A year later, another tragedy: In January 1967, the three-man crew of Apollo 1 was killed when a fire tore through their capsule during a routine test.
Again, it was the wives who raced to each other's side.
"The guys were supportive, but the wives were just there," Robinson said. "[Their] presence means so much to them. I mean, we were really close."
But while the wives have remained close to this day, most of their marriages fell apart.
"We were just young and inexperienced and not ready for a lot of it, so I think that it took a real toll on, I'd say, the majority of our marriages," said Barbara Cernan Butler.
In fact, only a handful of astronaut marriages lasted. Jim and Marilyn Lovell just celebrated their 61st anniversary this month.
The Moon may have gone to his head, but it went to his heart, too. He actually named part of the moon after Marilyn: "Mount Marilyn, right there on the coast of the Sea of Tranquility," said Lovell.
And then there was the Christmas present he sent to her doorstop while he was still in space.
"I opened it, and it was a mink jacket, with a little card in there saying, 'Merry Christmas from the man in the Moon,'" recalled Marilyn.
"No guy is ever going to be able to top that, you realize that?" said Cowan.
"I have to admit, that was classic," Jim laughed.
Among all those mid-century images of dutiful wives watching their husbands rocket to glory, the wives of Apollo 12 perhaps summed it up best: Despite all the trials and hardships the wives endured, being a part of the space race still left them feeling "Proud, Thrilled and Happy."
For more info:
- "The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story" by Lily Koppel (Grand Central); Also available in eBook, Audio CD, Downloadable Audio and large print formats
- Read an excerpt | Reading group guide (pdf)
- Lily Koppel's Tumblr page
- Interviews in Houston were filmed at the Hotel Zaza, formerly the Warwick, home of the astronauts' "Moon Ball"
- NASA's history website
- Lovell's of Lake Forest