Miles High

07.06.13

Can Walking on the Moon Be Better Than Sex in Space?

One of America’s original astronaut wives asks a very important question that only she can answer. Lily Koppel, author of The Astronaut Wives Club, on the amazing Jane Conrad—and an actual short story she wrote about, yes, sex in space.

The first wife of notorious hotshot astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad—otherwise known as “Princeton Pete”—was tall, model-thin Jane, who attended Bryn Mawr. With the help of heels, at a regal 5 feet 8 inches, Jane towered over her popular and admittedly funny-looking, skirt-chasing spaceman, who was short with a gaptoothed smile. Some wondered what she saw in him, but like the rest of his astronaut colleagues, Pete was a hot fly-boy. He and Jane met at a debutante dance at Princeton, and Jane, like the other wives, stood by his side as he trained for most of the 1960s for his spaceflights, and eventually walked on the moon during Apollo 12.

Like the rest of the astronauts’ womenfolk, Jane waited at home in the “space burbs.” But to be an astronaut’s wife was an immense opportunity that meant that you were not just your typical Betty Draper–type stay-at-home mom, but you were dished up by NASA’s “protocol officers” (as their public-relations men were called) for public consumption. You were in the limelight, riding the streak of fire that was your husband’s coattails, so to speak, for a man who rode rockets as a day job. Most all of the wives started out as military wives, which was a desolate life: living on desert air bases, raising your kids, no one paying attention to you (not to mention that, statistically, it was quite probable that your husband might “buy the farm” and die in some horrible crash). But then it could all change overnight. Suddenly, Jane found herself corresponding via airmail with famous Italian designer Emilio Pucci to help her decide what to wear for her husband’s Apollo 12 moon launch, and she was spending the night at the White House. The introduction to Pucci (known as the Marquis of Barsento) was made for Jane by the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who had befriended the Conrads, inviting them to the NYC premiere of Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, and placing a bet with Pete that when he became the third man to step foot on the moon, NASA wouldn’t allow him to say something spontaneous but would control what he said. In fact he won, saying as he’d promised Fallaci, “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.” Although he won, as Jane notes, he never got paid.

When Jane hosted her launch party, where everyone gathered at her home over cocktails and casseroles to see her husband actually moonwalk, afterward, in the wee morning hours of a pre-dawn Houston, she snuck out into her suburban backyard to look up at the moon and thought, “My husband is up there.” Jane said she always felt like “Maybe this is what it’s like to be on LSD,” trying to hold it together while having this cosmic debate raging through her body and mind: “He’s up there/I’m down here,” just trying to make sense of the whole surreal scenario.

During Pete’s mission, Jane’s sanity hinged on having her family and the other astro wives with her for support (she was also able to hear Pete via the “squawk box,” a fabulous space-age device that allowed the wives to hear the transmissions between the astronauts and mission control). Many wives went to sleep to the sound of their husband’s voice, gurgling beside them on their nightstand. As long as the squawk box squawked, everything was OK. Jane compared it to being pregnant, and “wanting the baby to kick so you know it’s OK.”

“That’s affirm, baby. Someone will have to do it eventually. Wouldn’t you like to say you were the first?”

Still, “the space program didn’t do much for the marriages,” Jane said. She and Pete divorced in 1990, after he retired from NASA, and around the same time one of their sons, Christopher, then in his 20s, died of lymphoma. Pete “bought the farm” a couple years later, in a motorcycle crash. Theirs was representative of many of the space marriages that ultimately couldn’t survive the pressure cooker of the space race—and the “Cape Cookies,” as the astronaut groupies down at Florida’s Cape Kennedy (as it was called until 1973) were known, and the men’s philandering.

Jane Conrad
Jane Conrad talks to her husband, astronaut Pete Conrad, the night before his “Apollo 12” launch. (Courtesy of Jane Dreyfus)

Jane and I have spent loads of time together (just as she once did with another writer fascinated by the male-space stuff, Tom Wolfe; he and Jane used to share over bottles of red wine). Jane has shared with me her memories and innermost thoughts, worries, and also her writing and painting, she being very talented at both. (She also shared with me the “tackiness,” as she tactfully puts going through a “space divorce,” and dealing with a stage-operating second wife, who at one point wanted to make plastic He-Man-type action figures of the astronauts, including Pete.) Moreover, she has shared with me her incredibly creative side and sense of humor and despite the heartbreak inherent in so many of the wives’ stories, she has a rare ability to see the bright side of the incredibly exciting period they played leading roles in. (She is, by the way, totally over the moon about her second husband, Seymour, of 20-some years.) I couldn’t help but smile when she recently emailed me a short story, where she imagines what it would be like if she were the astronaut and, well, what it would feel like to do It, up there. It left me knowing what I already suspected, that Jane has the Right Stuff.

How was it up there?

By Jane Dreyfus

I was the first woman to fly on the Intergalactic Space Mission. It was scheduled to be a 300-day fly-by of Mars with many hundreds of experiments to perform on the way. I was the only female in our crew of six astronauts. Everyone kept teasing me about being "the belle of the ball."

Jane Conrad
Jane Conrad photographed shortly after “Apollo 12” landed on the moon on November 19, 1969. (AP)

During our training period I got to know all the young men I would be flying with pretty well, but the captain of the mission, Don Feinberg, was my favorite. A lieutenant commander in the Navy, he was knock-out handsome with a smile that would melt a glacier. However, they kept us so busy before the flight I scarcely had time to think about sex.

Our launch was deemed uneventful even though I thought my heart would leap out of my chest with excitement. Macho men that they were, the other crewmen kept stone faces. We were on our way!

After three days of unpacking the experiments, getting used to being weightless and keeping abreast of the rigorous activities scheduled, I began to notice that the men were sporting unmistakable protuberances below their belt lines. I remembered that someone told me that Zero G gave men the appearance of a perpetual erection. This thought sort of deflated my ego.

One evening as we gathered around the makeshift “dinner table,” eating our packaged space food, Don Feinberg said to me, “Doctor Shaw, it isn’t on our mission list, but have you ever wondered what it would be like to have sex in space?” At Zero G blood tended to pool in our heads, so he couldn’t tell if I was blushing. I had been thinking about that very question all day and was quite ready to find out.

“I admit I am a bit curious, sir,” I said demurely.

“None of that ‘sir’ stuff, young lady. While we’re up here we are all of equal rank.” When we finished eating everyone floated off to his duty station. About nine o’clock ‘earth time’ Don tapped me on the shoulder.

“You can have the chance to find out what we were discussing at dinner. Come to my quarters after we sign off with mission control for the night. Whadda you say?”

“Are you proposing that we perform that experiment?” I asked, my heart pounding.

astronauts-wives-club-koppel-bookcover
“The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story,” by Lily Koppel. 288 pages. Grand Central Publishing. $28. ()

“That’s affirm, baby. Someone will have to do it eventually. Wouldn’t you like to say you were the first?”

“You bet I would! Do we have to enter it in the log?”

“Not if we are quiet enough.”