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The Astronaut Wives Club
A few days before Christmas 1968, Susan Borman got a visit from Chris Kraft at her home in Houston. Borman was the heavy-drinking wife of Frank Borman, who was about to become one of the first three humans to see the dark side of the Moon. Kraft was in charge of Mission Control, where he called himself “God”.
His visit was unprecedented, but then so was Borman’s mission. Kraft had driven out to the cluster of bayside homes where most of the Apollo crews lived to make sure that Mrs Borman could handle what was coming.
She knew that whatever happened Nasa would expect total self-control. In return, she took a deep breath and asked for honesty. “Hey, Chris,” Lily Koppel recounts her saying in this deceptively frothy account of suburban space-age desperation. “I’d really appreciate it if you would level with me. I really, really want to know what you think their chances are of getting home.”
“OK, how’s fifty-fifty?”
This was not what the public or even most of the astronauts’ wives were being told. It was what Neil Armstrong was told before his Apollo 11 mission, but he didn’t let on until shortly before his death last year. It was horrendous information, but also privileged information. Having Chris Kraft level with you in your own living room was, in a masochistic way, one of the perks of being in the elite of the elite. There were other perks, more generally available: free Corvettes, Houston high society invitations if you were into that sort of thing, suites at the swanky new Cocoa Beach Holiday Inn for launches from Cape Kennedy.
The most useful was a slice of the seven-figure contract with Life magazine that was shared among the astronauts. The most coveted was tea and a tour of the White House with Jackie Kennedy, one on one, although for this your man really had to make the grade. He had to be chosen for a landmark mission, put his life on the line, come back smiling and be able to present himself to the world with you, the perfect wife, the one the real wives liked to call Mrs Primly Stable.
Annie Glenn, wife of John, the first American in orbit, pulled off the Primly role better than any of them. What few people knew was that the reason she appeared so content to smile and say virtually nothing even in her own home was that she had a debilitating stammer.
Fifty years on, Helene Hadfield has run Mrs Glenn a close second in the all-time astrowife perfection stakes as the wife of Commander Chris Hadfield of the International Space Station. “Do you mind if I clean a few things while we talk?” she asked The Times last week as her husband prepared to drop back to Earth after six months away, and what could have been more primly stable than that?
In 2013, probably nothing. But the real test of stability predated Mrs Hadfield. This was the “death watch” — the Earthbound vigil, with networks camped out on your lawn, while your husband hurtled into space in the nose-cone of an adapted and still very experimental missile.
Most wives gave the appearance of coping at the time, and the director Ron Howard recreated the spectacle brilliantly in Apollo 13. But almost all of them suffered when the cameras weren’t looking, and many cracked up completely.
Mrs Borman satisfied herself with booze, but Pat White, the widow of Ed White, one of three astronauts burnt alive on a pre-launch test for Apollo 1, committed suicide 30 years later. In the meantime dozens more found that the reward for standing by their husbands to help them get selected was divorce once Nasa let them go.
None of that is sugar-coated in this book, whose story turns out to be much more than a pale reflection of the space race. It’s an integral part of it and one in which the all-conquering space agency appears in the new guise of heartless bastard.
Given the $110 billion that Nasa spent on the Apollo programme in today’s dollars, you might have thought that serious thought and money might have been devoted to supporting the families of the astronauts who fell by the wayside on the long and arduous journey to the Moon. It wasn’t.
When Gus Grissom died along with Ed White in a fire caused by negligence, his widow had to sue for compensation. When lesser-known astronauts died on training flights, their families were expected to up sticks quietly and relocate themselves away from the charmed cul-de-sacs of Houston’s “Togethersville”.
When Marge Slayton, wife of Deke Slayton, the co-ordinator of Astronaut Activities, decided to ask Chris Kraft for help holding the astronauts’ marriages together, she got as far as his door but didn’t dare to knock.
Looking back, most told Koppel that they wouldn’t have missed the excitement for the world. But the price in tears was high. Who could compete with the Moon?
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