A New Age of Astronaut Wives
The reality of the moment is finally sinking in. Karen Nyberg and Megan McArthur, two NASA astronauts, have spent years waiting for this mission. Now the launch is just days away. The rocket is already upright at Cape Canaveral. Soon, it will roar into the sky and dispatch a new crew to the International Space Station.
Nyberg and McArthur, however, won’t be on board. This time, it’s their husbands’ turn to leave the planet. Nyberg and McArthur will be watching from the ground, cheering them on.
Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are veteran astronauts, like their wives. This week, the two men will fly on a new astronaut-transportation system designed and built by SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk. They will be the first NASA astronauts to take off from U.S. soil since 2011, the test-drivers in an effort to get human spaceflight back on America’s terms after nearly a decade of relying on another nation to send U.S. astronauts into orbit.
The two astronaut couples show just how much the American workforce has changed since NASA started flying people to space nearly 60 years ago. For years, the pairs have swapped space missions and balanced family life. Their story has helped redefine the gender dynamics of spaceflight—and redrew Hollywood’s stock character of the worried “astronaut wife.”
“Doug will come home, and he can tell me about what happened at work, and he doesn’t have to go into a lot of explanation,” Nyberg told me in a recent interview. She gets it. She’s already been to the International Space Station. She has already seen the stunning view of Earth against the darkness of space through its windows, and stepped outside to float, hanging on by a tether.
The four astronauts met the way many non-space travelers do: at work. They all started at NASA in the summer of 2000. Hurley and Behnken were engineers with military flying experience. Nyberg was a mechanical engineer, and McArthur an oceanographer. They took turns celebrating each other’s wedding—Hurley was Behnken’s best man—and took turns going to space. Hurley and Behnken were on the runway in 2003, ready to greet the Columbia crew, when the shuttle broke apart during reentry, killing everyone on board. In 2009, Nyberg told Hurley she was pregnant while he was in medical quarantine before his first shuttle flight, she said in a Houston Chronicle interview. When it was Nyberg’s turn to fly, their son was wearing diapers. When she came home six months later, he was potty trained.
Of the four, Nyberg has flown most recently—in 2013. She didn’t take off from Cape Canaveral, as American astronauts had done before. By then, the American space shuttles had stopped flying—the program canceled because of cost, safety, and politics—and the United States was paying Russia to launch NASA astronauts from Kazakhstan, shoulder to shoulder with Russian cosmonauts. For the past decade, NASA has been working with commercial companies, including SpaceX, to return launches to American shores.
Nyberg and McArthur will be at Cape Canaveral this week to witness the historic flight, knowing perhaps better than anyone what their husbands are getting themselves into. Decades ago, when the first NASA astronauts flew to space, the most well-known women in the American space effort were the astronauts’ wives. As military wives, the women were used to worrying about their husbands, but at NASA they were suddenly on display, their photographs printed in Life magazine and their facial expressions scrutinized by the reporters who camped out on their front lawns in Houston, not far from Mission Control.
These women had to figure out how to play their own role in the moon-shot effort. “As her husband trained for every possible aspect of spaceflight, each woman had to prepare for the day when she would have to face the television cameras,” writes Lily Koppel, the author of The Astronaut Wives Club, a biography of NASA’s earliest astronaut wives. “The world would be scrutinizing her hair, her complexion, her outfit, her figure, her poise, her parenting skills, her diction, her charm, and most of all, her patriotism.” Hollywood seized on the strain of these women’s lives in the spotlight, and movie scripts often turned them into caricatures of helplessness.
Back then, NASA installed squawk boxes in astronauts’ homes so their wives could follow along. The agency would ask astronauts who weren’t on assignment to field the wives’ questions about the jargon-laden conversations between their husbands and Mission Control. NASA would turn off the boxes when trouble arose as a security measure, a move that left the wives in the dark. In 1966, when NASA cut the feed during one of Neil Armstrong’s flights, his wife, Jan Armstrong, forced a NASA public-affairs officer to drive her to Mission Control, but the staff refused to let her in. “Don’t you ever do that to me again!” she told the director of flight-crew operations before Neil launched to the moon three years later.
When Nyberg and McArthur follow along with Hurley and Behnken’s SpaceX mission—listening in on their laptops, not squawk boxes—they’ll understand every word. Given their expertise and connections, it’s difficult to imagine NASA trying to keep the two out of the loop if the SpaceX mission runs into trouble. SpaceX flew an uncrewed demonstration of this mission last year, but the company has never launched people before, only satellites and space-station supplies. For McArthur, having the same job as her husband can be a comfort and a curse when she’s not the one flying. “We know what situations they might face, what tools they have to work through those situations. We know really well the teams that are there to support them,” she told me. “But of course, it also means that you understand the inherent risks of spaceflight.”
NASA allowed women to join the astronaut corps in 1978. The agency would take longer to understand them: Before a seven-day mission to space in 1983, engineers reportedly asked the astronaut Sally Ride whether 100 tampons would be enough. Although nearly 30 American women had flown to space by the time Nyberg and McArthur completed their astronaut training in 2002, the astronaut corps still skewed heavily male; of the 17 people in their astronaut class, only three were women. Today, the breakdown is more even.
Like many Americans, the two astronaut couples spent this spring hunkered down at home with their families, navigating the pandemic’s new risks. Hurley and Behnken have been tested at least twice for COVID-19 to ensure that they don’t bring the coronavirus with them to the ISS. The crisis has scrambled NASA’s vision for this historic moment—hordes of spectators, cheering and waving flags—but the astronauts are preparing as they always have, especially for the sake of their young kids. “You’re just trying to be as normal as possible, really,” Nyberg told me. “We don’t want to focus a lot on, ‘Oh, this is the last time we’ll have dinner here. This is the last time we’ll watch this show.’ You just want to live your life and enjoy the normal time that you get to have together.”
The astronauts said it’s tougher to be the one watching the launch than the one sitting on top of the rocket. “At some point, you detach yourself a little bit from being that rational person, and there’s emotion, obviously, watching the person that you love launch into space,” Nyberg said.
The arrangement has lighthearted moments too. Like most spaceflight projects, the new mission has seen its share of budget problems and technical failures, but it might be the first to have experienced a very specific glitch. “I got my menu for what I was going to eat on board the [SpaceX] capsule a little while back, and I was like, I don’t recognize any of this food. I’m pretty sure I don’t like that, or that, or that. But maybe that’s what I’ve got to eat because of constraints,” Behnken said in an interview with The Atlantic last year. “I reached out to the food folks and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on here? I didn’t pick any of these choices.’” The list, it turned out, was McArthur’s. In NASA records, her surname is Behnken.
The historic SpaceX launch is meant to be the first of many, which raises the question whether Nyberg and McArthur themselves will fly on SpaceX’s capsule sometime soon. Both say NASA didn’t pick them for the current mission because they don’t have the military experience that their husbands do, and NASA has always chosen pilots to test out new vehicles. Nyberg retired from NASA in March, satisfied with the missions on her record. But McArthur said she’s game, as long as she doesn’t fly with Behnken. Someone has to hold down the fort at home. “We’ll find the right time for it to be my turn,” she said.