Interview series with the authors of “Into that Silent Sea,” French and Burgess, Part four

Today in Space History (TISH) has been granted an exclusive opportunity to interview authors Francis French and Colin Burgess based on their book “Into That Silent Sea,” which TISH highly recommends for reading. This is part four.

Archives for the complete interview series | one | two | three | four | five | six | seven | eight | Nine | Ten | Eleven | Twelve | Thirteen

Many people probably do not have an appreciation for the amount of sacrifice astronauts make in terms of being away from their family, especially due to training. The strain on the family must have been great. Can you talk about this?

FF: This was something that I think many of the early astronauts and cosmonauts only realized in retrospect, and one of the advantages of interviewing them decades later was that we were given a good deal of these reflections – often painfully honest memories of how their families endured. Some families were already accustomed to such lifestyles – primarily the military families who were used to frequent moves, long separations and the knowledge that their spouse had a dangerous occupation. But for others, seeing their husband fly off in a government-provided jet at the beginning of the workweek to a different part of the country, perhaps to only see them for a few hours each weekend, was a stressful and unwelcome new routine. The cosmonaut families, in some ways, had it even worse – their spouses were anonymous, their occupations held back from public scrutiny by secrecy and bureaucracy. If they flew in space, they instantly became celebrities. If not, they remained unknown and generally not allowed to talk about their occupation. It was a weird double-existence of extremes for many. For some, like the wife of Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, it was almost unbearable, something that we explore in the book.

CB: Having worked as Qantas airlines cabin crew for some thirty years, I can relate somewhat to this situation, and can empathize. You are away for the first baby steps, for Christmas, for the first day at school, the school presentations, birthdays, anniversaries and all those important events in the life of a family. It is important to have a strong person at home to raise a family, and most of the wives of the early astronauts and cosmonauts were very supportive of their husbands. They were used to living a hard and lonely life in sometimes second-rate accommodation, constantly on the move and without a great deal of immediate support from their absent husband. Even the wives of a couple of the first cosmonauts had to take on jobs cleaning carpets in order to support the family financially.

At least the families of the astronauts were mostly aware of the training and mission timetables of their husbands , whereas the early cosmonauts were ordered to keep their flights secret – even from their families – in the interest of national security. That must have been difficult.

It was a hard life for both sides of the marriage – the spacefarers were engaged in unforgivingly dangerous occupations as pilots and astronauts, and when they were launched their families were right in the glare of an unrelenting media spotlight. The wives also knew that the very nature of their husband’s occupation attracted the overt interest of a lot of young women, which must have been a hard thing to live with and try to shrug off. Little wonder then that so many marriages shredded and eventually fell apart. Even today, many current spacefarers say the hardest part of their job is the constant separation from their loved ones.

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~ by tellinghistory on December 13, 2007.

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