Sunday 24 September 2017

Why life as an astronaut's wife was light years from perfect

The women who married pioneering spacemen often faced infidelity and anger, writes Jacqui Godard in Miami

Buzz Aldrin
Buzz Aldrin

Jacqui Godard

THEY WERE the unsung heroines of the space race, quintessential American housewives expected to stand by their men, smile to order and declare themselves "Happy, proud and thrilled" as their husbands rocketed to glory.

Poised and flawlessly groomed, they were transformed from ordinary military spouses to the First Ladies of Space alongside husbands whose bravery in the face of death-defying risks and lunar ambitions knew no bounds.

Yet behind the thrills, the glossy magazine photo-shoots and receptions with monarchs and presidents, life for the wives of Nasa's pioneering Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era astronauts was also a harrowing, fearful and, at times, scandalous existence.

Chronicled for the first time in a new book, The Astronaut Wives Club, the story of the women behind Nasa's elite space explorers of the 1950s to 1970s shows that it was not just the menfolk who were expected to have the right stuff. Under pressure to live up to public and Nasa expectations, some had to turn blind eyes to their husbands' infidelities and put on shows of marital harmony to protect the men's images and careers.

"We all tried to be so calm and so cool and everything," said Jane Dreyfus, who divorced the third man on the Moon, the late Pete Conrad, in 1988. "But we were a far cry from Stepford Wives."

Some turned to tranquillisers or drink to help them cope and only by forming a sisterhood they called the Astronaut Wives Club – motto "Proud, Happy, Thrilled" – did they pull one another through.

"If you think going to the Moon is hard, try staying at home," said Barbara Cernan, the wife of Gene Cernan, commander of the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 and the last man to walk on the Moon.

Mr Cernan, addressing the book's official launch in Houston, choked back tears as he admitted: "If it weren't for the wives who committed their lives to what we were doing, I don't think we would have ever gotten to the Moon."

The space race began in October 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite.

Two years later, on the orders of President Dwight Eisenhower, Nasa selected its first astronauts – the Mercury Seven – all highly intelligent military test pilots.

Their wives were seen by women all over America as "seven glorious women they could look up to and emulate," said the book's author, Lily Koppel. Yet of the 30 astronauts recruited into the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes, the marriages of only seven survived. Buzz Aldrin could be "heartbreakingly cold" towards his first wife, Joan, to whom he once gave a monkey that would bare its teeth, make obscene gestures and dance around mocking her.

"I've had it. It's either the monkey or me. Somebody's leaving," she told him, to be met with a silent look that appeared to say, "Well, what are you waiting for?" Their marriage fell apart after he returned from the Moon in 1969, and sank into depression and alcoholism.

"It was hard for them to come home," said Faye Stafford, the former wife of astronaut Tom Stafford, who orbited the Moon in 1969. "Who could ever compete with the Moon? I was lucky if I could come in second."

"I see them as America's first reality stars," said Koppel. "Their country looked to them to hold up the public relations arm of the early space programme and the feeling was that if they did not, their men may not go into space or to the Moon.

"Their story is kind of The Right Stuff meets Mad Men, with a little bit of Desperate Housewives thrown in."

Irish Independent

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