If you’re at all like me, the definitive end of AMC’s Mad Men was a sad day in the TV landscape. Clearly TV execs saw an opportunity for more retro TV and launched another 1960s-era drama, The Astronaut Wives Club, which has its season finale today.
Based on the book of letters, interviews, and anecdotes collected by author and journalist Lily Koppel, The Astronaut Wives Club chronicles the lives of the wives of the Mercury Seven, America’s first astronauts. The series is set against the backdrop of the Cold War Space Race—when second-wave feminism was gaining steam, the Beatles were rising to fame, and “the pill” had just been invented. It was also a time in America when the picture of a perfect American family was still very much rooted in the home, and being a woman often meant being a housewife. Those tensions provide plenty of fodder for the show, but ultimately the series showcases the community formed by the “astrowives” as they balance the demands of marriage, motherhood, and overnight fame.
The reviews for the show have been mediocre at best, but I, for one, truly enjoyed it—and not just for the costumes. In an age when we’re inundated with the pettiness of Desperate Housewives and the narcissistic shenanigans of Lena Dunham’s Girls, The Astronaut Wives Club reveals portraits of dynamic women who were pressured to be perfect in a situation that was anything but. Here are some reasons why I thought the show was worth watching.
01. The women are complex and real.
The women of The Astronaut Wives Club are based on the real astrowives, whose lives were chronicled in near-Kardashian-level detail during the Mercury program’s days. The wives have to cope with the extreme stress of watching their husbands launch into space without any guarantee of return. And in many cases, their husbands were very publicly cheating on them, all while NASA kept the wives under a close watch.
What I like about the show is that the women didn’t feel reduced to mere caricatures. Each wife has traits that make her both flawed and exemplary. The seven women are each different in personality, style, and upbringing—Louise Shepard and Annie Glenn are perfectly poised; Jo Schirra is a “lady who lunches,” following all the social musts recommended by the magazine The Navy Wife; small-town newcomer Betty Grissom bubbles with wide-eyed wonder at the opportunities their new lives brings; Marge Slayton and Trudy Cooper are outspoken and quiet, respectively, but tough as nails; and the colorful Rene Carpenter loves to defy convention, such as the time she wore a scoop-neck floral sheath instead of the plain and proper shirtdress NASA mandated for a Life photo shoot.
The wives have moments when they don’t agree with each other, when their own pain or fears alienate one another, or when jealousy or envy can get the better of them. The show highlights their complexity—not portraying the women one-dimensionally as the media and NASA would have it but rather capturing the grit and grace of daily life.
02. Their bond in the “club” is inspiring and timeless.
What’s also refreshing about The Astronaut Wives Club is how it captures the beauty and strength that can result when people facing similar struggles come together. Despite their personality differences, the ladies learn to lean on one another for support as they watch their husbands orbit into space. During each space launch, for instance, they’d gather together, bring a space-themed plate to share, and watch the rockets send their men into perilous heights. They had launch sleepovers, too, with children in tow, so they could take shifts listening for any updates from NASA. When a launch was successful, they held a “Splashdown Party,” popped some bubbly, and congratulated the wife whose husband had a successful flight.
Whenever a wife lost her husband, a heartbreaking reality the show did not ignore, her fellow astrowives were there to hold her up. They all shared advice on handling publicity and defended each other from critics. Betty Grissom even had a hole sawed into the neighboring Schirras’ fence so that the wives could travel through their yards without being gazed at by reporters or fans.
Rene Carpenter said that “this great thing we all share in common makes me love these people fiercely.” Being an astrowife was no picnic, and they relied on each other for emotional support, encouraging each other to be bold in times of stress and anxiety. As Louise Shepard reflected, “The thing about sisters is they challenge you. They make you braver than you ever could be without them. Sisters stand by you when no one else does. They help you overcome things you never imagined you could.”
Their sisterhood harks back to what Aristotle once described as “virtuous friendship”—a relationship that is not based on self-interest but on striving together toward a greater good. In an age that glamorizes the constant publicity of celebrities, the story of the astrowives is a refreshing reminder that one must take measures to keep a sense of self, and sometimes it’s with shared fellowship of those who understand what you’re going through that that can be best achieved.
03. The complicated experience of being a woman in a man’s world is at the forefront.
The show offers a firsthand look at how the women felt about their husbands’ perilous careers, their roles as wives, and the experience of womanhood at the time of the sexual revolution.
Right off the bat we see the misogyny of mid-century society—the women are seen as nothing other than the astrowives, disregarded in their individuality or identity. The women faced reporters whose questions centered on what they were cooking for dinner. And whenever any of the wives showed too much personality in front of the cameras, NASA’s PR guy would remind them to be less vocal and stick to prepared speeches.
But the astrowives proved to be more than just the pretty faces that the program’s public affairs expected. Rene Carpenter, who wanted to pursue a career in journalism, was practically laughed at by an editor who suggested that a “little lady” such as herself should write a housekeeping column instead. Taking it as a challenge, she produced a stack of articles on issues of racial discrimination and equality, which she slammed down before the unwitting editor. Mic drop. (And she did go on to become an accomplished journalist.)
04. Sacrifice is captured in a multidimensional way.
The seven women are devoted to their families, wholeheartedly. Some had given up careers or had to face varying challenges in their new public roles. Trudy Cooper was a licensed pilot when she met her husband Gordon, and she was set on joining a women’s transcontinental air race, the Powder Puff Derby. She had left her husband because of his infidelity, but when NASA came knocking on his door, he needed to produce a wife because the program believed that the best astronauts would come from supportive marriages and stable family lives. Trudy conceded, partly out of her own fascination with flight but also to back Gordon, whom she believed was the best pilot she had ever seen. Though it was difficult for her to come back, their sham marriage eventually gave way to mutual respect and reconciliation.
In one way or another, all have made sacrifices. The show portrays their love for their husbands and their embrace of their roles. Rene once wrote that she held no trace of bitterness for it. “For though I am conditioned to giving up large chunks of our lives to Scott’s work, I function haphazardly as a woman without him.”
We often think of courage when we think of rockets launching into outer space. But the show does a great job of showing how much courage it took to be the one who stayed behind. Patricia Collins, the wife of Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, was known to articulately express the sentiments of astrowives of the time. In a 1974 article for the Boston Globe, she shared that although she was proud of her husband and delighted to be a part of such an adventure, she suffered a “chest aching from holding my breath, heart trembling to burst right through my shirt.” Take this poem she wrote on the eve of her husband’s trip to the moon, telling him of her support while being open about her true feelings: “I could have sought by wit or wile/Your bright dream to dim. And yet/If I’d swayed you with a smile/My reward would be regret./Take my silence, though intended;/Fill it with the joy you feel./Take my courage, now pretended—/You, my love, will make it real.
As Confucius once said, “The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.” If there’s something worth gaining from The Astronaut Wives Club, it’s the palpable sense of feminine strength and a refreshing reminder of how much of history has depended on it.