In writing my new book, The Astronaut Wives Club, which tells the real story about the women who stood behind some of the biggest heroes in American history, I learned that many of the astronauts who walked on the Moon had marriages that fell apart after they came back to Earth. I wondered: how is this possible?
Think about it, pretend you're a hot dog astronaut in one of those fab 1960s marshmallow suits (back in the days of the Apollo program, only grade-A American men qualified for the job, but we're fantasizing here). You train for ten long years for your mission, then travel a quarter of a million miles away -- to walk on the first planet, besides our own, that humans have ever set foot on, and perhaps (if you're a cute, shy blond from Ohio named Neil) you plant the American flag in the lunar surface, reminiscent of the floury texture of a Betty Crocker cake mix.
Undeniably, one of the most touching moments of your mission comes when you finally have a quiet moment to yourself and stare from space into the darkness and pick out home -- the brilliant blue planet Earth -- the only color in a vast sea of nothingness.
"About as big as the end of my thumb," says Jim ("Houston, we have a problem") Lovell, who Tom Hanks played in the movie Apollo 13. For Jim, it was terrifying how small his home was, but its beauty enthralled him. All that he loved was back there on that tiny blue marble. Wouldn't that quintessentially existential experience of seeing how we really are make your love grow infinitely stronger? That's what I thought. For some, like the famous commander of Apollo 13, Jim Lovell, it did. Other Moon couples weren't so lucky.
Now imagine you're the astronaut's wife -- waiting in your ranch home with its phosphorescent green front lawn back in the wonderfully named Houston "space burbs" by NASA. Waiting at home for her husband Jim was Marilyn, an attractive brunette mother of four, who on occasion could appear a sultry Liz Taylor type. Marilyn always told her BFFs, "I can't live without Jim." She was always a glass half-full gal, and even when Jim was stranded in a crippled spacecraft during his harrowing Apollo 13 mission, she kept the faith and refused to believe what all of the TV broadcasters were saying: that her love really might not make it back.
So why did so many space marriages fall apart? After all, back when the space program was ramping up in the sixties and the astronauts were the rock stars of their day, the astronauts and their wives were treated like America's first reality stars, and it seemed the wives especially were living a fairy tale existence. There were out-of-this-world goodies that came with the instant celebrity: Emilio Pucci outfitted the wives for the launches and they got to have tête-à-têtes with Jackie Kennedy over tea at the White House. And they banded together in the universe's most exclusive women's club --The Astronaut Wives Club, where they shared with each other the unusual stress of having a hubby who rode rockets for a day job. But they also had the challenging role of beaming the ideal image of the '50s and '60s housewife to the rest of the world for NASA and Life magazine, which bought the rights to their "exclusive" stories for half a million dollars in 1959. They were constantly exposed to the public, with the Astro Wives appearing in and on the cover of Life magazine countless times in the decade leading up to the Moon landing, and its reporters were embedded in their homes.
NASA expected the Astro Wives to be Superwomen and they lived up to the role, sticking by their spaceman's side throughout the space race. But sadly once we landed, after many of the men came back from the Moon, it seemed the dream of the perfect astronaut family (with two and a half perfect kids and an Astro dog named Venus, in the case of one couple), wasn't enough. Of course, some of the more liberated wives kicked Astro Boy to the curb, sick of serving as arm candy for a macho spaceman in aviator glasses, playing "his charming wife."
If you spend a decade keeping the home fires burning bright back on Earth, and believe one day your Astronaut-Prince Charming will return and normal life will resume and you will live happily ever after, the Moon missions (along with the men's often life changing experiences and "Cape Cookies," astronaut groupies who followed around the spacemen at Florida's Cape Kennedy like they were the Rolling Stones) were a hard pill to swallow. Still, it was an incredibly exciting time for the wives and many of them have told me that they wouldn't trade their experience for the world. "Those were the best years of my life," says Marilyn Lovell. Of course, she and Jim -- high school sweethearts who met serving hot lunch together in the cafeteria -- were one of a handful of space marriages that did survive. In the Lovells' case, love conquered all and was stronger than the spellbinding attraction of the Moon and stars.
For others like Buzz Aldrin (the second Moonwalker after Neil) and his actress wife, Joan, things didn't turn out so sweet. On the fabulous round the world "Giant Step" tour that President Nixon sent the Apollo 11 crew and their wives on in 1969, Buzz, who never got over being second on the Moon, began to unravel and would eventually become depressed and an alcoholic, feeling that nothing in his life could trump the Moon. Buzz, who has now been married enough times to lose count, had his marriage to Joan eventually dissolve, representative of so many "space couples" -- divorce being the emotional fallout of the space race, a decade-long pressure cooker environment where everyone in the NASA community made sacrifices.
One night on their trip, Buzz became angrier and angrier as Joan tried to convince him that their lives would "eventually return to normal."
"Joan, I've been to the Moon," said Buzz. "I'm never going to be allowed to live the way I once lived. Neither are you and neither are our kids. Your belief isn't right, it's only a hope and it won't work. Let's try to make it as worthwhile as we can."
They didn't know how much their husbands' trips to space would change their lives on Earth. "It was hard for them to come home," said another wife, Faye Stafford. "Who could ever compete with the Moon? I was lucky if I could come in second."
The wives still meet and get together with their friends -- and surprise, surprise -- remain closer than the astronauts. Marilyn Lovell characterized the wives' enduring female friendships as proving ultimately more powerful than many of the marriages, saying, "I felt like we were on a mission together."
The Astronaut Wives Club (Grand Central) is out in stores now.
Buzz Aldrin's Wife Joan's Steamy Diary Kept During The Apollo 11 World Tour is Quite Buzz-worthy
"...Many drinks by the fire. B pulled a good one & refused to eat w/ us. Got too drunk to really understand what he was talking about. Something about all of us being fake & when I started to cry from just being tired--he thought I was a fake too. Miserable dinner & stayed up for too late & Drank too much--talking to Buzz..."
VIEW THE GALLERY: THE ASTRONAUT WIVES CLUB: EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS
AstronautWivesClub.com: Including Book Club Recipes with original illustrations for "Moon Cake," "Mount Marilyn Martini" by artist Brooke David and more, a special Wives section with photos and background briefs