Marriage Secrets of America's First Astronaut Wives: When Your Husband's Office is Space

Lily Koppel's new book, to be released this week by Grand Central Publishing.Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and John Glenn have been household names since the dawn of NASA's space program. But what about Janet Armstrong, Joan Aldrin, Annie Glenn? Or Susan Borman, Jane Conrad, and Sue Bean?

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Those are just a few of the women behind America’s first astronauts, who raised children, ran households, and dazzled the public by putting on brave faces for reporters, always looking perfectly stylish as they rode, like celebrities, in motorcades.

But behind the scenes, they dealt with rocky marriages, political pressure, relentless groupies, and the ever-present fear that their husbands would be shot into space and never come home again. Together, they formed support networks that are still going strong. Now, decades later, Lily Koppel’s new book “The Astronaut Wives Club” tells their many fascinating stories.

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“We never heard about the emotional side of the Space Age,” Koppel told Yahoo! Shine. Her book, which took three years to research and write, touches on the experiences of the nearly 50 wives whose astronaut husbands were part of the various Gemini and Apollo space and moon missions between 1959 and 1966. It describes how, when their husbands became part of a NASA mission, they were transformed, overnight, into American royalty—having tea with Jackie Kennedy, appearing in the pages of Life magazine—and they were expected to be examples of perfect American housewives.

“We realized we had to be as proper as possible,” Jane Dreyfus (formerly Conrad), told Yahoo! Shine. When husband Pete Conrad was chosen to be the third man on the moon in 1969, the 32-year-old mother of four boys—aged 2, 4, 6, and 8—suddenly had reporters camped out on her lawn. She was given no media training from NASA but, like the others, just figured it out. “This was a time when you always wore hats, stockings, and high heels,” she said. “Decorum was very important.”

Still, the perfection and calm were often a façade, as all the women had been conditioned to live with the idea that their men might die while striving to make history, Koppel explained to Shine. “The fear was absolutely excruciating, and really speaks to the bravery of these women,” she said. “But part of the code was that you never uttered these fears aloud, or it would jinx your husband. And you couldn’t tell your friend, because they’d think you didn’t have the ‘right stuff.’ So they had to be tough and resilient.”

Some of the women didn’t fare well. Susan Borman, whose husband Frank Borman commanded Apollo 8 during the first mission to fly around the moon, battled alcoholism. Pat White, whose husband Ed White was killed during the infamous Apollo 1 tragedy at Cape Canaveral in 1967, committed suicide years later. As the astronauts attained rock-star status, some cheated on their wives and marriages crumbled.

Apollo 12 wives Barbara Gordon, Jane Conrad and Sue Bean. Photo: Grand Central Publishing.“The space program didn’t do much for the marriages,” Dreyfus said. She and her husband, Pete Conrad, divorced in 1990, after he had retired from NASA—right around the time when one of their sons died of lymphoma in his 20s (“I can’t think of that time so well,” she said. “It’s like a fog.”). Conrad died several years later, in a motorcycle accident.

They had already started drifting apart years before, the now-remarried Dreyfus said. “I can’t really blame the men so much. They were away from home so much, had groupies and were pursued,” she explained. “The women got independent having to run things on their own, and those things didn’t make a very good combination.”

During her husband’s mission, though, Dreyfus said her strength hinged on having both family and the other wives around for support, as well as on staying in contact with her astronaut husband while he was in space—something she and the other wives were able to do thanks to the “squawk boxes,” or one-way radios NASA put in their homes.

“I had a squawk box in my bedroom, and it was turned on all the time,” Dreyfus recalled. “When I came home I would race to the bedroom and say, ‘Please talk, please talk, so I know you’re fine!’” The feeling, she said, was like being pregnant and “wanting the baby to kick so you know it’s OK.”

When asked if she would have ever asked Conrad not to go on the dangerous mission, though, she laughed heartily. “It was the most important thing in our lives at that time,” she said. “I don’t think I was so terrified. It wasn’t anything much more frightening than what I’d gotten used to while he was in flight school. Plus, if he’d not been chosen he probably would have been flying in Vietnam, which would have been more terrifying.”

Sue Bean, whose husband, Alan Bean, was the fourth man on the moon, said that the historic missions changed everyone in the family. “It changed us in that it was like being single,” she told Shine, adding that she had a 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son at the time of his first mission. “We wrote checks, made sure the lawn was mowed—you became independent because you had to. So it was good in a way, as we did what we had to do.”

Astro wives Pat White and Pat McDivitt (with White children) at Mission Control, 1965. Photo: Grand Central Pu …But, Bean added, “When your husband goes to the moon and comes home, it’s a tremendous experience—professionally, psychologically—and sometimes they’d say, ‘What do we do now? Where do we go from here?’” All in all, it often caused the men, and the women, to feel bereft. “The people who suffered the most, though, were the children,” Bean said, noting that her husband flew for 13 years, making him largely absent in their lives. 

They, too, wound up divorced, after 23 years of marriage and Alan had retired. “We both changed due to the lifestyle we lived,” Sue said. “Maybe he wanted different things than I did. I wanted him home. But an experience like going to the moon, I don’t think it can’t change you. I still loved him.”

The two have remained good friends and have eight grandchildren. Sue has remarried. Overall, she adds, being an astronaut’s wife was a wonderful experience.

“It was a great American effort,” she said of everyone involved in the space program then. “And it was certainly a labor of love.”

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