Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Astronaut Wives' Club

The Astronaut Wives' Club

Isolation, divorce, suicide - the cost of Nasa's mission to reach the Moon was borne heaviest by the wives of the astronauts. In their struggle to cope they formed their own support network.
"Nasa wanted perfect wives, perfect children, perfect homes. There was certainly some pressure there." Susan Borman, Apollo 8 wife.

At the height of the Apollo space programme of the 1960s, many would-be astronauts aching to be picked believed that their selection was largely based upon the success of their marriages. Marriage, it seems, was one of the rules of astronaut selection.

The adventures of the men have, of course, been told many times. They became heroes and household names. But the women who were left on Earth have, for the most part, remained silent about their experiences of this extraordinary period.

I knew he would never be able to show me the love I needed or make me a priority and I became suicidal

Many of them formed extremely close friendships with each other which have endured to this day in the form of reunions for what must be one of the most select societies ever - the Astronaut Wives Club.

"It's interesting to me that the women have remained closer than the men," says Faye Stafford, former wife of Apollo 10 astronaut Thomas Stafford.

"There was just so much intense competition between the men I think it's still difficult for them to handle that."

But being the wife of an astronaut was often a fraught and lonely affair. Most of them had been military wives. When their husbands joined Nasa they suddenly found themselves thrust into a terrifying public arena. They were expected to attend fashion shows and charity events, offer political opinions on current affairs and act as role models for good Americans.

It wasn't for the faint hearted.

Media spotlight

"None of us were prepared for the exposure," says Ms Stafford . "I'm shy. I didn't like all the attention. And those dinners. I used to call them those 'casts of thousands dinners'. But you wanted to support your husband and so you did it."

Just as the media today pursue families of troops in the Gulf, for any sniff of a story, the Apollo programme, which ran from 1961 to 1975, provoked a relentless and remorseless media frenzy.

Wives of astronauts had to maintain their composure for a worldwide audience at some of the most stressful moments in their lives. While their husbands were strapped inside a giant rocket, television crews and newspapermen would crowd the front lawns and build temporary towers to transmit the family's reactions to the world.

"Some of them actually moved into the home so they could photograph us watching the launches on television. We used to call it the death watch", says Susan Borman.

None of the women had careers. The astronaut wives' existence mostly meant you stayed at home and took the responsibility away from your husband so he could function in his highly competitive world.

"Most of us were still homemakers. I would have liked to have had a career. Especially once the children left home. It was isolating," says Ms Stafford.

Average pay

"Sometimes a protocol officer at Nasa would summon us to give us advice such as give your husband a good breakfast everyday and make sure you keep him away from stress at home. But on the whole we weren't given much support from Nasa," says Valerie Anders, Apollo 8 wife.

And contrary to what many people thought, astronauts were not exorbitantly paid; they and their families got by on military or government salaries.

"They were sending us into Houston society. It was all hats and gloves," says Ms Stafford. "I don't think they took into account that we were on government salaries and we really couldn't afford it all."

It was during this period that the Astronaut Wives' Club was born, a place where the women behind the Apollo astronauts could share the personal and emotional impact of the intense schedules and heavy public scrutiny they received and find the support they desperately needed.

They would gather for coffee or go and sit with whoever had a husband who was on a launch.

"We kind of filled in for each other when the men were away. We'd have dinner together and look after each other's children," says Gracia Lousma, wife of astronaut Jack Lousma.

But for many couples the reality of the space programme was a harsh one.

Far from being part of the "All American Dream", the Apollo programme was actually pulling them apart.

In the case of Dotty Duke, wife of astronaut Charlie Duke, the loneliness led her to a state of such despair that she considered taking her own life.


"Charlie was a complete workaholic. The space programme was all he thought about. I knew he would never be able to show me the love I needed or make me a priority and I became suicidal," she says.

But there was a perception among some at Nasa that the image of the astronaut as family man, as good husband, had become so important to the public profile of being an astronaut that it was essential to remaining in the programme.

"There were many couples who were staying together merely to keep up the appearance," says Ms Duke. When the first divorce hit the programme it shook the astronaut community but it also opened the gates. Quite quickly more and more couples started to separate.

"I used to go outside and just look up at the Moon," says Ms Stafford. "It was hard for us wives to understand what the men were really experiencing. And of course they were treated like royalty. It was hard for them to come home. What could ever compete with that? I was lucky if I could come second."


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