The Astronaut’s Wife

Jan Evans recalls how it was for the families of moon voyagers in the Apollo era.

Ron Evans’ daughter Jaime, wife Janet, and son Jon rejoice as Apollo 17 splashes down in the Pacific on December 19, 1972. Behind Jon is Janet’s sister, Marian Bell. (Associated Press)
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Ronald E. Evans was a U.S. Navy pilot and combat flight instructor when he was selected in 1966 as one of 19 NASA astronauts. With his wife, Janet, and children, Jon and Jaime, he settled in Houston shortly thereafter. Evans was a member of the astronaut support crews for Apollo 7 and 11, and was the backup command module pilot for Apollo 14. His sole launch was as command module pilot for Apollo 17 in December 1972, during which he achieved the record for time in lunar orbit (nearly 148 hours). He also logged just over an hour of spacewalk time. Evans died of a heart attack in his sleep in 1990, at age 56.

From This Story

Historian Jennifer Ross-Nazzal of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston interviewed Janet Evans for the center’s oral history project by phone in August 2003 while Evans was in her home in Scottsdale, Arizona (Ross-Nazzal and Evans are still at those locations).

ROSS-NAZZAL: When did you move to the Clear Lake area in Texas?
EVANS: In 1966. The procedure started late in 1965. Ron was selected as an astronaut. He was in Vietnam, flying off of the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga. He got home the 28th of April, had to report to NASA the 2nd of May. So we did a lot of washing and ironing, and he was on his way. The children and I went down after they got out of school in June.

Tell us about the Clear Lake subdivision in Houston.
The people were all from someplace else. There were a lot of astronaut families, a lot of people connected with the different contractors, and you soon developed very close relationships with families. Everybody took care of everybody else. We still have reunions. When we moved to Arizona in 1977, our children said, “We don’t like this. People don’t wave or smile or say hello.” They were used to that laid-back, friendly Texas way of living.

How did all these people come together to create that community?
Everybody was working on a very exciting, challenging project. Everybody’s dad somehow worked for NASA and everyone had one goal in mind: to eventually send man to the moon. That was in a day and age when most women were stay-at-home mothers. The fathers of the families were gone a great deal of the time, and yet they had very strong wives and families who could function without them. All astronaut wives are seriously loyal to one another and have been from the beginning and will be forever. There was no Astronaut Wives Club: We didn’t feel that we were any different than anybody else and didn’t want to set ourselves apart. The only time we wavered from that is when we had a luncheon and invited all of the prisoner-of-war wives from the area.

Did NASA create the community?
Only because NASA is where the jobs were. NASA itself didn’t say, “Oh, here. We welcome you. Do this.”

How did the community differ from Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, where you moved from?
You had squadron camaraderie, definitely. Ron had two tours of Vietnam. You couldn’t talk. You never said where your husband was or what his job was. The wives would get together, but some were in great fear. Frankly, they were not pleasant to be around, because the majority of us still went on to live and had our children and our activities.

How did your husband’s long hours and extended travel affect your family?
Once we got to NASA, we saw much more of Ron. When he was a Navy fighter pilot, he would be gone anywhere from six to 10 months at a time; home four months, gone again six, eight, 10 months; home for a month. In Houston, we got to see him almost every weekend for at least 24 hours. In fact, I felt like I was having Friday-night affairs.

Tell us about your own personal involvement in community organizations.
Raising your children was the top priority, so my involvement was mainly due to them—one in preschool and one starting first grade. Our son, Jon, had Little League football. Ron was involved in that, and he did soccer too. He was in town one Saturday for a soccer game. One of our neighbors was also called Ron, Ron Ammons. Everybody would get him confused with Ron Evans. Ron had to run up to the place you buy lumber, and we were playing in Clear Lake City. Jon got flipped in the air and broke his collarbone, and so the coach came up to Ron Ammons, who said, “Well, I’ll get him on to the hospital. I’ll go get the car.” I go with them to the hospital, and Ron Ammons is giving all the information, which he knew, and they’re taking Jon up in a wheelchair to X-ray, and the nurse said something like, “Now, your daddy can come on up here with you.” Jon turned around and said, “That’s not my daddy.” Even the coach had thought he was. Then, about five minutes later, Ron came walking in. So that’s what I mean when I say we all had pseudo families, everybody knew about everybody else. You never knew what a day would bring. When Ron was home on a Saturday, he would load up his Suburban with 10 or 12 neighborhood children and take them to the local dump, where they could pick out whatever treasured thing they wanted to take home with them. The neighborhood children all have fond memories of him.

There was one tragedy and one near-miss, the Apollo 1 fire and the flight of Apollo 13.
At the time of the fire, Ron was on a support crew for that. In fact, he’d been in that spacecraft running tests the afternoon before that fire. This was a very crushing blow. When something like this happens, you gather around for moral support. That’s all you can do. Anything and everything is there for you to reach out if you needed it. You just had to say, “I need somebody to hold my hand,” and you’ve got hundreds of people there to do it.

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