Women in the World

09.01.12

Moon Men: The Private Lives of Neil Armstrong and Pals in “Togethersville”

Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts were the stars of the Sixties, but it wasn’t always a smooth ride for their wives, writes Lily Koppel.

The first human to set foot on the moon lived a long, thoughtful, and adventuresome life, dying last Saturday at age 82, following complications from heart surgery. But what was in Neil Armstrong’s heart? Will we ever know?

He was said to have gone around with a twinkle of a smile, as if he were always sharing a private joke with himself. But he was also taciturn, rarely betraying his inner thoughts, his friends have said. For the past two years, I have been talking to the wives of astronauts such as Neil for a book—a close-knit community of women who lived together in the Houston suburbs outside of NASA, back when the space program was ramping up in the Sixties and the astronauts were the rock stars of their day. Journalists called their neighborhood “Togethersville,” a place where the astronaut families helped raise each other’s children and supported each other through triumph and tragedy. The astronaut wives describe Neil as the handsome, quiet guy—the laid-back, but mysterious, almost mystic, astronaut.

In the mornings, I’m told, he just grabbed a cup of coffee in his Japanese-inspired house with the rock-and-ivy Zen garden he’d built himself, before heading off to work. Neil was not a big breakfast eater—or a big exercise man. He stood out in the neighborhood full of workout-obsessed astronauts, up at the crack of dawn, jogging around the suburban streets, decked out in sweat clothes. Neil wasn’t into running around in circles in a suburban maze. As he once told a friend, “I believe that every human has a finite number of heartbeats. I don’t intend to waste any of mine running around doing exercises.”

His wife, Janet, put up a front that was even harder to penetrate than her husband’s in those days, the other wives have told me. A dark-eyed looker with cropped silver-sprinkled brown hair that she wore short in a “swimmer’s cut” for ease, Jan seemed to have absorbed the stoicism of the spacemen around her. The other wives gathered that communication between the Armstrongs was not always flowing like a Zen fountain, but that Jan, although she would never gush, absolutely adored Neil. She was a bit in awe of him. She believed in the important work he was doing. She loved the fact that he could come home and explain complicated space maneuvers to her and her two sons.

“I’m not married to ‘an astronaut,’” she said to Life magazine in the months leading up to her husband's Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969. “I’m married to Neil Armstrong. I knew he wanted to go to the moon, somehow, some way, when I married him. Knowing this hasn’t changed my life. To me he will always be Neil Armstrong, husband, father of two boys.”  

Listen to the music Neil Armstrong took with him on his trip to the moon:

Video screenshot

With Neil almost always away on astronaut training, Jan did her best to make her sons’ lives very common and everyday, so they didn’t go around bragging, “I’m an astronaut’s son,” she told Life in the same interview. The space program was difficult on the children of astronauts. The wives were basically single mothers for the entire week, with the dads off training at Cape Kennedy on the Florida coast, only returning home on the weekend. And even when the men were home, they weren’t necessarily tuned in. As Jan once wryly pointed out to a BBC film crew: for astronauts, training in the pure oxygen inside the space capsule could knock a guy out before he finished dinner.

As a whole, Neil’s neighbors have told me, they didn’t think he was overly quiet or weird, even in later years when he was accused of being a recluse by the media because he shunned public attention. Instead, they thought he was charming and fun-loving, lighting up the occasional cigar and donning a chef’s hat to make pizza. Journalists, however, saw another side—a silent, impenetrable Neil, whose attitude they read as akin to saying “no comment.” As Jan told Life, “Silence is a Neil Armstrong answer. The word ‘no’ is an argument.”

neil-armstrong-obit-3-cheat
Bettmann / Corbis

Jan had met her husband at Purdue University in the early Fifties, when she was studying home economics with an eye on doing something on TV with her cake-baking knowledge. They first spoke at a dinner party and afterward would regularly bump into each other in the early mornings. Jan would be on her way to a laboratory class, which she’d signed up for at 6 a.m. to give her pool time later on (being a champion synchronized swimmer); Neil had a job delivering papers. He’d just come back from being a Navy fighter pilot in Korea, and wanted to finish school at Purdue. For the next three years, they were casual acquaintances, Neil being “never one to rush into anything,” said Jan to Life.

After graduating, he proposed, in the summer of 1955. They married the following January.

In their early life together, the Armstrongs lived in a remote, primitive cabin 5,000 feet up in the San Simeon mountains, in an area 50 miles outside of Edwards Air Force base “with not one stoplight along the way,” Jan told Life. Neil wanted to live a rugged cowboy existence, and when the couple moved into the cabin, there was no electricity or running water. Showing she had “the right stuff” as much as her husband, Jan immersed herself in the life of being the wife of an experimental research test-pilot. She cooked on a hot plate and waited for her husband to come home after testing often-dangerous airplanes by pushing their performance limits in the sky.

She watched the liftoff from a boat floating down the Banana River near the launch site in Florida. If she was scared, she never admitted it to anyone.

It was not always a smooth ride. Between the births of their two boys, Ricky and Marky, they had a daughter, Karen, in 1959. They adored their “Muffie,” as they called her, short for “Muffin.” Karen died at 3 years old from a brain tumor. To deal with the loss, Neil threw himself into his work. Jan, like so many wives of pilots and astronauts, was left alone to deal with the family’s emotional fallout.

By the time it came to Neil’s trip to the moon in 1969, Jan was an old pro. She watched the liftoff from a boat floating down the Banana River near the launch site in Florida. If she was scared, she never admitted it to anyone. She just wanted “the bird,” the rocket, to fly, and for Neil to get a chance to plant his moon boot on the lunar surface. After he landed, the world went crazy with the epic achievement, and the Armstrongs took part in the post-flight fanfare, including a trip around the world.

Not long after, Neil retired from NASA, and in the years that followed, he lived the quiet life of a university professor. Jan adapted again.  

Ultimately, the couple’s marriage didn’t last. They quietly divorced in 1994, after 38 years of marriage. Neil got remarried in 1999 to Carol Knight. He and Jan remained cordial. She lives in Utah, where she maintains a strong friendship with other astronaut wives.

Neil saw the entire Earth as a spacecraft. “It’s a funny kind of spacecraft because it carries its crew on the outside instead of the inside,” he said to Life. He felt there was great significance for humanity in going to the moon, and hoped that his trip would shed some light on life’s mysteries. During his landing, his heart rate spiked to 140 beats per minute. Perhaps he was a little in love.