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'The Astronaut Wives Club': Space history vs. Hollywood in Ep. 4 'Liftoff'

"The Astronaut Wives Club" celebrates Wally Schirra's six orbits in "Liftoff," the fourth episode of the docu-drama on ABC. (ABC)
July 10, 2015

– "The Astronaut Wives Club" went from six orbits to splashdown in "Liftoff," the ten-part series' fourth episode, which launched Thursday night (July 9) on ABC.

Set in September and October 1962, the episode included NASA's second-to-last Mercury mission – but only barely, as most of the drama focused on what was happening on the ground.

"While the Cold War intensifies and Cuban Missile Crisis comes to a head, the Mercury 7 families begin glamorous new lives in Houston," ABC wrote in its official synopsis. "But Houston also marks the start of the Gemini Project, and with it, the arrival of the Gemini wives, which changes the dynamic among all the women."

"Liftoff" juxtaposed the "Original 7" Mercury wives with the spouses of the "New Nine," the second group of astronaut candidates selected by NASA on Sept. 17, 1962, as well as the women of Houston's "high society," led by Beverly Davis (Catherine Dent), wife of the "pecan king of Texas" (a character seemingly based on Joanne Herring, the real-life wife of an oil baron).

"New Nine" wives Jane Conrad (Haley Strode, center) and Susan Borman (Antonia Bernath, right) greet Jo Schirra (Zoe Boyle) and the other members of "The Astronaut Wives Club" on ABC. (ABC)

Post-mission debriefing: Here's a look at where Episode 4 "Liftoff" was faithful to space history ("A-OK!") and where it veered off course ("ABORT!").

  • "Juvenile humor"

    Wally Schirra (Aaron McCusker) inserts a whoopee cushion under LIFE reporter Max Kaplan's (Luke Kirby) chair at an outdoor barbecue.

    A-OK! The real Wally Schirra became infamous for his "gotchas" – practical jokes and gags he pulled on his fellow Mercury astronauts, but also on those around him.

    That said, Schirra's gotchas were generally known to be a tad more involved than a simple fart joke or hand buzzer, as was depicted in an earlier episode. "The key to the gotcha game is expectation," said Schirra. One memorable example was the 5-gallon "urine" sample (warm water colored with iodine and made foamy by laundry detergent) that Schirra and his Mercury-Atlas 8 backup Gordon Cooper left for their nurse, Dee O'Hara.

    "Gordo and I were like little kids, peeking with glee around the corner of the doorway, when we spotted Dee first stop in horror and then burst out laughing," Schirra recounted in his autobiography.

  • "At Pax River together."

    The Mercury 7 wives first encounter the New 9 Gemini wives poolside, as Jo Schirra (Zoe Boyle) introduces the other spouses to Jane Conrad (Haley Strode), who's joined by Susan Borman (Antonia Bernath).

    A-OK! Before being an astronaut, Schirra attended the United States Naval Test Pilot School at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, where Pete Conrad also attended and then served as a flight instructor and performance engineer. (Like Schirra, Conrad had applied for the first astronaut class, but was initially rejected because he was deemed "not suitable for long-duration flight."

  • "Out by the lake with the rest of us"

    The Mercury wives visit Louise Shepard at her home and lament the distance between their homes.

    A-OK! On arriving in Houston, most of the Mercury families had homes in Timber Cove, a new village built along Taylor Lake. The Glenns and Carpenters became neighbors on Sleepy Hollow Court, and the Schirras and Grissoms lived on adjoining properties on Pine Shadows Lane.

    The Coopers settled in El Lago, across from Taylor Lake, and the Slaytons made their home in nearby Friendswood.

    Only the Shepards decided to move into downtown Houston, settling into a high-rise luxury apartment.

    (In the episode, Louise [Dominique McElligott] says her husband was behind the location: "Alan's more of a city person," she says. "He likes to be beside the restaurants, museums." According to Shepard's biographer, Neal Thompson, though, it was Louise who "preferred the shops, nice restaurants and the rough-edged sophistication of Houston.")

A Mercury-capsule shaped community pool, built in 1963, is still in use in Timber Cove, near Taylor Lake in Houston. (TCRA)
  • "In case there's a deployment"

    On Oct. 22, 1962, less than three weeks after Schirra splashed down from his six-orbit Mercury-Atlas 8 flight on "Sigma 7," President Kennedy addresses the country about the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Mercury astronauts, responding to the increased threat level (Defcon 3), report to the Manned Spacecraft Center instead of attending a high society gala with their wives.

    ABORT! Although security during the 13-day scare was increased at NASA and some astronauts who were active military officers wondered if they would be called up for duty, there does not seem to be a record of the Mercury astronauts racing to the MSC to report for service (this includes in Lily Koppel's "The Astronaut Wives Club," the book that serves as the basis for the series).

  • "Chief astronaut"

    Convinced his grounding means that his days as a NASA astronaut are over, Deke Slayton (Kenneth Mitchell) is surprised to learn he's instead being promoted. "You may not be going up in Gemini, but from now on, you decide who does."

    A-OK! ...and ABORT! It's indeed true that after he was grounded, NASA (at the urging of Shepard and the other astronauts) appointed Slayton as the new "coordinator of astronaut activities" (a position that later evolved into chief of the astronaut office). And in his new role, Slayton did indeed decide the crew assignments for the two-man Gemini flights.

    But the episode's timeline is off. The events shown are out of order. Not only was he the "astro chief" before Gemini began, Slayton led the final selection of "The New Nine."

    "The formal announcement of my new title... was made the same day [as the New Nine's selection], even though I'd been doing the job for months by that time," Slayton wrote in his autobiography.

  • "W. Shirra"

    Leaving the space center, the Mercury astronauts head out to their Corvettes, each parked in a spot marked with a sign bearing their name.

    ABORT! Wally's last name is spelled "Schirra."

  • "Cut a hole in the fence"

    As the episode ends, Jo and Betty (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) emphasize the bond between the astronaut wives by having Jo cut a hole in the fence separating their homes.

    A-OK! Although it is not clear if Jo, herself, took a chainsaw to the fence as shown in "Liftoff," Wally Schirra described the opening in his autobiography. "[Betty] had gone by way of a hole in the fence that was there so that our wives could visit each other without reporters knowing."

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