Who Could Ever Compete With The Moon? The True Stories Of The Astronaut Wives Club

In 1959, NASA announced the formation of the Mercury Seven – seven highly trained astronauts tasked with piloting spaceflights of the Mercury program from 1961 to 1963. For the men, it was an exciting opportunity to do what they had spent countless years training to do, but for their wives it brought about unexpected fame and media attention.

Their story was soon turned into a bestselling book and TV series, titled The Astronaut Wives Club in 2015. It delved deep into the lives of the seven wives and how they coped with their newfound prominence – but what was true, who were they, and how did their experience compare to other astronaut’s wives? Let’s find out.

From Obscurity To Front Page News

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In the 1950s, space travel was something to marvel at. Man wouldn’t land on the moon until 1969, but NASA was working hard at making that a reality.

When the Mercury Seven were announced in 1959, it was inevitable that there would be a media frenzy, but while the men had their heads down (or up in space) the press concentrated on the women left behind. The wives of Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton had no idea what was about to happen… but who were these women?

Rene Carpenter

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Rene Carpenter was the wife of Scott Carpenter, who went on to become the second American in space. The platinum blonde with a radiant smile was supposedly John F. Kennedy’s favorite wife. Rene was 30 years old at the time and already a mother to four children.

She was one of the four wives of Scott, who had seven children in total. Rene and Scott eventually divorced, and she went on to become a syndicated newspaper columnist, a TV presenter and a member of an elite social circle that included other high profile names. More on that later…

Trudy Cooper

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Wife of Gordo Cooper, Trudy was also a licensed pilot – something not that common in 1950s America. Trudy was a largely quiet woman, seemingly shy in the press. The pair married in 1947, after meeting when Trudy was a flight instructor.

They had two daughters together, Camala Keoki and Janita Lee, who were both still little at the time of their parents’ fame. The couple would later go on to divorce in 1971, but a lot happened in their 24 years of marriage. Not only did the press catch on to a lot of it, but much of the drama was covered up, too.

Annie Glenn

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Annie was the wife of John Glenn, the very first American to orbit the Earth. In many ways, Annie and John represented the clean-cut American couple, something that NASA was elated about. The pair met when they were both still toddlers, later telling the press that they couldn’t remember a time when they didn’t know each other.

Now 98 years old, Annie would remain married to John until his death in 2016. The couple was married for 73 years and eight months and had two children and two grandchildren. Not bad at all, right? Their happy union would be a rarity compared to their peers.

Betty Grissom

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Wife of Gus Grissom, Betty went above and beyond to support her astronaut husband. The couple had two sons together, Scott and Mark. More than anything, Betty valued the time that they could spend together as a family.

More often than not, she would run herself ragged completing all of the major chores and raising the boys during the week, so the weekends could be spent making memories with her husband. Gus also refused to let his work interfere with his home life, completing any technical reading or training after the boys were asleep. Still, running a house, raising kids and having an astronaut husband couldn’t have been easy – and it would all end in tragedy.

Jo Schirra

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Wally Schirra was a naval aviator turned astronaut, backed up by his wife Jo. She was the stepdaughter of renowned Admiral, James L. Holloway, Jr – and was well-versed in the do’s and don’ts of being a supportive wife. The couple had two children together, Walter and Suzanne.

Jo’s mother passed down a plethora of wisdom to Jo that helped her cope with the hardships of having a husband in the line of duty. That being said, Schirra was very well put together, and very well-to-do. Etiquette basically ran in her veins.

Louise Shepard

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Louise Shepard was dubbed ‘Saint Louise’ by the other wives, thanks to her calm, serene and ladylike attitude. Her husband was Alan Shepard, the first American to be launched into space. The couple met when Alan went to Principia College in 1942 during his Christmas Break.

By 1944, Alan and Louise were secretly engaged. Out of all of the wives and their husbands, this pair managed to keep a relatively normal level of privacy and spoke little about their home lives, but this often led to Louise being the butt of a lot of jokes. You didn’t really think that “Saint Louise” was a compliment, did you? Her husband was certainly no saint at all.

Marge Slayton

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The last of the Mercury Seven wives, Marge Slayton was married to Deke Slayton. Together, the couple organized astronaut activities. Slayton had a mother hen-like quality, and would often take the other wives under her wing.

Marge would dish out peppy advice when it was needed the most, when their husbands were on dangerous missions or were having other issues. Although she was the one that others turned to, Marge had a few skeletons in her closet that she didn’t want to be outed. It may have all looked like the ’50s American dream, but that wasn’t always the case.

Expectation VS Reality

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At the time, being the wife of any man in service – be it military, naval, or otherwise – was a big responsibility. You had to behave in a certain way, hold yourself well and not cause a scene. Embarrassing yourself meant embarrassing your husband, and that was a big no-no. It was an even bigger no-no when your husband was an astronaut and the media were watching your every move.

Every minor thing could be speculated upon, from friendly conversations with other men to details about your private life dating way back to before you were even married. Some of the wives dealt better than others.

Marge Had Been Married Before

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To maintain the squeaky-clean image, Marge had to hide the fact that she was a divorcee from the press. Not only had she been previously married, she also came from an underprivileged background.

Despite being known as “Mother Marge”, Marge had to keep her previous love-life under wraps for fear of causing a full-on scandal. In an era when being divorced was frowned upon and sex before marriage was a massive taboo, the news would have hit the front page, if it had gotten out. These days, that just wouldn’t happen.

The Wives Thought They Looked Like “Stepford Wives”

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During one of the group’s first public appearances, the press immediately honed in on the wives’ feelings about the missions. “What do your wives think?” the reporters asked. The official answer was, “proud and excited”, while in reality a lot of the wives were terrified of losing their husbands in an awful accident.

Wife of Apollo 12 Astronaut Pete Conrad, Jane Dreyfus, believed that they all of the wives looked like cardboard cutouts. “I think we look like Stepford Wives, don’t you? Because we all tried to be so calm and cool and everything, but we were a far cry from Stepford Wives.”

The Husbands Weren’t Always Faithful

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While the spotlight was turned onto the wives, it was the husbands who had the potential to create a huge scandal. NASA went to great lengths to sweep anything racy under the rug, including their infamous escapades at Cape Canaveral.

Far away from their wives in Texas, the astronauts were living it up at the Cape, an “off-limits playground” full to the brim with groupies that wanted nothing more than to please their heroes. From stewardesses to hotel clerks and waitresses, the men couldn’t go anywhere without women throwing themselves at them. A lot of them took the bait, thinking their wives would never find out…

Betty Grissom Received Hate Mail

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Betty first cottoned on to what was really going on when her husband was away. She received a threatening letter in the mail addressed to her husband that read: “How can a good fellow like you with two charming children have a no-good, two-timing wife?” read the letter from an unnamed woman.

Confused as she hadn’t been unfaithful, Betty confronted her husband about who this woman was. Gus denied any wrong doing wholeheartedly, but when Betty asked him about the other men, he remained silent, refusing to confirm or deny. The men were having their fill of the “Cape Cookies”, but some were worse than others.

The Notorious “Go-Go Crew”

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While the wives of Mercury’s Seven had it bad, wives of other astronauts were going through the same ordeals, not knowing exactly what their husbands were up to when they were away. The worst offenders were thought to be Alan Shepard, Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon, dubbed the “Go-Go Crew”.

All three of the men drove matching gold corvettes and wore gold aviators and blue flight suits. The women loved it. Shepard was spotted at swinging parties, as well as sneaking a prostitute into his hotel room. He was photographed, but NASA managed to veto the publishing of the pictures.

Betty Grissom Believed Her Husband Was Murdered By NASA

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As the lives of the wives progressed, some of them remained loyal to NASA and their husbands even after divorces – but Betty and her sons made headlines in 1999 when they claimed that Gus was purposefully killed in the simulated Apollo I launch.

Gus, along with two other astronauts, was killed in a flash fire that was caused by the pure oxygen atmosphere in the capsule. In the ’90s Scott Grissom was given access to the capsule in which his father perished in 1967. He found a metal plate behind the control switch, and believes NASA killed his father to stop him from being the first man to walk on the moon.

The Wives Were So Stressed They Turned To Drinking And Drugs

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While some of the wives like the ever collected “Saint Louise” managed to hold it all together, a lot of the other women turned to substances to help them get through the stress. Not just gin and tonics and bourbon, but tranqulizers too.

“Yes, some of us did ask our doctors for a trauqilizer for limited times, just to handle the barrage of reporters and the neighbor’s predictions that there would be accidents. It was nerve wracking,” one of the wives said. Susan Borman, the wife of Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman, became so reliant on alcohol that she had to go to rehab.

The Majority Of Marriages Ended In Divorce

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Despite NASA’s best efforts to maintain the illusion that the astronauts were clean-cut one-woman men, the majority of marriages ended in divorce due to infidelity. Most of the Mercury Seven would eventually split, and it was the same with other wives of different astronauts of the time.

Harriet and Donn Eisele, the command pilot of Apollo 7, divorced when Donn had confessed to seeing another woman. At first, he denied Harriet’s accusations, calling her crazy. When she offered to see a therapist, he replied, “You can’t, I’ll lose my job.” The couple divorced, which led to Donn being fired anyway.

Rene Carpenter Became NASA’s Nightmare

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Though Rene gushed about her husband Scott, they too divorced in 1972. No longer the submissive wife, Rene went on to become a celebrity in her own right, establishing a successful career as a newspaper columnist and TV presenter. She was the ultimate feminist.

Rene went from being the cookie-cutter wife of an astronaut to being the voice of women who were often under the radar. In her writing and TV career she advocated birth control, even doing demonstrations on how to use diaphragms – hardly something that impressed NASA, even after the divorce. After her show “Everywoman” she went on to back the Committee for National Health Insurance.

Things Changed When The Men Came Back From Space

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Cheating wasn’t the only reason that some of the marriages ended. Many wives reported feeling like their husbands had come back from their missions changed in some way. According to nurses that treated the men when they came back to earth, they had a “wild look”.

“Who could ever compete with the moon?” said Faye Stafford. “I was lucky if I could come in second.” The ex-wife of Buzz Aldrin claimed that her husband returned to her “heartbreakingly cold”. She could do nothing as he turned to alcohol, sinking further into depression. “I was always alone,” said Joan Aldrin. “I am a talker and I’m very direct. It was hard for me.”

Their Bond Saved Their Lives – But Not All Of Them

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While the men had changed, so had the women – some beyond repair. The women always looked after each other, bringing round Tupperware meals while the men were away and popping champagne when they landed safely back on earth. Unfortunately, despite their lifelong bond, some of the women couldn’t cope.

Pat White, wife of Ed White (who tragically died in the same accident that killed Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee in 1967) committed suicide a week before the 1991 reunion of the AWC. Pat had never been able to get over her husband’s passing. Dotty Duke, the wife of Charlie Duke, also had suicidal thoughts when her husband was dispatched on a mission. Dotty claims the only thing that saved her life was the Astronaut’s Wives Club.