Last Julymarked 50 years since the Apollo 11 lunar landing, where astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first and second men to walk on the moon, while Michael Collins became the second man to orbit the moon alone. But behind these great men were even greater women: their wives, Janet Armstrong, Joan Aldrin and Pat Collins. As Netflix prepares to launch Space Force, featuring Lisa Kudrow as a ‘space wife’, Stylist shares the fascinating true stories of Janet, Joan and Pat.
When NASA announced its first team of astronauts, dubbed the Mercury 7, in 1959, over 200 members of the media attended the press conference. These seven men were the latest weapon against the Soviets as the Cold War raged on. In the looming threat of catastrophe and Communism, America had found its most convincing arsenal: smiling white men under the age of 40, engineers and test pilots, and most importantly “family men”.
Nothing confirmed these men’s status as brave and good pioneers of America’s final frontier like their wives. Overnight Rene Carpenter, Trudy Cooper, Annie Glenn, Betty Grissom, Jo Schirra, Louise Shepard and Marge Slayton became the WAGS of their day. Life magazine profiled them, they were invited to tea with Jackie Kennedy, and their hair, make-up and clothes were studiously observed. These women epitomised the era’s notion of the ideal housewife – doting, domestic, loyal, prim, proper, smiling. Their husbands were made of ”the Right Stuff”, as Tom Wolfe famously coined that year, and so were they.
Yet as time played out, these cookie cutter images of the loving wife stood faithfully behind her heroic husband crumbled. There was infidelity and heavy drinking. The women didn’t always welcome their new found fame and failed missions cost astronauts their lives.
“You think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home,” said future “Astrowife” Barbara Cernan, whose husband, Gene, commanded the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
The wives of Mercury 7 forged the blueprints for the wives that would follow in their footsteps, and none were thrust more into the spotlight than the wives of the Apollo 11 mission. Janet Shearon married Neil Armstrong. Joan Archer became the wife of Buzz Aldrin. And Pat Finnegan tied the knot with Micheal Collins. None of these women, though, knew that they were marrying the soon-to-be heroes of the Space Race, and the men who would go on to claim a spot in the history books.
But just as it had been a decade earlier, behind the smiling faces of these wholesome American heroes were the women who sacrificed and supported in far more testing ways than those smiles let on.
In the beginning…
18-year-old Janet Shearon first met 22-year-old Neil Armstrong at a sorority party at Purdue University where she was studying home economics. It would be three years later before Neil eventually asked Janet out, even though the day he met her, he returned to his roommate and declared he’d just met the woman he was going to marry.
They eventually did marry, in 1956, and moved to a tiny cabin, off the grid, near Armstrong’s job in the Air Force as an experimental research test pilot. As he tried out “far out” flying machines, he’d whoosh low over the cabin and wiggle his tail at Janet.
Just as Neil believed he was destined for Janet, Joan Archer believed she was the one for Buzz Aldrin - even if she felt he was taking his time about things.
“Buzz wouldn’t make the move” she told Life magazine. They pair had met at a dinner party when she was an Arts masters student at Columbia and he’d just joined the Air Force. Buzz’s postings made their courtship slow and stunted. Eventually, Buzz proposed. “I’d just about given up”, Joan recalled. When they got married in 1954, it was only the fifth time they had stepped out in public together. In the 50s, dating was a short and direct pipeline to marriage. Joan’s expectations were of her age; she wanted to be a wife, quickly.
Pat Finnegan and Michael Collins met at an airbase in France, where she too was employed by the Air Force in a civilian role. Surrounded by all these brash young men, it was Mike who caught her attention. They married in 1958 and he became a devoted family man. “When he comes home,” she told a reporter, “he is so here. So completely relaxed and easy.”
Waiting for the call that would change their lives
When the three men were chosen for the space program in 1962, it came at a bad time. A mission months earlier had seen the death of their friend Ed White, and the women were nervous.
Joan could sense it when the call came: Buzz became distant. After the announcement, she said she wished she’d married a “carpenter, a truck driver, a scientist, anything but what he is”. This wasn’t Buzz’s first mission into space. In 1966, rookie Buzz had been on the Gemini 12 mission to space with the aim of proving astronauts could work effectively outside the spacecraft, which was all part of NASA gearing up for Apollo 11. When he went that time, Joan was convinced “our marriage wouldn’t be the same, that it would be so much more magical and meaningful and magnificent because he’d done this wonderful thing”.
When he got back, she realised that nothing had changed, but she was comforted by that. She assumed the same thing would happen again when he went to the moon.
In the face of a high risk mission and the potential of never seeing her husband again, Janet Armstrong was left trying to engage with an emotionally stunted husband. He was never one to be overly expressive. The couple had lost their two-year-old daughter to a brain tumour in 1962, the same year that Neil had joined the programme. Janet harboured anger and hurt at how removed he had been after the death of Karen, and how he’d thrown himself into his work.
In 1969, as he departed for the moon, she was angry that he wasn’t communicating with their two sons about what the mission would really entail, believing that once again, he was not supporting her. Their son Ricky recalls a rare argument (Neil was the silent type normally) between his mother and father as Janet demanded that Neil tell their children he might not make it back from the moon. Neil had expected her to do it but she adamantly refused.
“Because I understand my husband’s love for his work, I have never doubted this capabilities nor feared his flights”, Janet said to the press before lift off. These women really knew how to put on a brave face.
Mike Collins is the least known of the trip because he would never step foot on the moon, but that didn’t stop Pat from worrying about his fate. Before he left, she wrote a poem to her husband.
You are saying—”yes, I know”—
That the lure of space beguiles
You are pleading—”Let me go”,
Not unwilling, but with smiles
Can you love me, and still choose
Whispers that I cannot hear?
Late to love, how can I bear to lose
Content for some inconstant sphere?
On the 16 July 1969, the world watched the men take off from the Kennedy Space Station. An estimated one million spectators lined the nearby beaches and highways to watch, including congressmen, governors and former US president, Lyndon B. Johnson. The men would reach the moon four days later and the whole mission would take eight days, three hours, 18 minutes and 35 seconds.
While they were away, Joan said she would use the time to give the house a thorough clean. As ever, all eyes were on the women. As she’d watched her husband thrust into space with her sons and two friends, Janet was trailed by Dora Jane Hamblin, a Life journalist. The women were followed everywhere, even to church; a picture shows an anxious looking Joan looking awkwardly into a camera as she leaves church, clutching her son’s arm.
As they watched the men land via the television sets in their living rooms (along with 25 million other Americans, and countless other people watching the broadcast shown in 33 other countries) the woman paced, cigarettes in hand, teary-eyed, stiff and occasionally turning away, faces agonised before breaking out in a rapturous applause and sobs of relief when the first steps were made. They didn’t watch together, instead with friends and families in their own homes, but like the Mercury 7 wives before them, they were close and lent on one another throughout their years in Houston, Texas.
After that iconic moment was screened around the globe, their lives were changed forever. When Pat stepped outside her house, she said, “microphones were thrust in my face, cameras clicked and whirred, questions flew… I said that I was delighted to be part of this great adventure, pleased with the success, proud of Mike”.
Underneath it all, however, “my chest was aching from holding my breath, heart trembling to burst right through my shirt, I uncoil numb legs and l began to pace stiffly, praying half aloud, ‘dear god, let it be over’”.
Coming back down to earth
When it was over, and the men were returned to earth safely, the women joined them on their world tour, meeting everyone from the Pope to the Queen. On the 15 October 1969, the wives gave a press conference. They dutifully said how proud they were of the men and how much they were looking forward to getting back to normal life. “Mrs Aldrin, who is tall, bright-eyed and blonde”, one journalist wrote, “said she had a list of repairs-around-the-house for her husband when he came out of quarantine.”
Behind this twee report, a very different story was unfolding. “I had married an engineer and here was a hero… my immediate reaction was anger towards Buzz,” she said.
Although their marriage had never been easy (“I was always alone”, Joan told the New York Times) on his return, Buzz Aldrin wallowed in alcoholism and depression, struggling with the fame, before the couple divorced in 1974.
Joan went to work as an administrator at ABC television in Los Angeles until 1998. Buzz would be married two more times and face a legal battle from two of his children.
Neil Armstrong never went to space again, and briefly worked in Aeronautics for the Office of Advanced Research and Technology. In 1971, he and Jan moved to a farm in Ohio and kept well out of sight. After a long separation, they divorced in 1994, Armstrong also in the grips of depression until he met his second wife, Carol Knight.
Only Mike and Pat stayed together. And it was Pat, according to her daughter Kate that got the space wives together after the NASA years. “It seems my mother was very much the glue for them. She was the catalyst for the get-togethers, it’s an amazing legacy to have,” she said.
All three wives have now died. Pat in 2014 after complications from a stroke, aged 83, Joan a year later of natural causes, aged 84 and Janet in 2018, also aged 84, fighting lung cancer.
Behind every great man…
In many ways, they were typical women of their time. Bright, talented, they put their ambitions aside for their duty as a wife and mother and paid a high, hard price for their husbands’ success - it just so happened the world was watching. Perhaps Mike and Pat’s happiness came from the fact that he never took those fateful steps; they orbited this incredible event, but they didn’t land at the heart of it.
However, while it’s easy to assume the women weren’t in the minds of Neil, Buzz and Mike when they entered space, the evidence suggests otherwise. In a moment of rare emotion from Neil, his biographer James Hansen believes that, as astronauts do, he left something in space for Karen. In fact, far from shutting down his emotions surrounding their daughter’s death, Hansen believes he actually left his little girl’s bracelet on the moon. If this is the case, the bracelet is likely to still be there now, an eternal reminder of their love for their daughter still present in the night sky.
… is an even greater woman
As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, it’s important to look at the bigger legacy for the women of space. No longer are they NASA WAGS but astronauts themselves - an important shift signaling that women can lead the adventure, not just be married to it. America’s first woman, Sally Ride went into space in 1983. (This was 20 years after the first woman, Soivet Valentina Tereshkova, made the journey to space, in 1963. At the time, the American’s called her trip a “publicity stunt”).
Yet as recently as this year, we can see space exploration is still designed to be male endeavour. Two female NASA researchers were due to make a spacewalk but they only had one spacesuit that would fit a woman’s body, so one had to stay behind and a man went in her place.
Hopefully as society moves to new frontiers, women will have a more equal chance of taking all those small steps and giant leaps of the future, no longer destined to be hidden on the sidelines, secretly sacrificing, always the support act.
The Mercury 7 wives motto was “Proud, happy, thrilled”. Going forward, this can’t just be for men. Women must feel it about themselves too.
This article was originally published in July 2019
Images: Netflix, Getty