The old adage observes that behind every great man there's a great woman; in the case of the United States space program, behind every great astronaut, there’s a great astrowife.

As America's first group of men were selected to be launched into space, the wives of the Mercury Seven astronauts were launched on a journey of their own. Practically overnight, these women were transformed from military wives into American royalty; they had tea with Jackie Kennedy, appeared on the cover of Life magazine, were given Corvettes to drive, and became fashion icons in an instant.

Together these women formed the Astronaut Wives Club, meeting regularly to provide support and friendship. We take space travel for granted now, but at the time, these women had little precedent, watching their husbands and the fathers of their children boldly go where no man had gone before. In the first 12 years of the program, eight astronauts died; the women referred to the launches as "death watches."

The Astronaut Wives Club book coverAfter many of the families settled in the astronaut suburb — nicknamed Togethersville — near Houston’s Manned Spacecraft Center, “the women could dash in and out of one another’s back yards, push strollers together on walks and, during missions, hold sleepovers. At first informal, the support network eventually became official in the form of monthly meetings of the titular Astronaut Wives Club,” explains The Washington Post.

And now, some 50 years after its founding, the tale of the first ladies of space is being told in "The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story" (Hachette) by best-selling author Lily Koppel. Koppel was surprised that none of the journalists swarming the astronauts had ever profiled the astronauts’ wives, leaving plenty of virgin territory for the author to explore.

"I really see them as America's first reality stars," Koppel tells NPR.

But what interested her, she says, it that there is a “redemptive feminist story here to be told, these were the strong women in the background who were really never given the credit that they deserved.” She adds, “And as many astronauts have pointed out, perhaps we wouldn’t have landed on the moon if it weren’t for these wives who kept the home fires burning bright back on earth.”

And indeed, as astrowife Barbara Cernan remarks in the book, “If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home.”

Watch the author talk about the wives in the video below:

Related astronaut stories on MNN: