'Astronaut Wives Club' Post-'Launch' Review: Space History vs. Hollywood

LIFE Magazine Cover in 'The Astronaut Wives Club'
ABC’s "The Astronaut Wives Club" recreated LIFE magazine's Sept. 21, 1959 cover featuring the Mercury astronauts' wives. (Image credit: ABC/LIFE via collectSPACE.com)

"The Astronaut Wives Club," ABC's new drama about the women behind America's first spacemen, has left the launch pad.

The premiere of the 10 episode "limited series," aptly titled "Launch," debuted Thursday (June 18), almost two years after the network announced it was adapting Lily Koppel's 2013 book about the "Astro Wives" for the small screen.

Spanning two years over the course of the hour, the first episode followed the selection of NASA's original Mercury 7 astronauts in 1959 through the launch of Alan Shepard (played here by Desmond Harrington) to become the first U.S. astronaut to fly in space in May 1961. Along the way, viewers were introduced to the "bunch of housewives" who were thrown into the spotlight by LIFE magazine. [Book Excerpt: "The Astronaut Wives Club"]

"The Mercury Seven were a unique group of women and you sort of have to jump onboard with them as they get to know one another while their newly-picked husbands get to know each other socially at parties and memorably at the wives' first photo shoot with LIFE magazine," reflected Koppel in an interview with collectSPACE.

As the wives meet each other, so do the viewers, as the show introduces Betty Grissom (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), Marge Slayton (Erin Cummings), Rene Carpenter (Yvonne Strahovski), Annie Glenn (Azure Parsons), Trudy Cooper (Odette Annable) and Jo Schirra (Zoe Boyle).

Central to "Launch" though, is Louise Shepard, portrayed by Dominique McElligott, as the wife of the United States' first man in space.

"Episode one really focuses on Louise, who was perfectly cast," Koppel said. "She was a lady through and through — what all the real-life Astro Wives told me when I visited them in their homes spread across the country."

"She has her challenges and faith, and I believe the right stuff which often meant sticking by your astronaut despite the hard position of dealing with his fame and swagger," described Koppel, who is credited as a consultant for the series and joined the cast and creators in Los Angeles on Thursday to watch the premiere.

The episode recreated some scenes straight out of space history, for example the press conference that announced Shepard, Gus Grissom (Joel Johnstone), Scott Carpenter (Wilson Bethel), John Glenn (Sam Reid), Gordon Cooper (Bret Harrison), Wally Schirra (Aaron McCusker) and Deke Slayton (Kenneth Mitchell) to the country, as well as the covers of LIFE that featured both the astronauts and their wives.

The scenes of Redstone and Atlas rocket launches were a mix of archival footage and computer animations.

The cast of ABC's docu-drama "The Astronaut Wives Club," airing on Thursdays at 8/7c. (Image credit: ABC)

The episode, and "The Astronaut Wives Club" in general, does take some liberties with the events that involved the wives, in part because their experiences were not as well documented in the day as their husbands' space exploits. The result is what some have described as a "soap opera quality" to the show.

"It is a drama, of course, but in a way the wives' story had some soap opera aspects," Koppel said.

The episode ends with Betty Grissom learning that Gus, her husband, will be the next to launch, setting up the next week's episode, "Protocol," airing on Thursday, June 25.

How well did "The Astronaut Wives Club" stack up to the real space history? Click through to collectSPACE.com for a post-'Launch' review of the “A-OK!” and “ABORT!” moments from the series' premiere episode.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.