Astronaut wives: The other space pioneers

Neil Armstrong took mankind's first step on the moon exactly 45 years ago today. Other moon missions followed, but the astronauts weren't the only ones of those journeys. Their wives back on Earth were along in spirit . . . and what better time than this anniversary to hear from them, as Lee Cowan reports:

An earlier version of this story was originally broadcast on June 16, 2013.

It ranks among our greatest human endeavors -- going to the moon.

It was a staggering feat of engineering -- but that carried with it astronomical risks.

The men of NASA's Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs were national heroes. But they were husbands and fathers, too -- and the wives who stayed behind while their OTHER halves explored OTHER worlds -- were part of a sisterhood with an orbit all its own.

"I think we girls all shared something that no other group of women shared in history," said Marilyn Lovell. She was in the headlines right along with her husband, astronaut Jim Lovell.

In 1968 he was the command module pilot on Apollo 8 -- but Apollo 8 isn't why they make movies about Jim Lovell.

His heroism -- later depicted in the movie by Tom Hanks -- helped avoid disaster aboard Apollo 13. But it was no movie to Marilyn.

For four days in April 1970, every agonizing moment of her husband's dire situation was playing out not only in her living room, but across the country.

"As the years went on I thought, 'What would I have done if I had become a widow?'" Marilyn said.

From his earliest days as an astronaut, his career came first. Even when she found herself pregnant, Marilyn Lovell hid it from him for four months, fearing that it might ruin her husband's chances of going to the moon.

"I went, 'Let's see, four months, five, six, seven -- you're gonna be having the baby when I'm in space! Don't say anything!" Jim Lovell laughed.

Grand Central

If it all sounds like the astronaut version of "Mad Men," it was, says author Lily Koppel: "They weren't being flung into space, but they were dealing with the stress of having their husbands ride this giant rocket where no man had ever gone before, and also sort of projecting the perfect American family image."

She's compiled many of their very real wives' tales in a recent book, "The Astronaut Wives Club."

"Each women I think, dealt with the mission of having a husband in space on her own terms," said Koppel.

In the late '60s, the wives -- like Sue Bean, once married to Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean -- used to live close to one another, in a neighborhood outside Houston that was a kind of "space suburbia."

"I became pretty independent, living by myself with the children," said Sue Bean. "Because the fellas didn't have time to do the checkbook, they didn't have time to do the yard very often."

Cowan gathered Sue together with three other "Astrowives": Jeannie Bassett Robinson, who had proudly been astronaut Charlie Bassett's wife; Jane Dreyfus, once married to Pete Conrad, the third man on the moon; and Barbara Cernan Butler, the former wife of Gene Cernan, the LAST man on the Moon.