As America's Mercury Seven astronauts were launched on death-defying missions, television cameras focused on the brave smiles of their young wives. Overnight, these women were transformed from military spouses into American royalty. They had tea with Jackie Kennedy, appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and quickly grew into fashion icons.
Annie Glenn, with her picture-perfect marriage, was the envy of the other wives; JFK made it clear that platinum-blonde Rene Carpenter was his favorite; and licensed pilot Trudy Cooper arrived with a secret that needed to stay hidden from NASA. Together with the other wives they formed the Astronaut Wives Club, providing one another with support and friendship, coffee and cocktails.
As their celebrity roseand as divorce and tragedy began to touch their livesthe wives continued to rally together, forming bonds that would withstand the test of time, and they have stayed friends for over half a century.
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The Astronaut Wives Club
A True Story
By Lily Koppel
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 Lily Koppel
All rights reserved.
Introducing the Wives
They had endured years of waking up alone, making their kids breakfast, taking them to school and picking them up, fixing dinner and kissing them good night, promising that Daddy was thinking of them all the time. There had been lonely nights when they fell asleep wondering how they were going to get by on their husbands' measly pay for another month. During tours of duty in World War II or Korea or both, their husbands had nearly become mirages. Navy deployments had taken their men away on six to nine month cruises to the far corners of the Earth. They'd each wait for half a year imagining their man, trying not to forget what he looked like, only to have him come home hungry and tired. They'd miss him even before he left.
Things were no easier in peacetime when he was back home on base serving as a test pilot. There were times when squadrons would lose as many as two men in a week. The wives couldn't do a thing about it but pray for their prowess over the 5 a.m. skillet, hoping they'd cooked their husbands a good breakfast of steak and eggs before they left to go fly, so they'd be alert up in the air. They went to friends' funerals, sang the Navy hymn, and wore white gloves and held a handkerchief to catch the tears. They'd become conditioned to living with the daily fear that their men might not be back for dinner, or ever.
For Marge Slayton, whose wide, pale Irish face and expressive eyes made you want to hug her, it was the sound of a helicopter that sent her into a tailspin of fear and nausea. Hearing the blades of a chopper whirring overhead almost always meant that the men were searching for a plane that had gone down. Long after she stopped living on remote air bases, such as Edwards in the Mojave Desert, the sound of a helicopter still struck fear in her heart.
If a husband was out testing a new experimental plane and didn't come home by five o'clock, almost all of the wives experienced the same waking nightmare, imagining the dark figure of the base chaplain ringing the doorbell, telling her she was now a widow. They had rehearsed that awful scene in their minds, over and over. Such was the life of a test pilot wife. They could not possibly have imagined all that would be in store for them as astronauts' wives.
The United States was well behind in the space race. Soon after launching Sputnik in 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik II with its passenger Laika ("Barker," also known as Little Curly), the Soviet space dog. She was a female stray found on the streets of Moscow (and those godless Soviets let her die in orbit). The United States had responded by trying to send up its own satellite on a Vanguard rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, but it disastrously exploded on the launch pad, leading the press to call it "Kaputnik." In the following months and years the United States tried to send up bigger rockets, such as the Atlas, but every one of them had exploded before reaching outer space. Now the United States was determined not only to catch up but to pull ahead. It was a national priority in those fervent days of the Cold War.
America's space age was officially announced on April 9, 1959. In Washington, D.C., at the buttercup-yellow Dolley Madison House, across Lafayette Square from the White House, the seven men who'd been chosen to be the nation's first astronauts were officially presented to the world. They sat onstage at a blue felt–draped banquet table under NASA's round red-and-blue logo of a planet and stars, nicknamed the Meatball. Onstage with them was a model of the tiny Mercury capsule on top of an Atlas rocket, which would fall off once the capsule had passed through the Earth's atmosphere and entered outer space. At promptly 10 a.m., the press conference began. T. Keith Glennan took the podium. A natural-born showman who had previously worked at Paramount and Samuel Goldwyn, he was now the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced, "today we are introducing to you and to the world these seven men who have been selected to begin training for orbital space flight. These men, the nation's Mercury astronauts, are here after a long and perhaps unprecedented series of evaluations which told our medical consultants and scientists of their superb adaptability to their upcoming flight. It is my pleasure to introduce to you—and I consider it a very real honor, gentlemen—Malcolm S. Carpenter, Leroy G. Cooper, John H. Glenn, Jr., Virgil I. Grissom, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Donald K. Slayton ... the nation's Mercury astronauts!"
The ballroom burst into applause. The Mercury Seven astronauts were instantly beloved, embodying the country's optimism and excitement. Space capsules and rocket launchers and men in outer space; it was a brave new world of shining silver suits, gleaming white space capsules, upward-thrusting rockets, and the awesome void of space. The stuff of science-fiction novels was now coming true. These seven young flyboy test pilots, with their strong jaws and military buzz- cuts, were the best America had to offer. Glennan explained how the seven were chosen out of 110 test pilots considered for the job. Most of all they were healthy small-town Americans. None was older than forty.
Glennan touched on how fierce the competition had been. The Mercury Seven had been exhaustively tested and checked out down to their innermost orifices at the famed Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, selected for its secluded location. There were all kinds of "wild theories" about zero gravity, as one NASA doctor later put it. "Some people said the astronauts' hearts would explode, or that their blood pressure would fall to nothing. Some said they would never be able to urinate, and others said they'd never be able to stop urinating." Physicians did a complete medical, psychological, and social evaluation of the astronauts. NASA looked into the backgrounds of not only the men but also their wives.
Since all of America's new astronauts were drawn from the test pilot world, they were military men who would retain their rank while on loan to the new civilian space agency. They would work together now so rank would no longer be important. They wouldn't wear uniforms besides their silver space suits. And they wouldn't only be pilots. Each would be in charge of a particular ingredient of spaceflight, such as the capsule, communications, recovery, or navigation.
When it was question time, the reporters shot up their hands and leaped out of their seats. It turned out they were mostly interested in what the astronauts' wives had to say about their men being blasted into space. It was insanity, wasn't it? Or was it the American dream? Didn't their wives want to bring the country down to earth, say there had been some mistake, no, you cannot send my husband to the Moon? What kind of woman would actually let her husband be blasted into space on a rocket? The newly christened astronauts were in the process of formulating answers when John Glenn piped up.
"I don't think any of us could really go on with something like this if we didn't have pretty good backing at home, really," he said, speaking of his Annie. "My wife's attitude toward this has been the same as it has been all along through my flying. If it is what I want to do, she is behind it, and the kids are, too, a hundred percent."
When the press conference ended, reporters dashed from the room to instruct their editors to dispatch their minions to track down the Astrowives. John Glenn, who would remain very protective of his wife throughout the space race, always did his best to shield her from the press. The other wives, however, were open game. There were seven of them scattered across the country. Air Force and Navy wives, and Annie the lone Marine wife, they had spent the best years of their lives raising kids and supporting their husbands' careers and moving their families from one end of the country to the other, from one dismal base to the next. Now their husbands were astronauts, and they, too, were instant celebrities.
NASA didn't provide the wives with any instructions. No NASA public relations spokesmen contacted them with tips on how to deal with the press that day. The wives would have to handle the reporters the way they'd handled all the ups and downs of service life—with slightly knitted eyebrows, perfectly applied lipstick, and well-practiced aplomb.
The reporters hunted down the wives, showing up at their doorsteps and even chasing them at the grocery store. Out in Enon, Ohio, Betty, new astronaut Gus Grissom's wife, was having a hellish time dealing with the journalists, who were practically crawling through the curtains into her house. Gus had vastly underestimated the new situation the night before, when he'd called from Washington to warn her, "It's a good bet you'll be pounced on by the press." She'd been sick, running a temperature of 102. Her curly brown hair was a mess. So was the house.
Betty Grissom had never thought of Gus as a potential hero. They'd met back in Mitchell, Indiana, where Gus, too short to make the basketball team, had to be satisfied with being the leader of the Boy Scout honor guard. Betty played the snare drum in the pep band. "The first time I saw you I decided you were the girl I was going to marry," he'd tell her.
Betty had put Gus through engineering school at Purdue, slaving away on the 5 to 11 p.m. shift at Indiana Bell in a room full of exhausted working girls plugging in telephone connections. Her graveyard shift gave her husband some quiet to study. She had to work hard in those days because they lived off her pay. Betty didn't have any education beyond high school, but she often joked about her hard-earned "P.H.T." degree—Putting Hubby Through.
She had sweated out Gus's tour of duty in Korea, where he flew an F-86 Sabre on one hundred combat missions. Gus was promoted, but Betty was devastated when he actually volunteered to stay in Korea to fly another twenty-five missions.
After the war, Gus was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Enon, Ohio. He was now a test pilot, and they were finally living under one roof, with their two little boys. Even though Gus was home, he was often off flying. Betty knew flying was Gus's life, and she supported him without question.
"If I die, have a party," Gus once told her after one of their test pilot friends crashed and burned.
"Okay," she promised. "We'll have a party."
"If something happens to me, I don't want people sitting over here, crying."
In January 1959 Gus had received the top-secret telegram. Gus wasn't much for words, but Betty usually knew before he did what was on his mind. In fact, they both figured that she was a little psychic. That night as the Moon hung over Enon, Ohio, and the two boys were finally in bed, he read aloud the telegram. A couple of sentences long, with the usual confusing military acronyms, it "invited" Captain Virgil I. Grissom to come to Washington, wear civilian clothes, and not utter a word of this to anyone. Neither of them had any idea what it meant, so Betty blurted out the craziest thing that popped into her head. "What are they going to do, Gus, shoot you up in the nose cone of an Atlas rocket?"
She had heard Gus talk about the Atlas rocket, which was being tested in secret at Cape Canaveral in Florida. It wasn't much of a secret, seeing as reporters had watched it blow up from the nearby town of Cocoa Beach. The rocket was unstable, and kept on exploding at liftoff after liftoff. Did men in the government really reckon someone was supposed to ride that thing?
Gus laughed. Soon Betty began to feel like a spy girl in a James Bond thriller. Federal investigators were canvassing Enon making inquiries into the character of the Grissoms: How patriotic was his wife? How many times a week did she make home-cooked meals? Did she drink too much? Did communists regularly appear on their doorstep?
Finally, Gus asked Betty's permission to accept the dangerous mission. She looked at him and said, "Is it something you really want to do?"
"Yes, it is."
"Then do you even need to ask me?"
On the day of the astronauts' press conference, Betty had gone to the doctor and gotten a shot of penicillin. She stopped at the grocery store on the way home to pick up a few things for her and her boys, eight-year-old Scotty and five-year-old Mark, who were still at school. A reporter-photographer team from Life had interviewed her neighbor and tracked Betty's trail to the store. They came right up to her as she was wheeling her shopping cart through the vegetable aisle. Being a polite midwesterner, Betty invited the duo to her home, though they would have followed her through her door whether she wanted them to or not.
As soon as she let the Life fellows in, other reporters and photographers started arriving. They didn't even knock, just marched right in her front door and made themselves at home. Asked all sorts of personal questions, Betty didn't view these invasions as a welcome opportunity to become famous.
Sitting off to the side in her living room, as if the men wanted to photograph her dingy furniture and not her, Betty slung one saddle-shoed foot over the other, hoisted up her bobby socks, and watched suspiciously. Her big round owl glasses almost hid how cute she was. A perpetual worrier, she noted every time one of the men used the toilet (which she scrubbed herself) or plugged heavy equipment into a socket without permission. She didn't like the reporters: she hadn't prepared for this at all.
Betty didn't mind putting up with a lot for Gus. But she expected some common decency.
On the other side of the country, on a windswept shore near her home in Virginia Beach, Louise Shepard had taken her three lovely girls to the beach to escape the reporters who would surely be ringing her bell at home. Louise walked slowly up the shoreline as her blonde-haired girls built sandcastles and waded in the surf.
"Mrs. Shepard?" The press had tracked her down. "We're from Life magazine, Mrs. Shepard. We'd like to take some pictures."
Louise had always played a supporting role to her husband, Alan. She was a Christian Scientist and did not like this invasion of her quiet life but assumed her new role was beginning, and she handled the press gracefully. She smiled tentatively at the two men from Life and told them it would be okay if they took a few pictures. She smoothed out the girls' windblown hair and posed for the photographer.
After Louise let them instruct her to look left and look right, look up toward the sky, where her husband's bird might one day go, she was ready to get out of there. She looked at them kindly, smiled a smile that meant, That's enough, then put two slender fingers in her mouth and whistled. "Laura, time to go."
The men were flummoxed. Louise rounded up her girls. They thought the attention was fun, but they followed their mom to the car. Louise calmly steered toward home, expecting that by now, any press that had come calling would be gone.
She was wrong. When she turned onto her quiet street, lined with wooden houses with pleasant gardens hemmed in by picket fences, she could hardly believe her eyes. There must have been a dozen news trucks in her yard.
"How does it feel being the wife of an astronaut?" The men started flinging questions right away. "How long have you been married? What do your kids think?"
Louise stared into the exploding flashbulbs.
"Do you really want him to go?" asked another newsman. "Aren't you worried he'll be killed?"
That was the question that really disturbed her. Louise had been living with the fear of Alan's death ever since he started test-flying high-performance jets. The death rate for men like Alan was staggering. If Alan didn't call or come home by five o'clock sharp, Louise would start looking at the sky for the ominous black clouds near an air base that rose from a plane crashing to the ground.
Finally, she enveloped her children in her arms and ushered them through the crowd, away from all the attention. Down the street, the neighbors were watching the drama unfold in the Shepards' yard, and a mother told her son to be a dear and go see what all the hoopla was about. He ran back home and announced, "Mom! Mom! You gotta hear this! Mr. Shepard's going to the Moon!"
Excerpted from The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel. Copyright © 2013 Lily Koppel. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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Table of Contents
The Astronaut Wives ix
Authors Note xiii
1 Introducing the Wives 1
2 Think Pink 21
3 The Cookies 39
4 Jackie 58
5 Primly Stable 71
6 Squaresville 80
7 Space City, U.S.A. 88
8 The Galaxy Ball 110
9 Togethersville 123
10 The Astro-Pageant 137
11 The Lemon 153
12 Women's Lib 171
13 Susie 188
14 The Dark Side of the Moon 201
15 The Giant Leap 221
16 Everywoman 239
Epilogue: The Reunion 257
Photo Credits 271
About the Author 272