Whether you’ve dreamed of donning a bright white suit for a zero-gravity spin, or simply stayed tuned to a shuttle launch on TV, Margaret Lazarus Dean will reignite your enthusiasm for American spaceflight.
“... I want to write about those places where the technical and the emotional intersect—like the smell of space, or the schoolchildren watching Challenger explode with a teacher aboard, or an adult woman hiding her tears in the cathedralic heights of [NASA’s] Vehicle Assembly Building, or a bored child in a movie theater watching a beautiful astronaut float in her sleep,” Dean writes in Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight.
That’s the “last days” of NASA’s shuttle program—not the end of NASA, period.
“I feel like I’m telling people all the time that NASA still exists, that they’re still hiring and training new classes of astronauts. We’re still going to space,” Dean says. “If we want to go keep going to space in a bigger way, the will is certainly there—and it’s not like we can’t afford it, we totally can—but it’s putting together a political narrative and the political will that’s the challenge.”
Dean specializes in narrative. She’s an associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee, and a National Endowment for the Arts and Tennessee Arts Commission Fellow.
Her debut novel, The Time It Takes to Fall, chronicled the lead-up to the 1986 Challenger disaster, as witnessed by a Florida girl whose father worked for NASA.
After its 2007 publication, she received a complimentary email from Omar Izquierdo, an “orbiter integrity clerk” in Cape Canaveral (his job was to guard the shuttle Discovery). They became long-distance friends and met in 2010, when Izquierdo invited Dean to Family Day at Kennedy Space Center. It was a chance for civilians to tour NASA’s mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where shuttles were built and stored.
That opportunity would be one of the last: NASA’s shuttle program ended in summer 2011.
“By the end of Family Day, when we are all saying our good-byes, I have come to feel that the end of the space shuttle is going to be the ending of a story, the story of one of the truly great things my country has accomplished, and that I want to be the one to tell it,” she writes.
Setting aside a second novel, Dean began work on what she assumed would be a long article on the end of the shuttle program. Her supportive husband cared for their toddler son while she traveled between Tennessee and Florida to attend three remaining launches. Fellow professors helped cover classes. Izquierdo promised to read and make technical corrections to drafts.
Dean’s resulting effort won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, awarded annually to an outstanding unpublished manuscript by an emerging author.
Leaving Orbit shines by synthesizing space science, memoir, history, cultural criticism and travelogue. It engages with literary journalistic accounts of the space program by Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. It bequeaths startling facts: That 98.5 percent of space crews returned safely. That air conditioning for troops in Iraq cost more than NASA’s entire budget in 2011. That, in the event that Apollo 11 failed, William Safire had a speech prepared for President Nixon that began: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”
But deepest impact comes at those technical-emotional intersections where Dean stands for us all: the student who saw the Challenger explode; the bored child admiring Judith Resnik in a video at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.; the woman overwhelmed by the magnitude and beauty of the VAB, where the crafts that carry American astronauts into space are assembled—large enough to fit six football fields on its roof.
“They are exceptional people in so many ways, but then, when you meet them, and hear their life stories—each of them is just a person, and they’re sometimes as wowed by their experience as everyone else is,” Dean says of astronauts, those mythologized American heroes who might seem to be beyond envy.
And yet, “Buzz Aldrin once told me that he envies writers their ability to put things into words,” she writes.
Dean’s passion and knowledge may be enviable, but you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy Leaving Orbit.
“I find it really gratifying when space people like my book, because they can be a tough audience in the sense that they know everything, they’ve seen everything—they know the history of space flight better than I do,” she says. “For them to read and appreciate it, and feel like they got something new from it, is great. But I’m especially excited to hear from people who’ve never been interested in spaceflight, and now they do. That’s really rewarding.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.