The Astronauts' Wives

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The wives of the Apollo 11 astronauts at a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in London, October 1969. Copyright Leslie Priest/Associated Press.

America’s first reality stars, astronaut wives were ordinary women put into extraordinary situations. Before their husbands flew aboard the first Mercury missions in the 1960s, Gordon Cooper’s wife was a licensed pilot and Gus Grissom’s wife worked full time to pay for Gus’ education. Commonly referred to as Togethersville, Clear Lake City, Texas, was where early astronauts resided and their wives created a support system.

Besides being married to astronauts, these women had something in common—they were expected to personify a hero's wife and provide support for their husband's involvement in space missions. It was a heightened experience to what many stay-at-home women in the 1950s and 1960s experienced, coupled with intense media scrutiny. The Mercury astronauts and their wives, for example, signed a lucrative deal with Life magazine, giving it access to the families’ private lives and homes while their husbands were both at home and in space. Inside the magazine’s pages were full color photos of their families’ vacations and their husbands on the living room couch. They shared their hopes and their fears with reporters, and even penned columns themselves. However, the publicity took its toll. There were thirty married astronauts during the Gemini and Apollo programs—all but seven marriages ended in divorce.

Love wasn’t always lost, however. After returning to Earth, John Glenn would switch his briefcase from one hand to the other in view of cameras as a way of telling his wife that he loved her. Some astronauts even named parts of the Moon after their wives, such as Mount Marilyn, after Jim Lovell's wife.

These moments helped husbands acknowledge the sacrifices their wives and families made in order for them to pursue such a risky and consuming career. As Trudy Cooper, Gordon Cooper’s wife, wrote in Life: “I suppose many women would become impatient with a life that is as uncertain and full of change as ours. I never know when Gordon is going to have to leave and often I don’t know when he is returning until he gets home. But changes, delays, and disrupted schedules are so typical of service life that you just learn to accept them. You learn to take the things your husband does in stride, too.”