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Race to the Moon | Article

NASA Wives and Families

They had people looking into the background of the men, [and] they also had people looking into the background of the wives because they didn't want an oddball... it wasn't discussed, it wasn't written, but ... you had better be in every sense of the word, the All American Family in everything you say and do! We kept it like 'Leave it to Beaver.'"
— Susan Borman, wife of Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman

Faith and Pragmatism
The women who married fighter pilots or test pilots understood that their lives could be shattered in an instant. Implicitly, they understood that they had to have the faith in their husbands' flying skills and go about the business of raising a family and running a household. "You worry about the custard and I'll worry about the flying," Frank would say to Susan Borman. But NASA was different. Wives of astronauts had to maintain that same composure for a worldwide audience at some of the most stressful moments in their lives. While their husbands were strapped to a giant rocket, television crews and newspapermen would crowd the front lawns, building temporary towers on suburban tracts to transmit the family's reactions to the world.

Frank Borman with his wife and sons.

In the Public Eye
"We were very much in the public eye and nobody had been trained for that. We weren't trained for ticker-tape parades. Our children weren't trained for the public view that became part of their lives," Valerie Anders, wife of Apollo astronaut  Bill Aners, remembered. "The astronaut wives' 'right stuff' mostly meant you stayed at home and took the responsibility away from your husband so that he could function in his world, which was a very competitive world. So we were there to do whatever was required. However, I was surprised at how many people thought that we had some kind of special help, because we didn't. We were military wives, we formed a corps of wives; we were close to each other, but there was no psychological help; there was no one preparing us for this life." And contrary to what many people thought, astronauts were not exorbitantly paid; they and their families lived on military or government salaries. When her mother asked her why she always wore the same dress on television, Anders had to tell her it was the only good outfit she had.

Public Relations
NASA arranged a contract with Life magazine early on that gave full access to the astronauts' personal stories to that publication but excluded all others. The tradeoff benefited both sides, especially since Life paid a stipend to each family and also provided a life insurance policy -- which insurers would not grant to anyone who listed "astronaut" as their profession. The weekly grind was difficult however, with the astronauts flying across the country visiting various contractors -- and then in virtual isolation on Cape Canaveral for two months before a flight.

Frank Anders with wife and children. NASA.

Absentee Husbands
Valerie Anders: "You were, in effect, a single parent for the week. And when the men came home on the week-end in their T-38s [airplanes] they flew in and their first obligation was to go to the office at the Managed Spacecraft Center and catch up on their mail, do their business at the office and then come back and spend time with the family in the time that was left of the weekend, which was generally late Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday."

Supporting Each Other
The wives were formally and informally drafted into a support network. After all, who else could understand their situation? After Elliot See died in a plane crash, John Young called Marilyn Lovell and asked her to visit See's wife. She was incredulous. "You want me to tell her that Elliot was killed?" Young replied, "No. I want you to do something much harder — not tell her. Somebody should be there with her right now, but she can't be told anything until I can come over and notify her officially. We don't want some overeager newspaperman knocking on her door." Similarly, after an Apollo 13 accident, before Marilyn Lovell was informed of the situation, the Conrads and other friends were on their way to the Lovell home.

Squawk Boxes
A few days before a mission, NASA would install a "squawk box" in the astronauts' homes. The box allowed the families to listen in on any communications between the astronauts and mission control. Jim Lovell figured, "Better than 90 percent of what families could ever hope to hear on this party line was incomprehensible — a lot of numbers and vectors that even the flight controllers themselves occasionally found tedious." This did not keep the astronauts' wives from sitting around the boxes, waiting and worrying. Susan Borman remembered, "NASA had told us that if anything went wrong, they'd turn those boxes off so that we couldn't..."

Valerie Anders: "Some of the astronauts would come [to the house] for each important phase of the mission so that if the wife had a question, they were there with their expertise to say 'well, you may hear this on the squawk box but this is what it means.'"

Marilyn Lovell , wife of James Lovell, with their daughters.

Never Alone
During the mission, friends and family would arrive. Susan Borman: "During the flight times it was open house. People were coming in and out all the time. During Apollo 8 Frank's mother and dad were there. And it was just open house. But everybody's very thoughtful. They sort of leave you alone when they can see that you want to be left alone. Everybody comes in with a bottle starting in the afternoon, 'Let's have a drink.' And it was just standard operating procedure. Whoever was up there, their wives were having open house... There were people there all the time from sun up to sun down. Which is good. Oh, I was so always grateful for that."

On a Mission Together
The wives of the men who trained together shared a common bond. "We... the original wives of... the Gemini and Apollo program; we all keep in touch as much as we can," Marilyn Lovell says today. "But I think the gals themselves, some of us probably are closer than others... I think when your husbands are on a mission, you become very good friends with the gals because you're sharing a lot of time with each other knowing that your husbands are going to be doing something together. You're on a mission together."

Difficult Times
The fire in Apollo 1 that killed three astronauts shook the confidence of many in NASA's extended family. Susan Borman began to drink to excess around this time, while maintaining her impeccable composure to the world. Pat White, Ed White's widow and a good friend to both Susan Borman and Marilyn Lovell, committed suicide many years after the accident.

Strains on Marriages
The men of Apollo 8 had some idea of the burden their careers had put on their partners. Perhaps this understanding is why Apollo 8 was the only mission with intact marriages. Bill Anders: "We were working 18 hours a day. If I wasn't in the simulator I was at home studying diagrams. My family kind of lost track of me there for a little while." Frank Borman was honest in his assessment of his parenting: "I spent as much time with [my sons] as I could, but I was a part-time father, and it was Susan who bore most of the responsibility for raising our sons. My input was well-meant and sincere, but it was also too sporadic for me to take much credit for how well they turned out."

"We're In This"
Valerie Anders: "I knew my husband was skilled; I knew that he was a good pilot. I knew that he was competitive like all the others, and so I was cheering for him to be on a crew. And when that was achieved, I was really happy for him. And soon after he was selected for the crew of Apollo 8, the flight plan changed. And I did have some thoughts about this flight because it was, it was an adventuresome flight. It was the first time man had been on the Saturn 5 [rocket]. It was the first time man had left their home planet to go out into space. It was the first time anybody went to the moon or behind the moon. And I knew the consequences of all those steps not working well. So I thought about it, but I thought 'we're in this, this is a very positive thing.'

"I knew it was a Cold War tactic... and I knew that it was politically motivated. But when you're in it, and it's exciting, and you think that your people can meet all these challenges, you just get carried away with that. And that was what happened."

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