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Ground control in the space race

KATE MEAD
Last updated 05:00 16/06/2013
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SSPL/Getty Images

Back on Earth: The wives, in Hawaiian leis, greet Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.

lily koppel
The Astronaut Wives Club author Lily Koppel.

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That small step for man may not have happened were it not for the immeasurable support from a group of women.

Their story is unearthed in The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel, a lively, detailed history of the women married to the astronauts of the late 1950s to the early 1970s.

With the announcement of the Mercury Seven astronauts joining the space race, the wives' lives changed in an instant. No longer an anonymous military wife, they were now expected to strive for unattainable perfection. Their polished veneer of snappy dresses, immaculate makeup and happy families hid the worries and stresses brought on by their husbands' dangerous profession and the press invading their homes. "If I ever had a question in my mind about whether these women were - as I believed them to be from the outset - sort of the quiet heroes back on Earth, the men just absolutely reiterated that . . . and said things like ‘We wouldn't have landed on the moon if it hadn't been for the strong support we got back at home from the wives'," says Koppel.

The Astronaut Wives Club is the New York-based freelance writer's second book. Her first, The Red Leather Diary, published in 2008, came about after Koppel discovered a young woman's diary inside a Manhattan dumpster. The diary was filled with anecdotes from Florence Wolfson Howitt, written when she was a teenager in the 1920s, and Koppel incorporates those with interviews with the now 90-year-old.

Her new book is another exploration of the female mind. It dwells on the wives of Project Mercury, the Gemini missions, and the Apollo programme, focusing on how they adapted to their unexpected - and possibly unwanted - fame. "It literally happens overnight on April 9, 1959, when the Mercury Seven are announced. And what's so interesting about that press conference is that the press aren't actually that interested in why the men volunteered [to go to the moon], basically they spend the whole press conference asking ‘What does your wife think about this? Are you kidding? She's going to let you do this?' They were military wives living on dusty air bases and then their husbands are announced as astronauts and all of a sudden . . . he's like a rock star, he's like the Beatles."

Koppel got the idea for The Astronaut Wives Club in the summer of 2010 when she was looking through a book about space. She came across a photo of the women standing around a model of the moon looking glamorous with "candy-coloured mini-dresses and sky-rocketing beehives". Koppel started investigating and realised she was on to a unique story.

Her next step was gaining access to perhaps the most exclusive female club in the universe. Koppel spent half a year travelling around America interviewing the women (and a few husbands), some individually and some in groups, and she found that the women had discussed sharing their story in the past but no-one had ever written it. Now, aged in their 70s and 80s, Koppel says they were dubious that what they had to say was actually interesting. "You didn't live through that era, things were so different," they told Koppel. "We talked about boring things: What to make for dinner, and the kids - we were housewives primarily."

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But more than just the role of being an astronaut's wife, the book is also about the evolving lives of women. Their husbands blasting off to space coincided with the launch of the modern woman, something Koppel was intrinsically interested in. The wives were on magazine covers, they were looked at as fashion icons, as patriotism personified, and while they rejoiced in some of this glamour - like having lunch with Jackie Kennedy - the bad times were devastating. Death touched some of their lives while their husbands were on missions but still the press expected them to be optimistic, despite their husbands "sitting on essentially a large stick of dynamite", says Koppel.

"For some women, this was absolutely the best part of their lives, like Marilyn Lovell [wife of Jim - "Houston, we have a problem" - Lovell] . . . at one point in the beginning of our interview she started crying, she just got really emotional. She said, ‘Those were the best years of my life.' "

The Astronaut Wives Club not only illustrates context but reveals the depths of human emotion. "I really didn't want it to be a dry history," says Koppel. "I wanted it to read like a page-turner, almost like a Valley of the Dolls goes to the moon."

The Astronaut Wives Club, Hachette NZ, RRP $39.99.

- Sunday Star Times

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