these women, "As next-door neighbors in the space burbs, they kept each other grounded while their husbands headed to the Moon." What type of community did the wives create, and how did they react to their sudden fame?
A: The women lived in an almost tribal all-female environment— The book’s setting is its own little bubble world, a sparkling, Jetsons-style swath of suburbia, where everybody watched everyone else and no one escaped the gaze of government megacorporation NASA.
Togethersville was the collective name for the series of planned communities—Timber Cove, El Lago, Clear Lake, Nassau Bay, and Friendswood—built around NASA’s operations in Houston, where husbands took off for the daily grind, flying their hot T-38 jet trainers to the Cape every Monday morning, and not returning until Friday evening. The mothers were essentially Supermoms—mom and dad, during the week, and the women helped each other out.
Stuck at home with the kids in Togethersville, the wives started getting together for coffee and martini hours. “This is fun. Let’s start doing this on an organized basis,” suggested Susan Borman, and so the Astronaut Wives Club was born: weekly tea and cocktail events and Tupperware-style launch parties.
The Club was founded in 1959 by the Mercury Seven wives when they were informally drafted into a support network by their own Marge Slayton, but it was during the heady days of the Apollo Program that the AWC really took off, with both generations coming together.
The Moon journey put the astronaut wives on a seesaw of emotion as they simultaneously grappled with sexual politics, the new morality, sudden fame and husbands struggling to come back to Earth.
Some women loved the limelight, others (since none of them were trained or prepared for it), felt as if they were, as Marilyn Lovell put it (married to Astronaut Jim Lovell, played by Tom Hanks in Apollo 13), “living inside a goldfish bowl,” or under a cake dome with all eyes upon them from the press and the everyone watching across the country and around the globe.
Q: Is there something today to which you would compare the fascination the country had with the early space program?
A: I think we remain obsessed with space, we just aren't exactly sure what form the journey will take yet.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I remain dedicated to telling unforgettable, never-before-told stories. Perhaps unusual for a writer who has written two non-fiction books, I love reading the Harry Potters and books like that. One of my books in the near future will be a novel I’ve been dreaming about, and working on, for some time.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The wives’ story isn’t all martinis and deviled eggs—it is also the launch of the modern woman.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb