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Fly Me to the Moon

LILY KOPPEL ’03

Exploring the women behind America’s astronauts

Lily Koppel ’03 may have been just “moon dust”— as she jokes— during the great age of space exploration, but in her second book, The Astronaut Wives Club, the 32-year-old author deftly transports readers through that era, navigating territory that has seldom been traversed.

With an eye for colorful detail, Koppel tells the stories of the women behind the astronauts, the wives who lived in a Texas “space burb” known ironically as Togethersville, where they baked moon pies and debated the merits of Pepto-Bismol-colored lipstick. It was here that they gathered for coffee and cocktails, trading tips on how to handle the always-present press and bearing the strain of presenting the ideal family to the American public.

“The wives felt the pressure to do everything just so, now that the whole country was watching them,” writes Koppel in the book, released this spring by Grand Central Publishing. The women “found their real selves disappearing behind Life magazine’s depiction of what it meant to be not only the perfect fifties housewife but the perfect astronaut’s wife, molded like the popular Barbie doll, which had first appeared on store shelves that spring,” in 1959. The women, who eventually formed an Astronaut Wives Club, largely kept up the charade of perfection, even while their husbands passed long stretches away from home, training for life-threatening missions, and cavorting with “cape cookies,” mistresses they kept in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Of course, the world of an astronaut’s wife didn’t include only hardships, as Koppel’s entertaining account points out. Not only did banks offer steeply discounted home loans, but the astronaut families received Corvettes for $1 a year, had the chance to visit with the glamorous Kennedys, and were routinely given presents—some odd, like the $1,000 gift certificates to Neiman Marcus each of the wives received anonymously from a priest.

The book often reads like a novel, energized by each moon mission when lives hang in jeopardy, and when a wife might turn her eyes skyward after sunset and consider her man on the moon. Koppel says that in her reporting for the book, many wives spoke about “what a magical era it was, setting this completely audacious goal and then achieving it.” She adds, “In the Facebook-Twitter world, our horizons are reduced to this very little screen. Four decades ago, we were looking up at the moon.”

Koppel’s successful first book, The Red Leather Diary, which escorts readers through the love and cultural affairs of a young Jewish woman in 1930s New York City, was mandatory reading for Barnard’s entering class of 2012. Like her second book, it gave voice to a woman of recent history and may shift a reader’s perceptions of that time period.

Growing up in Chicago as the daughter of an artist and a writer, Koppel says that in college she began thinking about these hidden tales of women, her writing influenced by Margaret Vandenburg’s first-year seminar. In Vandenburg’s class, she began thinking about “the different quality to women’s stories,” how they are “often told in a subversive way,” and that their “stories are told in the margins, in scraps.” This mindset enabled her to recognize the significance of a red diary found buried in a steamer trunk that had been left in the dumpster outside her Upper West Side building. The diary prompted her to track down its writer, Florence Wolfson, who was 90, living in Florida, and still vibrant.

Koppel applied a similar logic when she stumbled across a coffee-table book of space explorations that her husband, writer Tom Folsom, had purchased. Flipping through the pages, scanning the colorful photos of “a group of guys in silver space suits,” and also finding a Lifemagazine photo of the wives decked out in candy-colored dresses, Koppel realized a story was waiting to be told.

—by Elicia Brown '90

—Photograph by Mark Seliger