Books & Literature

Space Spouse

What was it like to be married to an astronaut during the Space Race?

By Catherine Matusow August 1, 2013 Published in the August 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

At the Sam Houston Hotel downtown, the guests stood around tables decorated with stars. Yvonne Washington sang jazz standards; there were plates of sliders and deviled eggs; and, amidst the hubbub, a young blonde woman in a lime-green dress, Lily Koppel. She circulated, chatting amiably with several older women wearing yellow roses. These were “Astrowives,” and Koppel, somewhat incredibly, had written the first book about them, The Astronaut Wives Club.

Among the questions Koppel’s book addresses: What was it like to be married to an astronaut during the Space Race? To know that your husband isn’t coming home to Clear Lake tonight because he’s on a rocket to the moon? To have to look perfect—to be perfect—or risk running afoul of NASA and ruining his shot at a mission? To have the press peek in your windows? To deal with the groupies—the “Cape cookies”—chasing your husband? 

If the Astrowives managed to cope, it was through banding together, in many cases forging friendships that outlasted their marriages. “It’s very dear to me,” said rose-bedecked Beth Williams, “those women and that time.”

Williams, it turns out, is one of the coolest wives in the book. After her husband C.C. died in a T-38 jet crash in 1967, she took issue with a NASA administrator who told her that he’d died doing what he loved. “He didn’t love NASA,” she said. “He loved me. If he died doing what he loved, he would’ve been in bed with me.” She’s also one of the few wives who were civil to the second wife of Apollo 7 astronaut Donn Eisele, the first (of many) to get divorced.

Harriet Eisele, Donn’s first wife, was standing nearby, also yellow-rosed. We had to ask: did she learn any juicy details about those days from reading Koppel’s book? “No,” she said with a laugh. Then, ever the politic Astrowife, she added, “I learned Lily is a very good writer.”

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