The Wife Stuff

Astronauts get all the attention, but what about their wives? A new book examines life in Houston for the first NASA families.

By Michael Hardy June 14, 2013

Teatime with the Author of The Astronauts Wives Club: A True Story
June 19 3–5
$55 tea and signed first edition
$25 tea only
Ouisie's Table
3939 San Felipe Dr.

Fly Me to the Moon: book talk and wine tasting "spaceflight" with the author of The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story
June 19 6–8
$35 wine tasting and signed first edition
$15 wine tasting
Plate and Bottle
5411 Morningside St.

Both events produced by Jane Moser Presents 

A few years ago, New York City–based author Lily Koppel was flipping through an illustrated Taschen reprint of Norman Mailer’s 1969 book MoonFire—Mailer’s account of the Apollo 11 moon landing—when she stumbled upon the idea for her next project. “I was looking at the images of the lunar surface, and of Neil planting the flag, and Buzz Aldrin in his space suit,” Koppel remembers. “And I turned the page and saw this complete contrast to the male-centric space images we’re used to. There were these astronaut wives in sherbet-colored mini-dresses and beehives. It was absolutely Mad Men–esque.”

Koppel’s first book, The Red Leather Diary, told the story of the woman whose 1930s-era journal Koppel accidentally discovered in a dumpster outside her Upper West Side apartment building. For The Astronaut Wives Club, Koppel traveled around the country interviewing the spouses of the first NASA astronauts. Many of the women—now in their 70s and 80s—were still living in the Houston area, where they had moved to be close to the Johnson Space Center, and will be in attendance at a series of events next week in Houston celebrating the book’s publicaiton.

Koppel says that the astronauts and their families were treated like celebrities when they arrived in Houston in 1962. They were greeted at Hobby Airport by a motorcade with seven convertible limousines, one for each of the Mercury astronauts. It was Fourth of July weekend, and the astronauts were immediately honored by a welcome-to-town parade. 

What did the women think of all the hoopla? “They just thought it was so hot,” Koppel says, laughing. “They were absolutely melting. The big topic of conversation was whether they were going to wear hats and gloves when they arrived in Houston.”

Once they settled in, the wives found themselves the toast of high society. “As soon as they arrived, invitations started pouring in,” Koppel says. “For a while, their lives revolved around the social scene—parties thrown by Joanne King Herring, and all sorts of things they hadn’t experienced back in the military. I kind of see them as America’s first reality stars. These were women who were living pretty dismal lives as military wives until their husbands were picked as astronauts. And all of a sudden they’re on the cover of Life magazine.”

Six of the original astronaut wives will be in attendance, along with Koppel, at two public receptions next week hosted by local book event planner Jane Moser. (See sidebar for dates and prices). Koppel says she hopes her book will restore the wives to their rightful place in history.

“These are women who played a really important role in one of the most exciting times in American history,” Koppel says. “It’s going to be really fun to celebrate them in Houston, and have people come out to meet them. And just shine a bit of the spotlight on them.”  

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