Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Astronaut Wives Club: Review

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel..just the title told me I had to read it.  When I dove into the pages and found that I was face to face with my own neighborhood, well, yeah, it hit home.  I so often forget the thrill of living smack dab in the middle of the space capital of America. It surrounds me.  I drive roads like NASA Rd 1, Space Center Blvd, and Saturn Lane each and every day.  Our church is about to host a huge ceremony to honor NASA employees for 55 years of service to the community. The house my street is on leads into the subdivision that many of the first astronauts chose for their Houston homes.  We ride bikes and walk the dogs past those homes frequently.  Many NASA employees live there still.  The school where I teach is called Space Center for crying out loud.  But I don't give it two thoughts most days.  It's just been life for me since age 4.  The people I know that others see as celebrities or national heroes are just regular old people with families and lives that are so very normal to me. 
Ah, but this book took me back and made me stop and realize all that living in Clear Lake really is about.  I giggled as the wives of the Mercury 7, America's first astronauts, were introduce on the pages of the books.  They were all military wives, used to husbands who were test pilots with high risks jobs.  They each had their own hopes and dreams, and were trying to be the perfect American, 1950s housewife.  Ha.  I choked with laughter on so many stories of how LIFE magazine and the government wanted the world to see these women as perfect, well coiffed wives and mamas who could do it all.  We had to prove that not only our men had the right stuff to make it to space before the Russians, but that their families had the best of the best and were the best of the best, the perfect standard for families all over the world.  Oh, please! 
In truth, these families had struggles, but they loved each other.  As Houston, specifically the piece of swamp on Clear Lake, was named the home of the Manned Space Flight Center, these families were united in location.  And they bonded.  No one else had lived through and experienced shooting their husbands and fathers into space on thousands of pounds of jet fuel.  Um, stress much?!  There was no handbook on how to handle the fear, anxiety, stress, and media that hounded their front doors.  They had each other, and they clung to each other.  Ladies, take note; this is how it should be.  Throw out the how-to books, be honest with each other, and support each other.  That's how we really fight!

Eventually, more astronauts were named for more test rockets and projects, and the Astronaut Wives Club grew.  Growing pains between the originals and newbies occurred, but at the end of the day, they had to help each other. And, they all wanted know what Jackie was wearing at the White House when the latest wife returned from a visit.  Duh, that's important!  :)  And Kennedy kept pushing the space race further and faster.  Russia beat us to space, but by George, we would beat them to the moon!  And, we did.  The fear of those wives on earth over their hubbies landing on the moon was probably touchable to those sitting with them as they watched live on TV.  These ladies were strong, y'all.

Tragedies weren't ever far away.  T-38 training jets crashed.  Grissom's hatch popped early on Mercury 2, causing the capsule to sink and Grissom to be scrutinized for ages.  A motorcycle crash killed another before he could fly.  Odd ball health issues grounded otherwise fit astronauts and dashed dreams.  Apollo 1 had a flash fire during a preflight run, killing all 3 of the astronauts trapped inside.  Apollo 13 had an explosion in an oxygen tank that nearly resulted in a lost capsule.  Thanks to the dedication of quick thinking engineers, astronauts on the ground, and the American spirit that never gives up or leaves a man behind, all 3 on board were brought home safely. 

And yet, these women kept their families together while their husbands lived one of the greatest dreams ever dreamed.  It was a team effort, and they have deserved this credit for a long, long time.  Many of the marriages didn't survive after their husbands' space days, and that makes my heart hurt.  I think the culture of America at the time, saying all had to be perfect, had a large part in this.  Still, the wives get together, those who are still living, when they can.  They relive the glory days of finally having electrical appliances, the trips around the world to show off the American astronaut heroes, the thrill of close friendships just houses away from each other.

My favorite couple is John and Annie Glenn.  This April, they will have been married for 71 years.  They've literally known each other since toddlerhood.  Y'all, their love story is just precious.  Read it and be encouraged.  Another favorite is Jim and Marilyn Lovell.  They're something else too.

While I think Koppel did a fabulous job with her research and writing, I wish she'd had an epilogue that talked about astronaut spouse life today.  The book ends with the end of the Apollo program.  So much has changed at NASA and in American culture since then.  The shuttle program introduced female astronauts.  With co-ed spouses in the club and a culture that almost expects women to work outside of the home, the pressure to look perfect to the world has diminished.  It's ok to seek help when the family has problems.  The media doesn't focus so much on the families but more on the science and achievements of NASA.  There's not a feeling that these families have to be perfect little American dream replicas to tout to the world now.  Thank goodness, because whose real life is that anyway?!!  The area has grown so much that the spouses have opportunities to seek their own passions while their astronaut spouses are pursuing theirs.  It's a good thing...a beautiful thing.  This community is what it is because of the literally thousands of people who keep NASA running each day.  I'm grateful to be a part of it, and I'm thrilled to get to see this community continue to rally around all that NASA is. 

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