“People and Wives”: Gendered Spaces at America’s Spaceport

“People and Wives”: Gendered Spaces at America’s Spaceport

By the mid-1960s, with the race to the moon in full swing, the American space program had become of immense popular interest, and its new “spaceport” on the east coast of Florida was an increasingly attractive tourist destination. The spectacle of rocket launches drew thousands of visitors to the Cape Canaveral area during the Gemini program, which followed the successful first sub-orbital and orbital flights of American astronauts during the Mercury program. But this growing enthusiasm for spaceflight, and to witness it in person, had become a serious logistical and public relations challenge for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Staff. In addition to helping to craft NASA’s public image and liaising with domestic and international press, Kennedy Space Center’s Public Affairs Office (PAO) was in charge of orchestrating the enormous public event that was a crewed launch. PAO policies for both the public and invited guests conditioned the way that people moved through and around the physical spaces and places of Kennedy Space Center, and this movement was often controlled in gendered ways.

Our understanding of the place of women in the history of human spaceflight has been greatly expanded over the last few years, most notably with the publication of a number of important books and the film adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures. We know much more about women who worked in this field, but we have comparatively little grasp on the way other women accessed, experienced, and interpreted spaceflight in the 1960s. One way that women participated in spaceflight experiences was by attending launches and visiting NASA centers. These experiences, and the way they were structured according to prevailing gendered norms in the 1960s, are preserved in the policy and internal negotiations about access to spaceflight activities in archival material from within the agency.


PAO policies for both the public and invited guests conditioned the way that people moved through and around the physical spaces and places of Kennedy Space Center, and this movement was often controlled in gendered ways.

In the archival records of the PAO, which preserve the memos and correspondence of Gordon Harris, the first Director of Public Affairs for Kennedy Space Center and his staff, there are traces of a gendered logic that PAO used to structure access to the physical spaces of the space program.* Harris was a stickler for good behavior, and one of his chief concerns for launch events was managing VIPs and other special guests and determining what “kinds” of people were attending launches — and how it all reflected back on NASA.

Near the end of 1965, as PAO was coordinating the massive challenge of Gemini VII and VI launching within days of one another, Harris wrote in a memo to Jim Loy that the launch event “left much to be desired in terms of the kinds of people who showed up as guests and their behavior,” and added that “[i]f we cannot obtain control,” Harris would recommend ending the VIP program altogether and limiting guests to people “directly connected with the program.” The memo then lists some specific issues that Harris insists must be resolved before Gemini VI launched a couple of weeks later. Contractors who worked with NASA were to be told that “[a]dults only can be admitted (18 years and over),” and Chamber of Commerce executives should note that “[w]ives of members cannot accompany them - the only women in the group should be Chamber members.”

In VIP spaces, PAO exercised a great deal of control that is represented in the archive in specifically gendered ways. “Wives” are a distinct category of guests that are often differentiated in memos from “people,” by which Harris means employees of contractors or NASA itself. In a memo from 1966 about the guests for Gemini XI, Harris refers to “two busloads of Air Force/NASA wives,” as well as “Martin [Marietta Corporation] people and wives,” and “McDonnel-SCO people and wives.” In the same memo, Harris explicitly acknowledges that access to the launch for those women who are wives is connected to access for children, noting that there is still an outstanding “question about admission of children of tender years in the case of Air Force/NASA wives…” Banning children, even if there was no explicit ban on “wives” in other places, often amounts to a de facto ban on women, who, as primary caregivers for children in America in the 1960s, would have had to stay behind with the kids.

NASA made more spaces at Kennedy Space Center available to the public through the 1960s and into the 1970s by instituting public tours, first by car and later by bus, as well as a visitors center with informational exhibits and a rocket garden. But there were still spaces within the center that were off limits for certain groups of people. Responding to an inquiry from a reporter in 1974, the Chief of the Public Information Branch noted that “since we are severely restricted in the number of places we can take children on the space center, we usually suggest to a newsman who wishes to tour with his family that they take the public bus tour.” A similar response to another reporter reiterates that children are not allowed in spaces that a lone “newsman” might be, and that the reporter would get a free pass while his wife and children would need to pay the regular fee.

Wives were not the only women whose access to and movement around the spaceport needed to be controlled. In addition to the card game incident, Harris also disapproved of what he considered “publicity-seeking” behavior by VIPs attending launches. Actor Shirley MacLaine was evidently engaged in such behavior at the launch of Gemini VI. “No more,” Harris wrote in a memo to Jim Loy, the Chief Protocol Officer. Replying to this and other complains by Harris, Loy noted that MacLaine was later taken on a private tour of spaceport facilities by Dee O’Hara, a nurse who worked with the astronauts. “I haven’t the slightest idea where they went,” the memo-writer insisted. Only a few weeks later, Harris wrote again to Loy about another problematic woman, a reporter named Mary Bubb, who had contributed to an “unpleasant” incident when the astronauts returned to the Cape by “breaking thru the line and [participating in] the melee around the pilots.”

Even the most important of VIP women, the wives of the astronauts themselves, were still subject to tight control of their access to the space center. In the early days of crewed spaceflight, the wives of the astronauts typically did not even travel to the launch site, remaining instead at their homes with their children, neighbors, and — per a contract that all the earliest astronaut families signed — a photographer and reporter from Life Magazine. The photos and personal accounts of the anxious lookout that each wife endured, published in Life sometimes only a week after the event, helped to establish a routine and a set of tropes that came to define the experience of astronaut wives in the 1960s. Life pictured this experience as a nerve-wracking vigil in front of the television, which wives often broke up with chores or by catering to the guests who had congregated in their homes. This coverage made a clear distinction between the home, where a nervous but still dutiful wife maintained domestic order in the face of potential tragedy, and the places and spaces of the space program, which were marked by danger and, in Rene Carpenter’s words, a “male atmosphere.”


By grouping and classifying women according to gender or marital status, and demarcating the ways such groups could access launch events, NASA reinforced gendered norms that construct certain places within the business and spectacle of spaceflight as masculine or feminine.

Carpenter, however, presented a problem for Life that was not unlike the problems that wives and other women presented to Harris and the PAO. Refusing to remain at her home, Carpenter and her children were in Florida for the launch. In order to preserve its carefully constructed drama of the wife’s vigil, Life rented a beach house from which the launch could be viewed in the distance, photographed Carpenter and her children in the same style as they had the other wives. So important was the construction of domesticity and place to Life’s coverage of the astronauts’ wives, the reporting of the story even made a point to feature Carpenter doing chores and tending to the rented house as if it were her own.

By grouping and classifying women according to gender or marital status, and demarcating the ways such groups could access launch events, NASA reinforced gendered norms that construct certain places within the business and spectacle of spaceflight as masculine or feminine. When these norms were challenged by women with power or access like MacLaine and Bubb, the agency’s response was to increase control. When norms were flaunted by Carpenter, Life created a spectacle of domesticity to counter her refusal to stay in her proper place. While women’s access to spaceflight was controlled in its early days by overt discrimination — no American women flew in space until 1983 — there were subtler forces at work as well, and they operated on women who participated in spaceflight in different ways.

*All archival records are from the Records of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Kennedy Space Center Files (255.4.9), Office of Manned Space Flight, Public Affairs Office, News Media Files Gemini 6-Gemini 11, Box 4. NARA Atlanta.

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