The Astronaut Wives Club series premiere recap: 'Launch'
The yearlong wait for The Astronaut Wives Club television arrival is finally over. While the show got a series order last February and was geared up for a July 24 premiere date last summer, ABC bumped The Astronaut Wives Club to take care of some creative changes, and so here we are. TAWC kicks off just ahead of Alan Shepard’s launch into space on May 5, 1961, and the Astro-families have gathered to watch Alan (Desmond Harrington) hopefully make history. Meanwhile Alan’s wife Louise (Dominique McElligott) sits by herself in her living room, as she learns that NASA has lost contact with her husband. Life reporter Max Kaplan (Luke Kirby) asks an anxious Louise if she has any words to share with the magazine’s readers, a question that receives no response.
Cut to two years earlier, when Louise marches into Alan’s office, where he’s getting cozy with a secretary. Louise brings a phone message from NASA, and when Alan returns the call, he learns he’s landed a spot on the team NASA will try to send to space.
And after Dwight Eisenhower introduces the country to the Project Mercury astronauts at a press conference, the astronauts and their wives then head to a swanky party hosted by Life, who Alan reveals will exclusively cover Project Mercury. NASA’s PR officer Dunan Pringle (Evan Handler) is at the party trying to convince Max to ask the Mercury wives to share their stories with the magazine, saying the publicity is important to President John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and winning the Space Race against Russia. On the dance floor, Louise and Alan get their first taste of the other astronauts and their wives with Scott (Wilson Bethel) and Rene Carpenter (Yvonne Strahovski). Dressed in a sparkly Pepto-Bismol pink dress, blonde Rene introducers herself as “Rene, rhymes with peachy keen,” and we immediately know she and Louise won’t always see eye-to-eye.
The Shepards then meet John (Sam Reid) and Annie Glenn (Azure Parsons), for whom her husband does most of the talking. Louise fakes her enthusiasm regarding meeting the rest of the wives before saying to Alan, “I’m about to be forced into bridge and bake sales with a bunch of wives. Hard to say who’s facing a bigger challenge.” All eyes then turn to Trudy Cooper (Odette Annable), having the time of her life dancing with husband Gordo (Bret Harrison). As we get closer to the dancing couple, Gordo inches his way up Trudy’s leg, prompting her to reveal that copping a feel isn’t part of their “deal.”
Alan leaves Louise’s side to grab a cigar with Deke Slayton (Kenneth Mitchell) and Wally Schirra (Aaron McCusker), who’s already pulled two dorky pranks in the span of about five seconds. Wide-eyed Betty Grissom (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) introduces herself to a lone Louise, before the wives convene at the bar. Marge Slayton (Erin Cummings) is telling a story about how she flawlessly wrote up a memo for General Douglas MacArthur while working overseas in Japan, and Jo Schirra (Zoe Boyle) remarks that being overseas and unmarried must’ve been quite the adventure.
The conversation quickly heats up as the women begin trying to prove their husband as the most likely man to take the first trip into space. Trudy Cooper declares her husband Gordo has no competition, and Jo believes John Glenn will be the first astronaut to make the voyage. In an attempt to quell the tension, Louise says, “Our husbands all want to go up first. It’s our job to help them get what they want.” Rene takes issue with this statement, saying she doesn’t think of being a wife as a job, as she attended college and raises four children. Marge assures her, “Every woman works.”
Max interrupts to pitch the Astrowives the idea of having Life tell their stories to America. He explains they’d each receive a $100,000 life insurance policy, and half a million dollars to split among the seven families. Rene isn’t sure if it’d be right for the wives to step into their husbands’ limelight, but Max asks if they’ll do it for America. He adds that doing so would also help support their husbands, so of course, the wives agree.
The ladies’ road to fame starts with a group photo shoot. Trudy and Marge carpool to the location, and Trudy admits that she finds her husband Gordo arrogant and infuriating at times. Mrs. Cooper, a former pilot herself, hopes if she plays her cards right, she’ll be heading up into space soon. All the wives arrive to the shoot in pastel shirtwaist dresses, except for Rene, who dons a floral frock, eliciting dirty looks from the rest of the wives.
Duncan gives each of the wives their own station wagon, to the dismay of Rene, who hoped to pick out a car that better matched her personality. He tells the wives the toilet bowl colored cars, as Marge puts it, were picked out by NASA because they send the “right message.” Their husbands, on the other hand, get sports cars.
Before a barbeque at the Grissoms’, Max marvels at how good the property looks for not having a man around. Betty’s explains to Max that with her husband constantly away risking his life, the last thing she wants him to do when he returns home is mow the lawn. Rene shows up fashionably late to the barbeque, wearing an outfit that matches the dessert she brought.
At the Slaytons’ (the families live in close proximity to one another, if not next door), the Shepard kids discover Marge’s robes from her time in Japan, in a suitcase marked with another man’s name. With a past controversial for the time, Marge admits to Louise she doesn’t feel like she can compete with the other Astrowives. But all the wives have their secrets.
NEXT: The astronauts let loose ahead of the first launch
The men are partying too down at Cape Canaveral, Florida in their NASA-provided hotel. Alan approaches Gordo, who’s on the phone with Trudy, to ask if he can borrow Gordo’s room to entertain a woman he met on the beach. Overhearing this, Trudy immediately hangs up the phone, only to pick it up again to call Duncan to suggest the wives take a surprise trip to visit their husbands at the Cape. Duncan thinks that’d be a great photo op for Life, and the ladies head on a Pan Am flight down to Florida.
The wives arrive to find their husbands partying at the hotel pool, where Alan is cozying up to another “Cape Cookie” (a nickname given to the women the astronauts meet at the beach), and Gordo is floating in the pool in a suit, beer in hand. Louise confronts Alan, and then tries not to show emotion as she marches off to unpack.
Over breakfast in bed, Trudy tells Betty and Marge that Louise can’t let Alan get away with cheating, or it’ll send the wrong message to the other astronauts. Marge believes Louise is “too smart to get divorced,” a comment she hopes doesn’t offend Trudy, who then spills her secret to Betty. Trudy explains she was filing the divorce papers when her husband got the call from NASA, and she’s only back for Gordo’s career. “What he did, I will never forgive or forget,” Trudy says, referencing to him cheating on her with their neighbor. Marge assures her having sex is the best part about being married and encourages Trudy to move on.
While going for a swim at the hotel pool, Annie gets accosted by a reporter. And when she won’t answer his questions, he threatens to write an article calling her rude. Annie starts to stutter and Rene comes to her rescue, getting the reporter to leave.
Back inside the hotel, Louise tells Alan that everybody warned her not to marry him, but she ignored them because, “I love you and I think you can be amazing.” Alan apologizes, and then the wives head to the beach to watch the test launch, the first unmanned rocket heading into space. The rocket explodes in the air, and the wives immediately panic except for Louise, who assures the other six NASA will learn from their mistakes. Trudy takes offense, saying it’s unacceptable that the rocket exploded and it’s equally unacceptable for Alan to be unfaithful. The most progressive of the Astrowives, Trudy shares her thoughts on what it means to be a modern wife, saying Louise should challenge Alan to be better. Louise’s competitive edge comes out, as she assures the others Alan loves her and the two are partners in life and in the space competition.
Alan travels home just after the wives’ visit ends to tell Louise and their two daughters that he’s been selected as the first man in space. He invites Louise back to the Cape, because he couldn’t have done it without her. But the high spirits are immediately brought back down when Duncan delivers the news that the Russians have sent the first man into space, and rumor has it, he orbited.
Come the day of the launch, all the wives show up to Louise’s house (NASA doesn’t allow wives at the Cape) with champagne, homemade entrees, and desserts. Louise turns away the companionship saying she wants her privacy, so the group head to Marge’s place.
Back where the episode started, Max pushes Louise for a quote for his Life story before deciding he’ll step into the other room to listen to the launch on the radio and leave Louise alone with her kids. But Louise grabs Max and watches the remainder of the mission with the reporter by her side. NASA briefly loses contact with Alan, stopping Louise and all of America’s hearts, before the broadcaster declares everything is A-Okay.
The six wives at Marge’s pop champagne and Max reminds Louise that she owes the press a comment. Her first words after the launch: “Alan can never know I was scared. No one can.” Louise heads to her front lawn to give the press an evergreen statement about how the success of the launch is a victory for the entire free world.
Marge, Betty, and Trudy watch with slight jealousy as Louise gets deemed the “first lady of space” on television alongside President Kennedy and First Lady Jackie. In Washington D.C., Louise feels she can finally breathe now that the launch is over, but Alan tells her the president wants to go to the moon. Alan ends the disappointing news by saying he’s cutting their night in Washington short and heading back to the Cape. In Florida, he gets right back to the Cape Cookies, and Gordo ignores a call from Trudy to do the same.
While she’s tried to show as little emotion as possible throughout the whole episode, Louise finally realizes she could use a little bit of compassion and heads to Trudy’s house. It’s not long before the rest of the wives join and an impromptu dance party erupts. Gus interrupts with a call to Betty, in which he reveals he’ll be going up next. Betty immediately turns to Louise for advice on what seemed like the best day of her life, and Louise turns somber again before quietly agreeing that Alan’s launch day was in fact the best day of her life. Recognizing there won’t always be “nights like this,” Louise starts the dance party up again. We end on a quote from Louise, presumably printed in her Life story, in which she admits she needs the wives to help her feel less lonely.
The series is definitely starting off much faster than the book it’s based on (by Lily Koppel, who co-wrote the show). But being able to put faces to the names makes it easier to keep the seven wives straight and watch friendships form between them. The fact that the astronauts and wives are supposed to lean on the people who are also their biggest competition seems to be the central source of tension so far. And although we know what’s going to happen—the show is based on history, after all—the most interesting part will be watching the relationships play out over the next nine episodes.