Married to NASA

Married to NASA

In an issue about the history of women and the space program, you probably don’t expect to see a piece dedicated to the astronauts’ wives. After all, the wives didn’t go to the moon, nor were they even among the many female ‘computers’ that supported NASA from behind the scenes. Yet, they did work for NASA in a very different way; they made Jello-molds and ham loaf, raised children, meticulously decorated their homes in Togetherville, and supported their famous astronaut husbands. They excelled at representing the embodiment of a mid-century American cultural ideal, which was exactly what NASA needed them to do.

In The Astronaut Wives Club, Lily Koppel, relying heavily on oral history, writes about the wives of the Mercury seven astronauts[1], the following Gemini astronauts[2], and lastly the Apollo crew members[3]. More, though, than just writing a collective biography of the wives, Koppel captures a distinct cultural moment in American memory, spanning from 1959 to 1972, in which the wives played key roles. 

Despite the chauvinism, racism, communist phobia, and abhorrent sculpted foods of mid-century America, people, including myself, find it hard not to romanticize this era in American history with its music, cars, perfectly tailored Don Draper suits, and of course, the Space Race. When we look at the live media coverage of Apollo launches, it’s easy to isolate this spectacular image of human ingenuity from its cultural context. When we watch Apollo 13, we are forced to see that space exploration is a dangerous business, and the men who go into this business are heroic frontiersmen. But, when we place these aspects of the space program in their cultural context, we must remind ourselves that this spectacle of human ingenuity was a bi-product of the Cold War and deep-seated anxieties about nuclear weapons. These frontiersmen were chosen for this business because of their masculinity and their whiteness at the expense of those who didn’t embody either of those traits. On a spectrum of nostalgia and outright criticism is where Koppel places The Astronaut Wives Club, as the experience of the wives, who provide the focus of the book, moves between both ends of this spectrum. 

The conception of the astronaut as the apotheosis of masculinity was intricately linked to the notion of American exceptionalism, which marked the language that Kennedy used to describe the space program. He likened its members to pioneers who conquer dangerous, unexplored frontiers-- our pioneers would secure the cosmos for democracy. There wasn’t room for women in this rhetoric, for typically, it was men who took on the sacrifice of leaving home to explore. With the astronauts out exploring and conquering, the wives tended home and hearth. The space program cultivated these two dichotomous constructions of masculinity and femininity to perpetuate a gendered image of American exceptionalism that was strictly male. 

In Apollo 13, the characters of Marilyn Lovell and Mary Haise, wives of Apollo 13 crewmen Jim Lovell and Fred Haise, play the role of the supportive and panic-stricken wife left alone with a pack of children and another one on the way as their husbands head into the final frontier of space. Koppel shows that there was much more to the wives than their pre- and post-launch worry and relief, but this is the dominant image of the wives that persists in American memory. 

With each launch, a media circus descended upon the wives to capture their reactions as their husbands blasted into space, and the wives were pretty much forced to accommodate because of NASA’s agreement with Life magazine. The public understood the Space Race and their own cultural ideals through the media, which presented carefully selected and deliberately posed images of both the astronauts and their wives, many of which position the femininity of the wives in opposition to the masculinity of their astronaut husbands in order for the first to highlight and reinforce the latter. The doting wife pre- and post-launch was just one of these carefully constructed images.

From the way that they dressed and the make-up that they wore to the types of snacks that they served at launch parties, the wives were expected to conform to the standard of femininity of a white middle-class woman in pretty much every way. Even down to their cars, the wives’ domestic femininity called attention to their husbands’ masculinity. The president of General Motors cut a deal with the astronauts allowing them to lease a Corvette with racing tires and a customized ‘space age’ interior for only one dollar a year. The muscle car with all of its connotations reinforced the hyper-masculinity of the astronauts. If they were going to ride a rocket fast and dangerously into space, then they needed a car that they could drive fast and dangerously on the ground. The wives, on the other hand, were stuck with station wagons and all the connotations those carry—safe, roomy, slow. Trudy Cooper wanted her own Corvette, like her husband Gordo, but in a Corvette, where in God’s name would she put all the groceries and children? 

Beneath this carefully polished veneer, the wives and their marriages were oftentimes a mess. As the sixties went on and Betty Friedan empowered women to ask “Is this all?”, many of the wives found their own desired identities in conflict with the constructed one that had been plastered on the cover of Life. Trudy Cooper had left her husband prior to his acceptance to the Mercury project but stayed with him when NASA made it clear that a divorcee was not wanted among America’s finest. Rene Carpenter, a rebel from the very beginning, broke away from the domestic goddess image entirely and eventually started her own feminist TV show. Louise Shepard dealt with Alan’s numerous affairs, which were common knowledge among the wives. Of all the astronaut couples of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, only seven remained married. The personal reality of the wives and astronauts conflicted starkly with the constructed public image displayed on television and in magazines. 

The wives tell Koppel that they themselves are at odds about this part of their lives seeing it as both a whirlwind of exciting celebrity and a time of personal turmoil. Some wives (mainly the ones who are still married) embrace their outlying participation in the space program as the best time of their lives. Others, however, feel as though NASA used them and discarded them when they were no longer useful to the American cause. In either case, none of the wives seem ignorant as to the part their gender played in putting a man on the moon. 

Even though the wives weren’t ‘in’ the space program, they were inadvertently part of it. By including the wives in a history of the space program, we aren’t making a feeble attempt to ‘put women in;’ rather, we are giving a well-rounded representation of how NASA and the US government used gender to gain public support for the space program and reinforce gendered perceptions of American exceptionalism. If what historian Margaret Weitekamp says is true, and I believe that it is, “gender, race, ethnicity, and class exist in every history—for both privileged and marginalized groups,” then when we look at the men of the space program and their masculinity, we must also look at the women whose femininity was deliberately used to shape that image.

Further Reading: 

Marc Jacome, “Remembering the Space Race: Nationalism and Heroic White America,”, n.d.

Margaret A. Weitekamp, “Critical Theory as a Toolbox: Suggestions for Space History’s Relationship to the History Subdisciplines,” in Critical Issues in the History of Spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius (Washington D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2006), 549–72.

[1] Rene Carpenter/Scott Carpenter; Trudy Cooper/Gordon Cooper; Annie Glenn/John Glenn; Betty Grissom/Gus Grissom; Joe Shirra/Wally Shirra; Louise Shepard/Alan Shepard; Marge Slayton/Deke Slayton
[2] Neil Armstrong; Frank Borman; Jane Conrad/Pete Conrad; Marilyn Lovell/Jim Lovell; Patricia McDivitt/James McDivitt; Faye Stafford/Thomas Stafford; Pat White/Ed White; Barbara Young/John Young
[3] Joan Aldrin/Buzz Aldrin; Barbara Cernan/Eugene Cernan; Patricia Collins/Michael Collins; Barbara Gordon/Richard Gordon; Ann Scott/David Scott

Image credit: Cover, The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel | Fair Use