With their husbands away and preoccupied, the wives looked to one another for support. Particularly after the families settled in 1964 in the astronaut suburb nicknamed Togethersville, near Houston’s Manned Spacecraft Center, the women could dash in and out of one another’s backyards, push strollers together on walks and, during missions, hold sleepovers.
Koppel clearly admires her subjects, although they are increasingly difficult to keep straight. Additionally, without citations, the sources of Koppel’s facts and quotations are not apparent. The initial seven Mercury wives receive the most attention and emerge with semi-distinct identities, but by 1963, several “generations” of astrofamilies populate Togethersville.
To be fair, Koppel chronicles a cultural moment more than any particular person, and in this she excels. The details are superb, from the ham loaves the women cooked to the Virginia Slims they chain-smoked, the fur hot pants and Pucci dresses they wore, the luaus and shrimp-boil parties they threw, and the Mercury-capsule-shaped community swimming pool they shared. In a moment that perfectly summarizes time and place, Koppel describes Sue Bean and her friends lining up before a party so that Sue’s astronaut husband, Alan, a perfectionist engineer, could “put on their fake eyelashes for them. He could align and glue the black wisps ever so precisely.”
If the astronauts’ salaries were relatively modest, the perks for the families were practically unlimited: Corvettes rented for a dollar a year, hotel rooms rented for a dollar a night, tickets to Broadway plays, gift certificates to Neiman Marcus and visits to the White House, where two astrowives borrowed evening dresses from Lady Bird Johnson and the first daughters baby-sat their children.
In spite or perhaps because of such adventures, most astromarriages didn’t last. “It had been a patriotic duty to keep one’s marriage together in Togethersville,” Koppel explains, but the first divorce in the late ’60s “opened the floodgates.” Ultimately, of the original 30 space couples, only seven stayed together.
At the book’s conclusion, Koppel catches up with several astrowives who remember their time in Togethersville as “golden years.” Perhaps. But a particularly convincing statement comes from astrowife Barbara Cernan, who remarked, “If you think going to the Moon is hard, try staying at home.”
Curtis Sittenfeld reviewed this book for The Washington Post.