Astronaut Heroes and Heroines: A Romance Sampler

{Courting Critique is a post series that takes a literary-critical and intersectional feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because good analysis can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound!} I've been waiting years, actual years, to get my hands on Margot Shetterly's Hidden Figures book (and you've heard there's going to be a movie! Starring Taraji P. Henson and Olivia Spencer and my favorite Janelle Monáe!). The book comes out quite soon now, and I could not be more excited.

Meanwhile, I passed time reading all the astronaut romances I could reasonably get my hands on. We're talking real-world Cold War space-race or contemporary astronauts and cosmonauts -- no astronomers, sci-fi spaceship pilots, or telescope-loving Regency misses allowed (much as I adore those). Naturally, this led to some thoughts about how the role of astronaut is presented in this small slice of the romance genre. I'll let the argument unfold in the same way I found it: chronologically in reading order.

Cover image for Heaven's Time by Susan PlunkettHeaven's Time by Susan Plunkett

Readers who miss the old style of romances jam-packed with plot and melodrama will want to check this one out. Heroine Melissa Fuller is a former foster child turned astronaut, who names the stars after the people who tried to love her but who tragically died. (Her childhood: SUPER rough.) She has shut down all social ties to achieve success in her career, and then when she finally does get into space a meteor shower damages her capsule (this was written decades before Gravity!) and sends her hurtling toward the Earth and her death. She has just enough time to regret never letting anyone get close to her before a giant beam made of greeny-purple magic reaches up from the planet and grabs her.

Meanwhile, hero Rory McCullough is hanging out in the 1887 Washington Territory and has just learned the old Native American woman who's his best friend is actually an immortal wish-granting plot device -- she tells him she must leave because ten years is all she gets to spend with one person, magically rejuvenates herself into youth and beauty, and then says oh yes, and I've found the perfect mate for you and she's on her way but it's going to be a little weird at first. Just be nice to her, okay? I kind of want to read this woman's book, to be honest.

Melissa comes screaming down out of the sky and lands smack in the nearby lake. Rory fishes her out. She's disoriented and battered, so naturally they have tender, vulnerable sex pretty much at once. Then they decide to head to Rory's home north of the city, which is of course when the puma attacks.

At this point we're in chapter three. Later there's a surprising amount of page-time spent on child trafficking in early Seattle, and the heroine spends some time wrongfully imprisoned for a noble purpose. It's that kind of romance.

Science Quotient: 2/10: We don't spend much time in the present, so while Melissa's knowledge of things like modern medicine comes in handy, this book features more tragic orphans than orbital mechanics. The opening scene is solid, though.

Astronaut Meaning: The intensity and time investment necessary for Melissa's career in the Air Force and the astronaut corps explicitly function as a shield to keep other people from getting too close to her. Astronauts have no time for love or a social life; they are aloof, cold, distant, and impeccably untouchable. This is of course The Problem at the heart of her emotional arc. In many ways it reminds me of the heroine from Joanna Lindsey's Warrior's Woman, where the sleek, civilized, tech-savvy (and virginal) heroine is 'saved' by the love of a backwards barbarian hero with sex drugs and fetish wear.

It's always refreshing to see a Wounded Heroine in place of a Wounded Hero, but there's something unsettling about the way all Melissa's hard work and twentieth-century success has to be stripped away to establish her as a heroine of warmth and caring. Maybe she shouldn't have worked so hard, this plot structure implies. Maybe she was too ambitious and ungentle. Maybe she was denying the fundamental squishiness of her essential femininity. I distrust this both as a moral arc and as a piece of story-craft. I distrust gender essentialism. I distrust books that force the heroine to abandon her entire world, and then imply it was all for her own good and isn't she grateful for the loss.


Star Dust by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner

This book is the first of the excellent Fly Me to the Moon series (have you read Earth Bound yet? It's magnificent) and features an astronaut hero and a divorcée heroine at a time when the stigma of divorce was still shockingly potent. Kit is a golden boy, a national hero and magazine-cover celebrity. Anne-Marie is a harried newly single mother with trust issues related to her cheating douche of an ex. The relationship starts as just physical-needs sex between two consenting adults, but you all know how that's going to work out in a romance. Then Kit gets to strap himself to a giant explosive and be shot into space, while Anne-Marie frets about safety and drinks super-strong cocktails with the other astronaut wives. This book will make you yearn for a cocktail like you're watching The Thin Man.

Science Quotient: 7/10. This is very much the Apollo 13  of romance novels -- not a dig, I sincerely love that movie -- so there's a strong mechanical/engineering/problem-solving component. Kit is primarily a pilot, as all astronauts were at the time, so the flight sections focus more on the equipment than on the physics behind it. (Unlike Earth Bound, where the math is very much at the center.)

Astronaut Meaning: We're in the realm of The Right Stuff, where astronauts are the best of the best, bursting with American values and idolized by all. Kit is physically fit and trains to stay that way. In a highly gendered contrast to the virginal astronaut of Heaven's Time, there's also a strong playboy/sex champion component to our male astronaut archetype here: Kit is definitely a no-strings-attached kind of guy (at the start, anyways -- this is Romancelandia) and he's thickly painted with the "any woman would want him" brush. Astronaut prestige appears to have a masculinizing effect -- which is a positive for an astronaut hero, but a problem for an astronaut heroine. I'll be keeping an eager eye out for how this trope is dealt with in Barry and Turner's Star Crossedtheir upcoming f/f astronaut romance. (I know! I know! I'm excited too!) And it's interesting to see Kit later become something of an antagonist in Earth Bound, whose engineer hero absolutely loathes astronauts and considers them cocky, immature disasters waiting to happen.

Kit's arc forces him to choose between fulfilling the gendered and public expectations of the astronaut role or finding a more personal, private happiness on earth. At the end -- spoilers! -- he decides not to go into space again, but to stay on solid ground with Anne-Marie. It's a lovely moment and very emotionally resonant, but I have to wonder: Do astronauts in romance always have to stop being astronauts to get their HEA? After all, an astronaut's job is to leave Earth -- any romance novel's HEA is going to have to find a way to grapple with this. You can't have forever if your partner has to leave.


Blue Sky Guy by Carole Buck

Reader, I was not expecting aliens to actually show up in this otherwise run-of-the-mill Silhouette Desire from 1992.[perfectpullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]An astronaut's job is to leave Earth -- any romance novel's HEA is going to have to find a way to grapple with this.[/perfectpullquote]

Hero Kyle Gordon lived to fly and was thrilled to be selected for the astronaut program -- but before he could make it to space, an injury grounded him permanently. Now he's back in his hometown, bereft and insecure, and being idolized by a preteen plot moppet named Charlie. Whose mom Susan just happens to be the widow of Kyle's childhood best friend and whom he's been secretly lusting after for years.

The emotions in the book are delightfully splashy and vivid -- appropriate to a category romance -- but a lot of the plot arcs don't add up once the book cover's closed. Kyle and Susan were both powerfully attracted to one another from the instant they met on Susan's wedding day, and again on the day of the husband's funeral. They both feel profoundly guilty about this. The book takes a lot of time establishing this guilt, rooting the chemistry. It's a good slow burn. But when Susan and Kyle get together, they never once talk about their feelings in the past. They talk about Mike (the dead husband) in the context of parenting Charlie, but never about how Kyle might miss his friend, or how Susan might have noticed a lack in their otherwise warm marriage. It feels like a red herring rather than an emotional beat.

Also a red herring: Kyle's disability. An inner-ear injury that wasn't his fault and is never really identified. It makes a big notable entrance in the opening chapter and nearly causes him to pass out, but then vanishes from the narrative once we get down to the business of Watching The Man-Whore Realize He Yearns For Commitment. Something serious enough to wash him out of the military entirely should definitely have an impact on his low-altitude life. He's able to speed down the back roads in his Thunderbird just fine, though, even before the aliens magically heal him so he can be an astronaut again. (Yes, really.)

Science Quotient: 0/10. This book is more about wanting to fly than about actually flying. Nobody even gets off the ground -- except the villain. But we'll get to that.

Astronaut Meaning: I wasn't initially sure there would be a lot of astronaut stuff in here to talk about. It's your basic small-town romance until about the 80% mark.

But then the aliens touch down.

Turns out Kyle's uncle, a famous sci-fi writer and SETI-head, was right: this small town is the center of a lot of extraterrestrial activity. Two silver orbs, one found by Kyle and one found by Charlie, turn out to be robot alien babysitters. (Yeah, you heard me.) Fired government alien-hunter Alvin Pettit shows up to be villainous in search of these objects, but until the end the bulk of his villainy seems to consist of having dandruff and being unattractive. It's a terminal case of Evil Makes You Ugly. At the end, the aliens take their robot babysitters back, heal our hero with a magic blue glow cloud (alien ex machina), and offer Kyle the opportunity to go with them into the stars. He turns it down, choosing to stay on earth with Susan and Charlie.

Kyle's uncle then suggests the aliens make the same offer to Alvin, who's right there sobbing at having his ET tech taken away. He's got no family, nobody will miss him, and he's as obsessed with the stars as Kyle is.

Sure, the aliens say, why not. So Alvin gets to go to space. But not before the magic blue glow cloud pretties him up.

No, for real, here's the passage: "The glow finally faded away. The Alvin Pettit who emerged stood straight, had no dandruff on his narrow shoulders and, to judge by the haste with which he discarded his glasses, probably possessed twenty-twenty vision." This is a man who just beat up our hero's elderly uncle, who held the heroine at hostage at gunpoint, and we're supposed to forgive him and root for him to be happy because his posture has improved? Now that he's prettified, the text makes him Kyle's equal and spiritual twin: "'Goodbye!' he called, and snapped off a salute at Kyle. Something more powerful than military training prompted Kyle to return the gesture."

This is taking the idea of astronaut-as-superhuman past the bounds of the reasonable. Kit and Melissa were exceptional and exceptionally good-looking people, but it was presented as incidental to the job -- and in Kit's case, we are shown how hard he works to maintain his muscular physique. Here, being conventionally attractive is so closely tied to the meaning of astronaut that the book has to physically transform the villain, because it's unthinkable to present the reader an astronaut who was not handsome and perfect.

In sum it was a completely bonkers moment and I had to share.

Meanwhile it's implied Kyle goes back to being an astronaut, but we don't see any of it on the page. This is definitely the thinnest, most wallpaper-y use of the astronaut hero in any of our sample books. He could have been any sort of job and the book would have turned out the same.[perfectpullquote align="right" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]Being conventionally attractive is so closely tied to the meaning of astronaut that the book has to physically transform the villain.[/perfectpullquote]


Space in His Heart by Roxanne St. Claire

Our most modern example -- hero Deke Stockman (yep, he's named after Deke Slayton) is an astronaut and engineer for NASA during the era of shuttle flights and international space stations. Heroine Jessica Marlowe is the PR star NASA hires to try and shine up the agency's creaky image. Jessica decides that what the nation wants from NASA is some Grade-A American beefcake (judging by the way we swooned over Bobak Ferdowski, she's not far wrong), so she picks unmarried Deke as her poster boy. Deke would rather spend his time fixing safety issues before the next launch, so there is much tedious antagonism between hero and heroine: Let me stare at your cleavage while I sneer about how wrong you are. I have to admit I was not in the least convinced by the romance in this book. And don't get me started on the suspense subplot, which has an unfortunate Surprise Secret Killer and is utterly tacked-on.

Science Quotient: 7/10. We see a lot of shuttle flying, and some talk about the medical aspects of space travel. (Have you read Mary Roach's Packing for Mars?) There's a lot of electrical equipment and wiring problems, too, which was neat.

Astronaut Meaning: I'm going to let this book speak for itself for a moment: "Astronauts were a magnificent breed of human beings. Hungry for knowledge, curious, and driven to push the boundaries of earth. It humbled her." This is the heroine's POV, about two-thirds of the way through the book. Jessica's transition from "astronauts are hot and that's useful from a branding standpoint" to "astronauts are a superior breed of human" gives me a terminal case of side-eye -- particularly since Deke himself tends to emphasize the daredevil aspects of the position: "His sudden grin blinded her. 'Because the son of a bitch flies seventeen thousand miles an hour, that's why.'" In his PR interviews he talks about all the tech and knowledge advancements that NASA makes possible -- but he doesn't see the need to clarify that those advancements are made by engineers and scientists, not the astronauts themselves. An astronaut, like a duke or a billionaire, stands at the peak of a hidden pyramid of other people's labor. Jessica feels "humbled" because the book's project is to make her realize her work is less valuable than the hero's.

Jessica's arc is one of conversion to the religion of astronaut idolatry: she comes to believe in the NASA mission so profoundly that she makes it the center of her whole life. So what if we spend several chapters with her missing winter in the city? NASA's in Florida, so she must learn to love Florida. So what if her career is everything to her when the book begins, and she's on the verge of a promotion she's been working toward for years? There's nothing noble about PR, nothing admirable -- it's all trivial, surface work that can only be redeemed by putting it to work for something that is in fact noble. Like NASA.

For Jessica to aid NASA's mission is presented as a moral step forward for her; by contrast when Deke gives an impromptu interview, saving Jessica's job after a disastrous story despite how much he loathes playing the publicity game, this is presented as him doing her a favor. A kindness, not a change of heart about the worthiness of her work. Noblesse oblige. At every turn the hero's job's superiority is emphasized over the heroine's. How convenient that her colleague tries to kill her (sigh) so she has a great justification to quit and work directly for NASA. How marvelous that her skills help advance Deke's career even after he stops flying missions: the epilogue shows him as the space correspondent for CNN, still visible and an authority while Jessica works behind the scenes. Deke gets to keep everything he had before, plus he acquires everything of hers once she's fallen in love with him. It's like colonialism by osmosis.

Although there are many parallels between Deke and Kit, the way their respective books approach the risks of space travel make a clear distinction of meaning. Kit looks at the dangers and decides that facing them over and over would be selfish: he chooses to stay on the ground for the sake of his wife. For Deke, facing fatal danger is by definition selfless, heroic. Naturally he's not going to stop being a hero. This astronaut doesn't have to sacrifice anything -- his heroine does all the sacrificing for him. In fact it's a fairly strong parallel to Melissa and Rory's story in Heaven's Time: no matter which character is the astronaut, the heroine is the one forced to make sacrifices.

This book deals least successfully with the problem of an astronaut leaving -- the opening chapter is a flash-forward that shows Deke's shuttle taking off on the horizon while Jessica worries deeply about him and collapses from an unspecified ailment. The sense of peril in this scene is vivid, and I feel the rest of the narrative failed to fit in with it. (Also, if you guessed her unspecified ailment was pregnancy, give yourself ten internet dollars. I laughed when I saw that they presented it as an emergency when the heroine went into labor two whole weeks early!) Turns out all the fear we felt for Jessica in that first chapter didn't matter, not in the slightest -- it was an easy hook for drama but is ultimately glossed over with a babylogue. If there's one sure way to ruin a romance, it's to make us feel like what we feel about the characters doesn't matter.

So where does that leave us?

It is abundantly clear that the astronaut heroes/heroines in the four books above are strongly associated with physical ideals and perfection, and since we're talking romance, ideals of beauty soon follow. At this point I'd like to remind you that all our examples are also straight, white, cis, and pointedly able-bodied (with the temporary exception of Kyle, for whatever that's worth). This narrowness of representation can hardly be a coincidence.

Earlier I mentioned that astronauts were figures of privilege as much as any duke or billionaire, and the more I think about it the more I feel like that comparison bears further exploring -- dukes and billionaires clearly are about social power and money, respectively, while astronauts are more like, well, a moral aristocracy, a very particularly American embodiment of virtue. They're smart but strong, neither meatheads nor eggheads. The perfect blend of earthy and elite. This contradictory set of strengths strikes me as uniquely American -- like Ron Swanson being a staunch feminist, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg being good friends with Antonin Scalia.

If you can think of any other astronaut romances I've missed, please add them in the comments! Otherwise I'll add another entry to this list when Star Crossed comes out next year.