For a show that, early on, set its sights on the moon, and gets there in the series finale, The Astronaut Wives Club doesn’t spend much time on Apollo 11. Last Saturday, July 20th, was the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, bringing with it a slew of commemorative items and TV coverage. What The Astronaut Wives Club does is celebrate the missions that made the moon possible but have gotten overshadowed in the years since, and the women who barely get mentioned yet made it so their husbands could devote their lives to their work, without sacrificing the family man image.
Given its value to NASA, that image can’t be overstated. Before Gordon Cooper (Bret Harrison) was picked to be one of the Mercury 7 (the name given to the first seven astronauts chosen for the Mercury missions) he and his wife, Trudy, were headed towards a divorce (and eventually would get one, when his NASA days were over), but a constant across all ten episodes is the fear of getting bumped and they stick together for the sake of his career.
Watching the series for the first time since it aired, over the summer of 2015, it holds up just as well as I remember. The source material is a book of the same name by Lily Koppel and while you get to know a handful of the wives from later missions, the main focus is on the Mercury 7 (another reason Apollo 11 doesn’t get much coverage, besides the fact that it’s the mission that gets covered everywhere else – of the original seven only Alan Shepard ever walked on the moon, and not until Apollo 14).
For having to serve seven couples, the series does an impeccable job, splitting its time, so everyone has something to do. The missions naturally dictate which characters should be the focus. Mastering who’s married to who takes a little work, but the wives quickly assert their personalities (it helps that they’re played by such wonderful actresses as JoAnna Garcia Swisher (Reba), Yvonne Strahovski (The Handmaid’s Tale), and Odette Annable (Supergirl)).
Fashion also lends a hand, in telling the characters apart, with costume designer, Eric Daman, giving each of the wives a clear, personal style. The fruit of that dedication pays off when one of the wives wears a color they wouldn’t typically wear, and it stands out painfully. These aren’t just costumes you want to put in your closet (though there’s quite a bit of that going on, too, if I’m honest) but costumes that inform who these characters are as individuals.
Some of the plot devices are transparent. Luke Kirby’s LIFE magazine reporter didn’t exist, so his flirtations with Louise (Dominique McElligott) are pure conjecture – a means to get her to confront her husband, Alan (Desmond Harrington), about his cheating. Zavier (Akili McDowell), the son of one of the maids at the hotel where the astronauts live, becomes the series’ go-to for addressing race in America. It’s not subtle, but if working for NASA comes with a degree of tunnel vision, the series at least acknowledges more was going on.
That includes what we remember about the space race – the major victories over the little ones, or how long it took for us to get there, or the close calls that luckily didn’t become memorable. Every additional orbit or experiment mattered and was integral towards making the moon a reality. Success was never guaranteed, and the dangers were real. The Astronaut Wives Club makes that time come to life again. It’s summer TV at its best and most groovy.
The Astronaut Wives Club is available on DVD from Mill Creek Entertainment.