Rave Reviews by Jean E. Eustance
July and August 2019 should make quite a summer! It’s the fiftieth anniversary of both the first lunar landing, and the Woodstock Festival. For those of us who can remember watching the TV when the astronauts landed on the moon, and who can remember seeing the chaos of Woodstock also on the TV, it’s a case of “Hey, man, where did the time go?”
You know the old joke, don’t you? If you can remember Woodstock, you weren’t there.
Very few Americans were “there” near Houston or Cape Canaveral for the Race to the Moon, but now you can get an “in” with a marvelous book called The Astronaut Wives Club. Lily Koppel published this in 2013. We have this book upstairs in Adult Services in the Pine Bush Area Public Library.
I expected it to deal mainly with the lunar landing of July 20, 1969. To my surprise, the book started with the Mercury missions. On the first pages of the book, the wives are listed so you the reader can follow who these women were (and are) and who were their astronaut husbands.
“In April 1959 NASA’s first spacemen, the Mercury Seven astronauts, were announced in Washington, D.C. and their wives were like America’s first reality stars:…Louise Shepard, wife of Alan Shepard, the first American to go into space…Annie Glenn, wife of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth; Annie was what NASA wanted the wives of its seven astronauts to be…Betty Grissom, wife of Gus Grissom, the second American to go into space on a suborbital flight.”
In The Astronaut Wives Club, things went on, with the Gemini missions and the Apollo moon missions, and more women were added to the roster as their husbands were chosen to risk their lives. And I was surprised at how risky it really was. On Halloween Night of 1964, a reporter showed up at the door of Faith Freeman’s house, asking about “the accident.” Her husband, Ted Freeman, had died in a crash of his jet, a T-38. The official people, who were supposed to tell a woman if her husband had died, were no where in sight.
The fire in the Apollo 1 capsule was also covered in this book. Lily Koppel writes, “That morning, January 27, 1967, Gus Grissom climbed into the Apollo 1 capsule with his crew, Roger Chaffee and Ed White. This was a dress rehearsal for the actual flight, so while the booster was not fueled, the Apollo 1 capsule would be sealed and pressurized with pure oxygen as they ran through everything, including a T-minus countdown.”
As some of you remember, electricity sparked and caused a fire, and this killed all three astronauts, needlessly, on the launch pad. By 1967, the “protocol” for announcing deaths had tightened up. Betty Grissom was at home, and two of her friends, fellow astronaut wives, just “happened” to come over for a drink, and were there “when Dr. Berry, the astronauts’ physician, arrived” to announce the death. The women who were involved in the space race “knew their unspoken promise, ‘If you need us, come’.”
The book covers the day-to-day lives of the women in the years of the big missions. Obviously, the moon missions were covered, including Apollo 11 which landed humans on the moon, and Apollo 13, which did not. Jim Lovell is now renowned for saying, “Houston, we have a problem”
Eventually the moon missions ended with Apollo 17. Barbara Cernan was waiting for her husband, Geno Cernan, to come back. (He did, safely.) Lily Koppel writes, “Barbara sat in the dark…On his previous Apollo 10 mission, a “dry run” for Apollo 11, Geno had radioed back to Houston that riding around the moon was a piece of cake… ‘It was definitely not a piece of cake for me,’ said Barbara. ‘If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home’.”
And that is what The Astronauts Wives Club is about. Detailed, fascinating, and going into the present, with “where they are now.” It is about friendships and heartbreaks and bonds that cannot be broken. “If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home.”