Lily Koppel examines space race spouses in ‘Astronaut Wives Club’


Lily Koppel, author of "The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story," appear at the AJC Decatur Book Festival at 4:15 p.m., Aug. 31, at the Decatur High School Stage, 310 N. McDonough St., Decatur. Free.

When inspiration hit, it didn’t happen in a galaxy far, far away. Rather, in a trendy Manhattan loft.

“We had just bought this large coffee table book that was a rerelease of Norman Mailer’s opus on Apollo 11, matched up with these amazing photos from Life [magazine],” said Lily Koppel, 32, recalling a conversation she had with her husband three years ago.“I turned the page to discover this amazing group portrait of these women all wearing poufy mini-dresses and with sky high beehive hairdos. I turned to Tom and said, ‘Has anyone ever written about the Astrowives?’”

No one had. At least not the way Koppel does in “The Astronaut Wives Club,” which she’ll discuss at the AJC Decatur Book Festival on Aug. 31.

» PHOTOS: Check out some historic pictures of the 'Astrowives'

Sensing there was way more going on underneath the seemingly placid and pretty surfaces presented by the "Right Stuff" women, Koppel began digging into research materials. When she made her first phone call to one of the "Astrowives," as they were known, she was even more surprised previous authors hadn't boldly gone where she was about to.

“I learned they were still in this group that meets for reunions, that they had been in an ‘Astronaut Wives Club’ back in the day,” said Koppel, who focused on the wives of the first three groups of NASA astronauts, dubbed the “Original Seven” (John Glenn’s group), “The New Nine” (Neil Armstrong) and finally, “The Fourteen” (Buzz Aldrin). “They’d all lived and raised their kids in the Houston space ‘burbs known as ‘Togethersville.’ It was a story that almost seemed too good to be true.”

Turns out it was — in ways occasionally hilarious or heartbreaking (Pat White, whose husband, Ed, died during an Apollo 1 prelaunch test, committed suicide), and almost always surprising. The result is an entertaining, sneakily insightful look at the women Americans thought they knew as they waved their hero husbands off into space.

“I call them America’s first reality stars,” said Koppel, who completed the book last summer in her in-laws’ Rabun County cabin. (Her husband, writer Tom Folsom, grew up in Cumming.) “They had that Cinderella transformation from being ordinary women to being thrust together to deal with what it meant to have a public image.”

Like the freeze-dried food of early space days, the wives found themselves almost instantly transformed into exotic objects of fascination. They weren't even present at the Washington, D.C., press conference in in April 1959 when NASA dramatically introduced the seven highly skilled pilots entrusted with winning the space race for America. Still, reporters quickly fanned out across the country, tracking down Betty Grissom at an Ohio grocery store and Louise Shepard with her daughters on a Virginia beach. They were pestered to pose for photos and peppered with questions: Do you make your astronaut husband's breakfast? Are you proud he's going up there? Are you afraid he'll die up there?

Most were military wives, accustomed to frequent moves and long stretches spent holding home and family together while their husbands were off flying combat missions. What they had little experience with was the intense focus on them by the press and public, who, encouraged by NASA, expected them to be the perfect astronaut helpmates. Even if it meant putting up with the female groupies (nicknamed "Cape Cookies") who chased their husbands. Or, in the case of Marge Slayton, hiding the fact that Deke Slayton from the "Original Seven" was actually her second husband.

“Divorce was taboo at the space agency,” Koppel writes, citing an “unofficial” rule they all knew: “If you don’t have a happy marriage, you won’t have a spaceflight.”

No wonder, then, that the wives banded together, first by forging a group deal for exclusive coverage by Life magazine in exchange for money and some sense of control over the media swarms. Then by forming the Astronaut Wives Club. It started informally, when the first seven found themselves coming together regularly to share advice and tense moments, then gradually morphed into a more structured group as the waves of astronauts and astrowives just kept on coming.

Indeed, the sheer number of names can get confusing as Koppel tracks so many wives across 13 years of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs and much of what came afterward (numerous divorces, for starters). But nothing can diminish the lasting appeal of the “club.” Without the wives, Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan later admitted, America wouldn’t have made it to the moon.

“They were like pioneer women,” Koppel concludes, “figuring it out together.”