If an astronaut’s job is to make into space and come back alive, then an astronaut’s wife’s job is to maintain the picturesque ideal of an American family until her husband returns. Episode 9 of “The Astronaut Wives Club” explores what happens when a wife can’t do that — and what NASA will do if that news goes public.
Harriet Eisele (Elaine Caroll) discovers that her husband Donn (Ryan Doom) is having an affair and she’s not going to take it anymore. She asks for a divorce shortly before the Apollo 8 space launch, causing NASA to scramble and try to get Harriet to change her mind so the PR doesn’t ruin the image of the space program.
In the end, Harriet doesn’t cave to the peer pressure and gets her divorce anyway, but in real life the Eisele divorce put a major crack in the world’s view of the life of an astronaut family. Eisele was the first to get divorced — a very difficult process, especially for women in the 1960s — but it would open the doors for so many other wives to follow suit.
“It was like dominoes,” says Eisele of the NASA divorces to Express in 2013 when “The Astronaut Wives” book was released. “There were so many, it was as if they were waiting.”
As the wives detail in Lily Koppel’s book, the space program wanted the world to believe that the astronaut families, especially the wives, were perfect. Photographers waited on the lawns and in some cases moved in to videotape the wives on launch days for their reactions. They had magazine covers and tea with the First Lady. They were American royalty.
In reality, being the wife of an astronaut was far from perfect or easy. Due to intense training schedules and long missions, their husbands were often not home. Many of the wives suffered from depression and intense loneliness. Susan Borman’s paranoia of what could happen to her husband in space — also a heavy issue in episode 9 of the series — lead to her developing a drinking problem in the 1960s.
“NASA wanted perfect wives, perfect children, perfect homes – there was certainly some pressure there,” Borman also tells Express.
The Eisele divorce became a PR problem for NASA and ruined the image they wanted to project of the life of the astronauts and their family. In actuality, these women didn’t live a life of glamour but sacrificed their chance to raise a normal family in order for the US to win the space race.
The divorces were just the tip of the iceberg of the public finding out exactly what they gave up to put a man on the moon.