Review of The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel (NY Times Best Selling Author)

A few of you asked me to share my research for Liberty One and late last year I recommended Rocket Men (review link below if you missed it). Today I want to share a book with a different perspective. What did the American astronaut wives experience when the nation first went to space in the 1950s and 60s? I drew from The Astronaut Wives Club to understand and create Jim and JoAnn’s life in Liberty One. In 2015 the book became a TV series which is still available on Amazon Prime.

The book begins with the Mercury seven announcement in 1959 then moves on to the new nine who were brought in for Gemini. There’s a relatively small bit on Apollo at the end.

One thing is clear and repeated in so many ways through the beginning and the rest of the book: the women were cast as domestics while their men worked away from home and became America’s heroes. There are so many references to how the wives spent their time dolling up or cooking or looking after homes they’d build in the Houston area. They were largely defined by their men.

But, for all that, the families were treated like royalty, with perks and privileges including White House receptions and publicity contracts with Life magazine. Most of the wives simply relished leaving behind frugal lives on dusty military bases, for privilege – and danger. Men died as test pilots and in rockets. Some wives coped and others didn’t.

It may surprise you that many of the astronauts were also vertically challenged as American heroes go, which probably made it easier to shoehorn them inside their tiny spacecraft.

It may also surprise you that the moon actually killed most of the marriages. Astronauts were rarely home and had ‘bits on the side’ when they travelled. There is a fair amount written about the infidelities, though I’ve read that the press ignored much of this at the time which would seem unimaginable today.

The end of the book covers the wives during the moon landings, though the Armstrongs are notably absent from this retelling. The final chapter is years later looking at what became of the wives and their marriages, with one hauntingly tragic ending seeded on Apollo 1.

Overall verdict: The book is exquisitely well researched and amazes with the depth recalled half a century later. There are some great photos of the first NASA families too.

There are so many quotable lines in the book but here are a few of my favourites:

America had nightmares of future Sputniks dropping atom bombs onto their happy homes. Nobody wanted to live under a communist Moon.

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.

One of the first among NASA’s many unofficial rules was: if you don’t have a happy marriage, you won’t have a spaceflight.

“You just worry about the custard, and I’ll worry about the flying,” Frank [Borman] reassured his anxious wife.

Most wives in the A.W.C. [Astronaut Wives Club] wished their husbands were postmen.


Click here to get The Astronaut Wives Club on Amazon

You can find my review of Rocket Men here if you missed it. Another amazing book which retells mankind’s first foray to the moon on Apollo 8.

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