03 February 2013

Astronauts' Wives Club

By now, when the other wives came around to the house of the Wife during a flight, they were not there to hold her hand over the dangers her husband was facing. They were there to hold her hand over the television cameras she would be facing. They were there to try to buck her up for a true ordeal. They liked to do the Squarely Stable routine. One of the wives - Rene Carpenter was good at it - would take the role of Nancy Whoever, TV correspondent, and hold her fist up to her mouth, as if she were holding a microphone and say:

"We're here in front of the trim, modest suburban home of Squarely Stable, the famous astronaut who has just completed his historic mission, and we have with us his attractive wife, Primly Stable. Primly Stable, you must be happy, proud, and thankful at this moment."

And then she would shift her fist over underneath the chin of another wife, and she would say:

"Yes, Nancy, that's true. I'm happy, proud, and thankful at this moment."

"Tell us, Primly Stable - may I call you Primly?"

"Certainly, Nancy, Primly."

"Tell us, Primly, tell us what you felt during the blast-off, at the very moment when your husband's rocket began to rise from the earth and take him on this historic journey."

"To tell the truth, Nancy, I missed that part of it. I'd sort of dozed off, because I got up so early this morning and I'd been rushing around a lot taping the shades shut, so the TV people wouldn't come in the windows."

"Well, would you say you had a lump in your throat as big as a tennis ball?"

"That's about the size of it, Nancy, I had a lump in my throat as big as a tennis ball."

"And finally, Primly, I know that the most important prayer of your life has already been answered: Squarely has returned safely from outer space. But if you could have one other wish at this moment and have it come true, what would that one wish be?"

"Well, Nancy, I'd wish for an Electrolux vacuum cleaner with all the attachments - "

- and they'd all crack up at the thought of what a dim lummox the Genteel Beast [the Press] really was. Still ... that didn't make it any easier when your time came.

- Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, 1980

[According to David Shayler & Ian Moule's 2005 book Women in Space: Following Valentina, the unofficial astronauts' wives club was formed in 1962 and 'met occasionally for many years during the 1960s and 1970s, but drifted apart during the late 1970s as the original astronauts selected in the 1960s moved to new goals outside of NASA, although dinners and social gatherings still took place for several years'] 

See also:
TrailerThe Right Stuff, dir. Philip Kaufman, 1983
NewsreelJohn Glenn orbits the Earth in Friendship 7, February 1962*
Interview: Ex-Astronaut Wife Rene is the Carpenter in the News Now, People, 7 April 1975
NewsThe Astronaut Wives' Club, BBC, 8 November 2007

* In which, charmingly, the voiceover chap pronounces 'retro' as 'ree-trow'.
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