on Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Lazarus Dean

What does the end of the space shuttle program mean for America? Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight sets its coordinates by this question, and in an attempt to answer it, Margaret Lazarus Dean journeyed to the Kennedy Space Center in 2011 to watch the last three space shuttle launches. She went not as a journalist but as a fiction writer with a first novel about children whose lives were altered by the Challenger explosion. 

Her primary tour guide is one of her readers, whom she met over the internet, a space worker named Omar Izquirdo. A friendship blossoms between the two, and Izquirdo’s job as an “orbital integrity clerk”—a kind of glorified security guard who checks all those entering and leaving the shuttle during maintenance—enables Dean to approach the culture, work, and history of spaceflight as both an outsider and an insider. At her first launch, she sits with spectators on a public causeway overlooking the launch site, but by the book’s end she’s made it to the press room.

Her prose style seems so casual that at first one wonders if it’s quite up to charting the trajectory of this powerful American myth, but Dean has a remarkably subtle way of telescoping a variety of perspectives and then canting them against each other kaleidoscopically. Toward the end of the book, for instance, she attends a launch of the SpaceX Dragon, a privately funded rocket that represents the next phase of spaceflight. The crowd notices the International Space Station passing overhead “brighter than any star.” Dean pulls out her phone and sees that one of the astronauts onboard has tweeted a picture of Cape Canaveral, taken just moments before. “The image is like any satellite image taken at night, mostly black, the landmasses and causeways traced in pale yellow. It’s brightest where we are standing,” writes Dean. She’s seen many “insanely gorgeous” photos like this before, “But I’ve never seen a picture taken from space that I know I am in. I was standing on the ground looking up at him while he was looking down at us, and the image is one I’ll save.” 

Leaving Orbit is chock-full of reflexive moments like this, generated in part because the launches are media spectacles happening in a time when there are many methods—official and unofficial, formal and informal—for recording such events, from the cameras of the photojournalists to the author’s own smartphone. Even as she strives to witness these events through words, Dean favors their visual documentation: “There is something about the way the video fixes the event in a frame that makes it possible to understand it, describe it, in a way I haven’t been able to for any of the three launches I’ve now seen in person,” she writes in response to footage of the Endeavor launch. “Somehow, the lived experience is prone to slippage, confusion, interference from thoughts and recollections passing through my mind and distractions—the people all around with their irrelevant sounds and expressions.” More than any book I’ve read recently, Leaving Orbit comfortably and easily incorporates all manner of digital communication, but with the record of these events seemingly so accessible and abundant, her success itself does raise questions: What place does a literary writer have in such a proliferation of media? Why read the book when you can just watch the launch on YouTube?

For one thing, Dean constantly recalls and incorporates the past in a way that does not lend itself to the ever-present-moment glow of an electronic screen. Between accounts of the launches are sections with titles like “What It Felt Like to Walk on the Moon” and “A Brief History of the Future” that survey the history of American spaceflight by succinctly and colorfully profiling important figures such as rocket scientist Werner von Braun. Dean, seemingly having read nearly every book on the subject, chronicles the early days of the Gemini and Apollo missions, the development of the space shuttle in 1970s, the subsequent Challenger and Columbia disasters, and then the winding down of the shuttle program. She intersperses this historical narrative with first-hand accounts of meeting Buzz Aldrin on a book tour, quizzing her writing class about their knowledge and opinions of spaceflight, and interviewing Serena Auñón, a recent addition to the astronaut corps whose prospects for spaceflight remain uncertain. In these sections, Dean unearths the powerful allure that space exploration has had for the American imagination, but she also observes how even in the early days, when John F. Kennedy ambitiously proposed a venture to the moon, many remained deeply ambivalent about the risks and true value of this endeavor.

Leaving Orbit also comments on the literary tradition of writing about space travel, notably Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon: “For one thing, Wolfe is obsessed with character, clearly believes that character is at the center of everything, and he creates dozens of characters big and small: astronauts, engineers, gas station attendants, astronauts’ wives, reporters, even chimpanzees being trained for spaceflight. For Mailer, the only real character in the book is Norman Mailer; even the astronauts are there only as archetypes upon which to project his own ideas about himself.” Since Dean’s own essayistic approach so closely resembles Mailer’s, it is fitting that she increasingly homes in on him as the writer most often referenced, commented on, and critiqued. Her conversation with Mailer gets especially interesting when she imagines an encounter with the infamously sexist writer that highlights the stark contrasts between their two lives and eras. Dean wonders whether Mailer would simply ignore her, assuming she was someone unimportant, or, out of boredom, perhaps would “attempt to bed” her. “Does it make me shallow that of these scenarios, the latter seems the least depressing, because in trying to seduce me he  ’d at least have to pay attention to me, look me in the eye, talk to me, and pretend to listen?”

Throughout the book, Dean covets the access official journalists have at Kennedy Space Center, but after pitching a story to her local newspaper she finally obtains press credentials and gets into the Press Site for the final shuttle launch. In doing so, she reveals another key thing a literary writer brings to her subject: while the journalists must hustle to capture the event in real time, “throwing together breaking-news pieces and blog posts,” Dean watches, listens, and absorbs. “Not for the first time, I reflect on the luxury I have in not having to write about all this today. I can take in these events more fully, precisely because I don’t have the burden of writing as I’m experiencing them.” She has time to wander, to nap, to catch fragments of conversation, to notice details often ignored in the conventional drama of launches—the women’s bathroom, for instance, a relic of the Apollo era with salmon-pink tile: “I’m surprised there were enough female journalists at the time the Press Site was built to merit the five or so stalls allocated to us.” 

Margaret Lazarus Dean uses her gifts well, crafting much more than vivid scenes; Leaving Orbit effectively and elegiacally conveys a moment of transition and loss. It shows how spaceflight has become the domain of a dedicated subculture of workers and devotees rather than something embraced by American culture at large. As much as I loved all things astronautic when I was kid, I’ll admit that the end of the shuttle program a few years ago didn’t register much emotion or interest for me until I read Dean’s book. Even if you’re not formerly or currently a space enthusiast, however, she may well convert you into one, or at the very least teach you how to recognize the dreams, the contradictions, the mythologies, and the realities of spaceflight.

Further, like any good literary writer she’ll also make you skeptical, especially about the costs of human space exploration and its overall contributions to the betterment of the world. In her epilogue, trying to make sense of what she’s seen and pondered, Dean presents this arrangement of facts that illustrates in part why we as a country no longer support space travel: “Altogether Apollo cost about $110 billion in today’s dollars. The entire shuttle program cost about $200 billion. A trip to Mars would cost twice what shuttle did; the war in Iraq has cost five times that as of this writing.” That semicolon in the last sentence holds together forces more volatile than rocket fuel, and its placement, perhaps inadvertently, underscores a major theme of Leaving Orbit: our celestial ambitions have always revealed a great deal about the situation on planet Earth. Dean hopes that a Chinese attempt at the moon will ignite another federally-funded space race, but I have my doubts. The legacy of our recent wars—and other pressing problems, such as climate change—should keep us grounded for a while.

 

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Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2015. 320 pp. $16.00, paper.

 

Justin Wadland is the author of Trying Home: The Rise and Fall of an Anarchist Utopia on Puget Sound (Oregon State University Press, 2014), which won the 2015 Washington State Book Award in the History/General Nonfiction category. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Believer, the Normal School, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Rain Taxi, among other publications. He works as a librarian and lives with his family in Tacoma, Washington.