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The Astronaut Wives Club

20 June 2013

10:25 AM

20 June 2013

10:25 AM

There I was, slowly and not ungrumpily coming to terms with the fact that there weren’t going to be any more decent books about the Apollo missions. Only 12 men ever walked on the Moon, and the ones that were interested in writing autobiographies had already done so. There’d been the brilliant one-volume history of the whole project (Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon), and the personal memoir of what it meant to an ordinary kid growing up at the time (Andrew Smith’s Moondust). There were the big glossy coffee-table jobs showing every crater, and Norman Mailer’s over-written but still revealing account of being at Houston and Cape Kennedy, A Fire on the Moon. What was there possibly left to write? An in-depth study of the right jab Buzz Aldrin landed on the bloke who says the missions were faked? No, I would just have to get used to it: publishing’s relationship with Apollo was over.

And then blow me down with a Saturn V, along comes The Astronaut Wives Club by American journalist Lily Koppel. Like the other great Moon mission books, it focuses on the personal rather than the mechanical. Occasionally I get trapped in conversations with other middle-aged men who, when they discover I’m interested in Apollo, start reciting thrust capabilities and gimbal stats. ‘Please stop,’ I want to say, ‘I can’t tell a spanner from a hacksaw. Can we talk about the human emotion of it all?’ Not the sort of thing you say to middle-aged men of that strain, of course. So let me say it here. Starting with a quote from Barbara Cernan, wife of Gene, the last man to stand on that big silver thing in the sky: ‘If you think going to the Moon is hard, try staying at home.’


That’s the message underlying much of this book (which covers the earlier Gemini and Mercury projects too). NASA didn’t always pay enough attention to its astronauts’ other halves. (Neither did some of the astronauts, for that matter. Several cavorted with the space groupies known as ‘Cape Cookies’.) A ‘protocol officer’ tells them their husbands can’t be expected to do housework. Life magazine pays for the wives’ stories, changing the colour of their lipstick in photos and putting words into their mouth. All Wally Schirra wants after orbiting the Earth is a cigarette, but the papers insist on saying that Jo will be baking him a cake. She ignores the housework edict, by the way, telling Wally to take the garbage out. All of this while looking forward to seeing their husbands shot into the sky at thousands of miles an hour in sophisticated tin cans. The wives don’t call it a launch, they call it the ‘Death Watch’. When they’re shown the green dye that will stain the sea and make it easier for recovery crews to spot the re-entry capsule, one asks: ‘Is that how we’ll know where to throw the wreath?’

But the tension’s only part of it. Much of the tale is touching and funny. John Glenn changes a piece of equipment from one hand to the other, a pre-arranged code to tell his wife, watching at home on TV, that he loves her. Pat White keeps her ‘Squawk Box’ (the speaker allowing the wives to listen in on their husbands’ missions) in the bedroom, timing her sleeps to coincide with space-dwelling Ed’s. On a visit to Washington Louise Shepard – wife of Alan, the only man to play golf on the Moon – notices that Jackie Kennedy has enormous feet. It’s a wonderful book. If you’re interested in the US space programme you’ll love it. If you’re not it might be the book that gets you interested.


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