“Doug will come home, and he can tell me about what happened at work, and he doesn’t have to go into a lot of explanation,” Nyberg told me in a recent interview. She gets it. She’s already been to the International Space Station. She has already seen the stunning view of Earth against the darkness of space through its windows, and stepped outside to float, hanging on by a tether.
Read: Why women weren’t allowed to be astronauts
The four astronauts met the way many non-space travelers do: at work. They all started at NASA in the summer of 2000. Hurley and Behnken were engineers with military flying experience. Nyberg was a mechanical engineer, and McArthur an oceanographer. They took turns celebrating each other’s wedding—Hurley was Behnken’s best man—and took turns going to space. Hurley and Behnken were on the runway in 2003, ready to greet the Columbia crew, when the shuttle broke apart during reentry, killing everyone on board. In 2009, Nyberg told Hurley she was pregnant while he was in medical quarantine before his first shuttle flight, she said in a Houston Chronicle interview. When it was Nyberg’s turn to fly, their son was wearing diapers. When she came home six months later, he was potty trained.
Of the four, Nyberg has flown most recently—in 2013. She didn’t take off from Cape Canaveral, as American astronauts had done before. By then, the American space shuttles had stopped flying—the program canceled because of cost, safety, and politics—and the United States was paying Russia to launch NASA astronauts from Kazakhstan, shoulder to shoulder with Russian cosmonauts. For the past decade, NASA has been working with commercial companies, including SpaceX, to return launches to American shores.
Nyberg and McArthur will be at Cape Canaveral this week to witness the historic flight, knowing perhaps better than anyone what their husbands are getting themselves into. Decades ago, when the first NASA astronauts flew to space, the most well-known women in the American space effort were the astronauts’ wives. As military wives, the women were used to worrying about their husbands, but at NASA they were suddenly on display, their photographs printed in Life magazine and their facial expressions scrutinized by the reporters who camped out on their front lawns in Houston, not far from Mission Control.
These women had to figure out how to play their own role in the moon-shot effort. “As her husband trained for every possible aspect of spaceflight, each woman had to prepare for the day when she would have to face the television cameras,” writes Lily Koppel, the author of The Astronaut Wives Club, a biography of NASA’s earliest astronaut wives. “The world would be scrutinizing her hair, her complexion, her outfit, her figure, her poise, her parenting skills, her diction, her charm, and most of all, her patriotism.” Hollywood seized on the strain of these women’s lives in the spotlight, and movie scripts often turned them into caricatures of helplessness.