RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In a time long, long ago - that would be the late 1950s - America's fears over the Communist threat reached a new height after the Soviet Union put the satellite Sputnik into orbit. Suddenly, America was trailing badly in a competition that would come to define the next decade: the race to space. As then-Senator Lyndon Johnson put it: I'll be damned if I sleep by the light of a red moon.
So, in the spring of 1959, America kicked off its space age, introducing the country's first astronauts, the Mercury Seven. Their story is well-known. What's not is the story of their wives. In her new book, "The Astronaut Wives Club," author Lily Koppel recounts the true-life tale of those women, women who, in an instant, were catapulted into the public eye on a grand scale.
LILY KOPPEL: I really see them as America's first reality stars. These women who were unknown military wives in the background, married to test pilots, obviously had to be pretty brave to even be married to a man with that kind of high-risk job. But all of a sudden, America's looking to them as model housewives, and they're going to have a role throughout the space race of presenting the perfect American family to the rest of the world.
MONTAGNE: Which Life magazine accommodated them in doing, because it immediately made a quite lucrative offer to the seven families so that they could have special access. Tell us about the cover of your book, which is a Life magazine photograph. And you describe these wives as standing around this capsule, looking like models, showing off a Maytag.
KOPPEL: Absolutely. This particular picture was the wives' first Life magazine cover shot, and you see these different characters emerge: Rene Carpenter, who's platinum blonde and quite glamorous, Annie Glenn, who is married to John, had a stutter, so she preferred not to say too much. Betty Grissom was from Indiana, and all the other wives saw her as less sophisticated.
But it's a quite humorous situation, because Life magazine asked all of the wives to wear pastel shirtwaist dresses. Of course, all the wives show up in the prescribed dress, except for Rene Carpenter, who shows up in this...
MONTAGNE: This sun dress, almost like an evening gown.
KOPPEL: Yeah. It's a bit of a cocktail number, and it's splashed with these big pink-and-red roses, and the other wives thought it was pretty bold. She wowed them, and I think really made the photo.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about Annie Glenn. Of course, John Glenn has got to be the most famous of all the astronauts. Their marriage also was seen as perfect by all the other wives. Read us a little passage of your description of Annie Glenn.
KOPPEL: OK. (Reading) Annie was just what NASA wanted the wives of its seven astronauts to be: a squeaky clean American housewife standing proudly beside her husband with her spatula, ready to whip up something tasty for her hero who's beating those godless Russians in the space race.
MONTAGNE: Which is a delightful description of what, in fact, was a very good marriage.
KOPPEL: They definitely had the right stuff as a couple. I mean, they met as toddlers in a playpen, and are still together to this day.
MONTAGNE: Of course, some of these marriages were as perfect as they were presented, but there was a lot of temptation for these guys.
KOPPEL: Yeah, these guys were alpha dogs. And during the week, they are down at Cape Canaveral in Florida, and they're training, but they're also unwinding. And they're followed by astronaut groupies, this new breed which were referred to as Cape Cookies: young, pretty, tanned girls who want nothing more than to meet one of America's new astronauts.
MONTAGNE: So you had some of these guys being real flyboys, not even being so discreet. Others, the marriages were good. But women were used to their husbands being away and being fully dedicated to this job.
KOPPEL: Absolutely. These women were really in it to support their husbands from the very beginning. One of the early prerequisites was no solid marriage, no space flight. Rene Carpenter told me, you know, we were entertaining machines, eyes glued on our husbands' careers. Betty Grissom, she worked like hell to put Gus through engineering school, so much that he later looked back and he told her, you know, you're really the astronaut in this family.
MONTAGNE: Well, that gets us to what might be called the ultimate test for the wives, and that was launch day, the day of the mission. They really had to develop from scratch how to deal with all the sort of pomp and the press, and then this terrible anxiety because, really, no one knew if this was safe.
KOPPEL: No. And all of the original seven wives had all seen an early test firing, where the rocket blew up in front of their eyes, and from the beginning, they sort of developed this gallows humor. But launch day was the true test, and that really came to define what this strange new role of being one of America's astronaut wives was.
MONTAGNE: Well, the ultimate fear, of course, was that there would come a day when a husband would not come back. And that did happen to one of these original Mercury Seven wives, Betty Grissom, on January 27th, 1967.
KOPPEL: Yeah. It's one of the first NASA tragedies. Three men were caught inside the Apollo One capsule, which burst into flames. They all died on the ground during this preflight test.
MONTAGNE: We find out that Gus Grissom had told Betty just what he wanted, in case he ever didn't come back. And she did what he wanted.
KOPPEL: Yeah. Betty is a completely original American character and someone who has a lot of heart. She's in her late 80s. She remembers with such clarity these moments that passed between her and Gus. He never liked Betty wearing black. He thought it was morbid. And he told her once: If I die, I want you to have a party. And she just looked at him and she said, OK. We'll have a party.
MONTAGNE: You did spend many hours talking with these women. One thing the club of the title of your book, "The Astronaut Wives Club," it did exist. But what has that come to symbolize for them?
KOPPEL: These women were a tight band of sisters, and it really went back to the idea that they were thrust into this new role and that their husbands were incredibly competitive. And they basically turned to each other from day one, and they said: If there's any way that we're going to survive in this sort of cutthroat NASA world, we're going to have to exist above the competition and really band together. And the women, in fact, they've maintained stronger bonds than the astronauts themselves.
MONTAGNE: Author Lily Koppel. Her new book is "The Astronaut Wives Club." Thanks very much for joining us.
KOPPEL: Thanks so much.