Space, Spies, & Lies: The Politics Behind ABC’s “Astronaut Wives Club”

Have you started watching “The Astronaut Wives Club?”

Part glitzy, well-designed costume drama, part history lesson, ABC’s unassuming summer drama “The Astronaut Wives Club” has introduced Americans to the wives behind the some of the first men in space. The show is inspired by a book of the same name by author Lily Koppel.

The Space Program was created on October 1, 1958 after the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik. Project Mercury, NASA’s first attempt to send men into space forms the backdrop for the show. The stories of the real “astronaut wives,” Louise Shepard, Betty Grissom, Trudi Cooper, Rene Carpenter, Annie Glenn, Marge Slayton, and Jo Schirra form the foundation of the show, while American history is woven in to give viewers context.

While their husbands were making strides towards space, these seven women were doing more than holding down the home-front; they became working members of the NASA propaganda machine. The Astronaut Wives were portrayed to the American public as glamorous, poised models of American womanhood. They projected what America wanted the world to see—because in reality, America in the 1960s was a hot, sloppy mess.

So just what was going on in America?

The Bay of Pigs Invasion

Remember Fidel Castro? You know, the Cuban dictator and America’s number one persona non-grata for over 30 years? Well, after his successful overthrow of US backed dictator General Fulgencio Batista, the U.S. lost control of Cuba and Castro became best friends with the Russians. America started to feel a little threatened, hence the April 17, 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion.

The Bay of Pigs is located on Cuba’s southern coast, and was chosen due to its isolation from the rest of the island. What resulted was a clusterf*ck of epic proportions. Not only were several ships caught on coral reefs before the paratroopers ever landed, the exiled Cuban paratroopers trained by the U.S. to reinvade Cuba were spotted almost immediately.

The CIA had failed to notice a radio station on the beach during reconnaissance. Which meant that every move the paratroopers made was broadcast across the island for everyone to hear. Then, as if the day could not get any worse, the paratroopers’ backup landed in the wrong place, leaving the 1,400 or so Cuban exiles trapped on the beach at the mercy of Castro’s troops. During the invasion, 114 men were killed, while approximately another 1,100 were taken prisoner.

This was a major embarrassment to the CIA and Kennedy Administration, and despite his desire to get rid of Castro, Kennedy refused to get America directly involved. His solution? An even more ridiculous waste of taxpayer money, known as Operation Mongoose.

Operation Mongoose

That’s right, Mongoose. Because nothing says, “Let’s kill a dictator and replace him with a dictator we like more” than a mongoose!

Operation Mongoose was influenced by the COIN or Counter-Insurgency Doctrine, which suggested the best way to get rid of an enemy was to exert pressure socially, politically, and economically. The hope was that by isolating Castro, and “winning the hearts and minds” of the Cuban people, America could influence the Cubans to help overthrow Castro. From exploding pens and killer ninja cats (just a rumor) to hiring the Mob to kill Castro, Operation Mongoose will forever be remembered as the worst assassination strategy ever created.


Each and every plot to assassinate Castro failed. More often than not, they failed because the CIA received incorrect information, or Castro was alerted before the attempt was made. Additionally, the Kennedy administration’s desire to maintain plausible deniability meant that the CIA was often working independently from the White House. The result—a complete lack of communication and over 50 years of embargoes to economically NA Castro (and Cuba) into submission.

Check out the whole document here.

An American Finally Orbits the Earth

Guys, Russia was kicking our butts in the Space Race. Not only did they send Sputnik up first, but Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space. After losing out to the Russians we finally managed to orbit around the earth. John Glenn, a highly decorated WWII and Korean War pilot was selected for the mission. On February 20, 1962 Glenn orbited the Earth three times in about five hours, flying at speeds of over 17,500 mph, because ‘Merica. Glenn’s orbit brought attention back to NASA and reestablished American support for the program.

courtesy of NASA
courtesy of NASA

Cuban Missile Crisis

If you want to be accurate, this crisis actually started years before October 14, 1962. In October of 1959, the U.S. reached an agreement with the Turkish government to place missiles that could reach the Soviet Union in the country. Obviously that did not go over well with the Soviets.

courtesy of CORBIS
courtesy of CORBIS

On June 1, 1961 the U.S. placed the Jupiter missiles in Turkey. A little over a year later, an American U2 discovers and photographs nuclear missile sites being built by the Soviets in Cuba. What followed was a cat and mouse game between the U.S., U.S.S.R., and Cuba that lasted 15 days. On October 22, 1962, after a week of sitting with the knowledge that a missile strike could be imminent, JFK addressed the U.S., alerting them that a blockade had been placed around Cuba and that it would not end until the Soviet Union removed its missiles. After a lot of back and forth, including a private letter from Kruschev to Kennedy, the U.S. agreed to never invade Cuba in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles.

Cuba occupied much of the American conscience during the 1960s, and only recently, due to the declassification of a lot of material from this period do we now know just how close we came to a third world war.

Kennedy Assassination

Despite the blunders of the CIA in Cuba, the threat of WWIII, and America’s slow start in the Space Race, JFK maintained popularity with the American public. So it is no surprise that in 1963, the Kennedy Administration was gearing up for his next presidential campaign. In an attempt to prevent dissension among the Democrats in Texas before it grew worse, Kennedy and his wife planned a five-city tour of Texas. While touring through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Kennedy was assassinated. A few short hours later, Lyndon B. Johnson became President. There are plenty of conspiracy theories about why or how Kennedy was killed. Believe what you want, but the truth is that Kennedy’s assassination left America emotionally scarred and politically weak.

 © Henry Dauman
© Henry Dauman

South Vietnam

In the time between WWII and the Vietnam war, Vietnam was two countries: North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The late 1950s saw the removal of the French from Vietnam and the split between communist North Vietnam and western aligned South Vietnam. While the American public was focused on beating the communists in Space, the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations sought to snuff out communism anywhere they found it. So months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, America began providing transport, weapons, training, and money to the South Vietnamese. Unable to leave well enough alone, the Johnson administration then decided to provide American troops on the ground to help the South Vietnamese, leading to one of the deadliest wars that America has ever fought in. It would be years before Americans would realize the extent of “American support” and begin protesting the war.

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