Beguiled at an early age by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Dean (English/Univ. of Tennessee; The Time It Takes to Fall, 2007) deftly chronicles the history of American spaceflight and what the end of the space program means for American culture.
The author structures her narrative around trips to the Kennedy Space Center in order to witness the final space shuttle launches. Seeking “to write about those places where the technical and emotional intersect,” Dean introduces readers to Florida’s Space Coast; the NASA technicians who work on the shuttles; and astronauts, avid space fans, and the locals whose livelihoods depend on the space agency. Like any great storyteller, the author weaves in numerous cultural, political, historical, literary, and personal threads, widening the story’s focus and enriching its texture. Dean notes that the style of writing known as creative nonfiction smoothly overlapped with the beginnings of American spaceflight in the 1960s. The author enlists the voices of such writers as Tom Wolfe, William Burrows, Norman Mailer and Oriana Fallaci for their insights into the saga of American space travel. Dean frequently reiterates her passion for the literature of spaceflight. “When I read all these books,” she writes, “I’m encountering other minds struggling with the same questions while walking the same landscape.” The author analyzes her struggles assembling her manuscript, providing useful insight into her creative process, and she includes her students’ remarkable ideas regarding the space program and its conclusion. Dean recounts the ruthless tactics of professional autograph seekers during a book signing by Buzz Aldrin and shows how Americans’ perceptions of space travel changed after the 1986 Challenger disaster. Throughout, the author’s stimulating prose enhances topics that at first glance might seem lacking in broad appeal—e.g., engineering issues or the politics of NASA’s perpetual underfunding.
One of those books you can’t put down, don’t want to finish, and won’t soon forget.