I want to tell you a story of a friendship. A friendship between two women that turned into four women. A friendship that dreamed of the stars. A friendship that was forged in rocket fire and sprinkled with moon dust.
It is late 1963 and the new astronauts, the“Apollo 14”, are chosen to carry out Kennedy’s vision to land man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the decade is out. The space race is on. It is a 6-year sprint from the earth to the moon.
A housing development, Nassau Bay rises from the Gulf Coast cow pastures outside the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center, and the new astronaut families cluster their homes a few blocks from each other. The “14” men fly off to fulfill America’s destiny.
The women unpack the family belongings, enroll their children in school, and create a supportive home for their husbands to return. Marge Slayton, Deke’s wife, welcomes the newcomers into the fold of the Astronaut Wives Club. My mother, Sue Bean and Barbara Cernan, friendly, vivacious blondes, discover their baby daughters, Amy and Tracy, were born 3 months apart. The mothers push their baby strollers to the park in the afternoon, and when Tracy and I grow older, they frequently pack a picnic lunch for Galveston Beach.
Traditional Texas women, Barbara was a Continental Airlines stewardess when she met Gene, and my mother, Sue, a University of Texas cheerleader, married my father, Alan, a few months after his NROTC commissioning. Barbara and Mom’s friendship is born from a shared sense of purpose, their calling in the roles of loving mothers and devoted wives to their husbands, Naval Aviators who set their sails for the stars.
The two women rely on each other, a daily phone call or a morning cup of coffee. I spend the night at the Cernan home when my parents need an overnight babysitter. Barbara is home late from a day in town, Tracy rides the school bus home with me till mom can pick her up. Gene buys Tracy a horse and teaches Tracy and me to ride. Outside the gates of the Manned Spacecraft Center is The Little Red Schoolhouse where Mom is a teacher. Tracy and I attend preschool and kindergarten together.
Mom and Barbara are there for each other from launch to splashdown. The morning of the Apollo 12 blastoff I remember Barbara brushing my hair, buttoning up my coat before we left for the launchpad. The afternoon of Dad’s landing on the moon, she hosted an Astronaut Wives luncheon for mom.
Tracy and I ran around the Cernan front yard, posing for the news photographers while Barbara, Mom, friends, and family anxiously watched Gene’s daring Gemini 9 spacewalk.
After Apollo 11 returned from the moon, President Nixon hosted the Moon Ball in Los Angeles, CA inviting all the astronauts, members of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court Justices, Governors of the 50 States, and other national and international dignitaries, to celebrate the American accomplishment. Dad and Gene earned a military man’s salary so Mom and Barbara drove over to my Aunt Hallie’s San Antonio dress shop to buy gowns at cost. My father, always the artist with an eye for beauty, helped Barbara and Mom glue on their false eyelashes.
Our friendship of four celebrates its 54th year. We have seen each other through five space flights, including 3 trips to the moon, divorces, marriages, the births of children, the deaths of parents, husbands, fathers, and dear friends. In the midst of my parent’s divorce, I cried on Barbara’s shoulder. Tracy was the Maid-of-Honor in my wedding and, Barbara is my daughter’s Godmother.
We lived in different cities, different states. In the 90s, Mom and Barbara lived down the street from each other again. Through it all, we are bonded by an extraordinary time when our husbands, our fathers, pioneers of the stars, thrust the world into the frontier of space.