Unless you’ve been pretty much buried under a rock for the last number of months, you’ve probably heard about the best-selling book The Martian by Andy Weir and the new Matt Damon-starring film adaptation coming out this coming weekend. It was one of my favorite books to come out last year, and I highly recommend it, especially if you’re not much of a sci-fi person, because Weir writes his tale so entertainingly you will actually *enjoy* the way he explains science.
But this isn’t a review of The Martian. This is a review of another book to read if, like me, you have developed an affinity for space-age era books that center on the people involved, enjoyed the film Apollo 13, like anything retro, or just want to hear more gossipy behind-the-scenes tidbits about the space program.
I have not seen the ABC show based on the book, as I have Netflix TV and not Traditional TV, but here’s a trailer to give you a bit of an impression:
It’s attempting to fill the retro soap opera void left by Mad Men, which I can appreciate.
The book tells the true story of the *other* side of the space program – what it was like to suddenly have your family thrust into the spotlight, have your life dictated by NASA, be on the cover of Life magazine, watch your husband become an American Hero, try desperately to not let your marriage fall apart even when it does, and keep your head held high if and when tragedy strikes. I do not envy these women.
One of the first among NASA’s many unofficial rules was: if you don’t have a happy marriage, you won’t have a spaceflight.
They were originally Air Force and Navy wives, used to their husbands being gone for long periods of time in Korea or on test flights, and all had rehearsed what it would be like if their husband didn’t come home. They had to be “perfect.” Instead of being hidden away, living in secrecy like the cosmonauts NASA was hoping to surpass in short order, the Mercury 7, the first batch of astronauts to be followed by the New Nine and the Fourteen, and their wives would live in the spotlight. While their husbands worked hard to get into space, to stay in space, to survive in space, and to explore space, their wives were held up as icons. They had to stay trim, dress well, be courteous to the invasive press, and be the perfect hostess no matter the circumstance. The author calls them the original reality stars, and there’s definite truth to that.
There were good days with the bad. The astronauts and their wives got to meet influential people, get perks and financial bonuses, live in beautiful homes, and the wives especially could beam proudly as their husbands achieved new heights – literally and figuratively – in the space program. The wives, even with a few personality clashes, formed a tight-knit network to support each other through press conferences, magazine and newspaper features, long waits during flights, aftermath of disasters, and through more than a few eventual divorces. Some had a stoic serenity about this life they were thrust into, some had a sense of humor, and some couldn’t handle it well. It’s interesting to think about where you might have landed on the spectrum under similar circumstances, and though it isn’t a primary focus of the narrative, where a life of faith would help.
Though the book jumps around a little bit, I still felt really connected to the story of these women, while at the same time getting a good background on the early space program as well. It was a popular book club choice last summer, but with The Martian and the news about water on Mars, it might make a timely selection if you haven’t yet tackled it. In my mind, getting the women’s side of major historical events is always a welcome and fulfilling experience.
If you’re interested in learning more about the early space program, I highly recommend the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, partly based on the book A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin. One of the episodes is on “The Original Wives Club.” Also, you might also try the Tom Wolfe classic The Right Stuff.