Wives, children of Apollo program have happy and difficult memories
For the families of astronauts and NASA leaders, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing brings back memories of a time when their private lives were lived under the glare of constant media attention.
Retired school nurse Harriet Eisele was married to astronaut Donn Eisele, who flew in Apollo 7 flight. This 1968 mission saw Donn Eisele, Wally Schirra and Walter Cunningham spend 11 days in space testing equipment and making the first TV transmission of onboard crew activities.
“It was a crazy time with television trucks and press outside our house,” Harriet Eisele said. “They would entertain my kids or maybe my kids would entertain them. I remember the kids playing in the front yard and they’d say and do silly things. Often, if a journalist asked them if an astronaut lived at the house, they would tell them no and send them down the street and around the corner.”
Harriet Eisele lived in El Lago for 53 years. The close-knit community was wonderful after having lived in 17 houses because Donn traveled to different Air Force bases, she said.
As an astronaut’s wife, Harriet Eisele had many extraordinary experiences, including dining at the White House with President Lyndon B. Johnson and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. A framed photo in Harriet Eisele’s home shows the menu included oyster bisque, prime rib beef and dessert of Moonshot Jubilee.
“I don’t really remember the meal, but I was thrilled to meet Charles Lindbergh, who was also at the dinner,” she said. “That was so exciting.”
That wasn’t her only encounter with the president. Eisele also was invited to his ranch in Texas with other astronaut wives, she said.
“There was one moment during an official photo and he was leaning so far back in his chair I thought his head would end up in my lap,” she said.
One of her special memories of the time was again shared with astronaut wives as they got to meet actor Jimmy Stewart, hugely popular, and a personal favorite of Harriet’s. But it wasn’t all fancy dinners and fun times, she said.
“I think there is a misconception that we were rich and everything was paid for us,” Harriet Eisele said. “That simply wasn’t true.”
For Eisele, 1968 was an incredibly difficult time, she said.
“In the space of seven months, Donn had his flight, our son Matt died of cancer and we were divorced,” Eisele said. “It was so hard.”
Eisele remembers signing her divorce papers and instantly seeing it displayed on a news ticker. Her phone rang off the hook and when she answered her front door, it was Paris Match magazine requesting an interview that Eisele declined.
“CBS offered me $30,000, but I knew they wanted me to talk badly about everyone, so I refused to do it,” she said.
Other astronaut wives and friends from the tight-knit El Lago neighborhood rallied around, she said.
“There were so many acts of kindness,” she said. “I couldn’t have got through it all without my neighbors and friends. The other wives filled my freezer with food and refused to tell me who cooked because they didn’t want to burden me with thank you notes.”
Her strong bond with other astronaut wives continues to this day, she said. They maintain contact and get together on a regular basis, most recently visiting astronaut Gene Cernan’s ranch with a group of wives and their daughters.
This support for family, neighborhoods and community is a defining feature of the Apollo era, said Jeff Carr, who is president of Griffin Communications Group and has more than 34 years’ experience in government and corporate communications for NASA and United Space Alliance, and is the son of astronaut Gerald Carr.
Gerald Carr was one of 19 astronauts selected in 1966. He was capsule communicator for Apollo 8 and 12 and was involved in the development and testing of the lunar rover module. In 1973, he became the commander of Skylab 4 and set a record for the longest manned flight of 84 days, during which he logged 15 hours of extravehicular activity outside the lab.
Even as a child, Jeff Carr was struck by the intense media interest in all things related to Apollo, he said.
“I remember in the lead-up to Apollo 11, I was good friends with Andy Aldrin,” Jeff Carr said. “Buzz had built a long jump in their backyard, and one day Andy and I were messing around in the yard entertaining a journalist with our youthful antics. Those long jump photos of us ended up on page three of the Houston Post.”
Jeff Carr remembers the long hours put into Apollo, the concern for astronaut safety and the way that wives, neighbors, teachers and others in the community supported each other, he said.
“Families were expected to take care of each other and make sure life wasn’t difficult for the men,” Jeff Carr said. “It was a sacrifice similar to that made by the thousands of families in active military service both home and abroad.”
Joyce Abbey is a passionate communicator and educator executive at NASA and Science Applications International Corp. whose work with students in kindergarten through 12th grade was recognized with a Pinnacle Award in 2018. Her father, George Abbey, had a storied career at NASA Johnson Space Center for 29 years in a variety of management roles ultimately working as the center director.
“We just never saw our dads,” Joyce Abbey said. “They worked incredibly long hours to make Apollo happen, and when they socialized, the work continued with discussions over cocktails. At 87, my dad still stays out too late and works too hard.”
Joyce Abbey believes Apollo’s legacy is the incredible teamwork, innovation, determination and grit shown by the thousands of people who made the program successful.
Though he worked hard, her father made time for the family, especially for vacations, Joyce Abbey said. She also remembers him finding her pet duck Henry, who had been missing for weeks, upsetting her and her four siblings. Despite being in a car with his boss George Lowe, George Abbey told him to stop the car for Henry.
“George Lowe was looking for a person,” Joyce Abbey said. “You can imagine his face when my dad opened the door and a duck got into the car.”
Her father has an open invitation for his five children to have Sunday dinner each week, Abbey said.
“We get together most weeks and revert back to being mischievous kids.”