Review: Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean

leaving orbit by margaret lazarus deanFormat read: paperback provided by the publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: nonfiction
Length: 240 pages
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Date Released: May 19, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

In the 1960s, humans took their first steps away from Earth, and for a time our possibilities in space seemed endless. But in a time of austerity and in the wake of high-profile disasters like Challenger, that dream has ended. In early 2011, Margaret Lazarus Dean traveled to Cape Canaveral for NASA’s last three space shuttle launches in order to bear witness to the end of an era. With Dean as our guide to Florida’s Space Coast and to the history of NASA, Leaving Orbit takes the measure of what American spaceflight has achieved while reckoning with its earlier witnesses, such as Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Oriana Fallaci. Along the way, Dean meets NASA workers, astronauts, and space fans, gathering possible answers to the question: What does it mean that a spacefaring nation won’t be going to space anymore?

My Review:

There’s a comment often made about sad posts on Facebook or Twitter, that there is “dust in the post” that made the reader’s eyes water. For this reader, there was dust, perhaps space dust, in this entire book.

But then, I’m at least a borderline member of the group that the author refers to as “space people”. I wish I had been there. I wish I had been able to go. I envy the author her chance to see the last shuttle launches in person, and I wish with all my heart that they had not been the last, as I wrote in my own post at the end of the Shuttle Program, Dreams of Space.

Like the author of Leaving Orbit, I also cried while touring the Kennedy Space Center. It wasn’t until I had nearly finished the tour that I figured out that my tears were for me, because I would never get to take that big ride for myself.

I think a lot of us who were raised on Star Trek probably had some of those same dreams.

But this book, Leaving Orbit, is the author’s personal journey of witnessing the end of the Shuttle program, and trying to figure out what it means, not just for herself, but also for America, that we no longer have a space transport where we can send our astronauts to continue our exploration of space.

We stop at the International Space Station, and we get there on other countries’ ships. We were the first and only country to land on the moon, but we no longer have the infrastructure to go back. And if we’re planning to go to Mars or anywhere else, those plans are still space dust in dreamers’ eyes.

interstellar age by jim bellIn Jim Bell’s The Interstellar Age (review), he writes of the current space robot program, and there is joy and enthusiasm in his work, and the work of everyone in the program. People have “gotten aboard” the journeys of these cute, seemingly plucky, and fortunately for NASA relatively cheap, robots. And they do good science.

But it is not the same as watching a human, someone you could be, someone you could imagine working beside, go out into space and look back at Earth.

I’m having a difficult time reviewing this book as a book. As I read it, the story felt very personal to the author. While she was witnessing the events surrounding the final three shuttle launches, her feelings of triumph at the successful launches and grief that they were over was very much in evidence.

She is very conscious of bearing witness to events that mark an ending of the dreams of so many people, including herself. I felt her sadness, and it echoed my own. She finds herself caught between two extremes, giddy excitement that she gets to walk in the footsteps of so many authors who have written about the space program, that she gets to see so many places that very few people get to see, and at the same time her continual sorrow that this is the last time that these places will be used for the purpose for which they were built.

Because this was such a personal journey for her, it became a personal one for me, too.

Reality Rating A-: The author does a great job of interspersing a condensed history of American space flight with her observations of its end. By the time we finish, we see where we came from, how we got here, and also the author’s observations of why it hurts so much.

Some readers will think that the author injects an awful lot of herself into this book that purports to be about the Shuttle program. I found it gratifying that her personal feelings echoed so much of what I feel, and what I would have felt had I stood beside her.

The question that the author keeps asking herself and others, “What does it mean that we went to space for fifty years and then decided not to anymore?” is one that is never completely answered. It only produces more questions.

One of those questions is about future programs that are still on the drawing board. While those nascent plans to revive the program do exist, they are contingent on funding by future congresses and future administrations, and NASA’s track record in such cases is that the funding is scaled back or never appears at all. Apollo was unique, and unless those circumstances arise again, the dreams of space remain curtailed and under- or un-funded.

But in conclusion, the author writes that “The story of American spaceflight is a story with many endings.” This ending feels final and it’s the one that sticks in the heart. Or at least, in my heart.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell

interstellar age by jim bellFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: science
Length: 336 pages
Publisher: Dutton
Date Released: February 24, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

The story of the men and women who drove the Voyager spacecraft mission— told by a scientist who was there from the beginning.

The Voyager spacecraft are our farthest-flung emissaries—11.3 billion miles away from the crew who built and still operate them, decades since their launch.

Voyager 1 left the solar system in 2012; its sister craft, Voyager 2, will do so in 2015. The fantastic journey began in 1977, before the first episode of Cosmos aired. The mission was planned as a grand tour beyond the moon; beyond Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; and maybe even into interstellar space. The fact that it actually happened makes this humanity’s greatest space mission.

In The Interstellar Age, award-winning planetary scientist Jim Bell reveals what drove and continues to drive the members of this extraordinary team, including Ed Stone, Voyager’s chief scientist and the one-time head of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab; Charley Kohlhase, an orbital dynamics engineer who helped to design many of the critical slingshot maneuvers around planets that enabled the Voyagers to travel so far; and the geologist whose Earth-bound experience would prove of little help in interpreting the strange new landscapes revealed in the Voyagers’ astoundingly clear images of moons and planets.

Speeding through space at a mind-bending eleven miles a second, Voyager 1 is now beyond our solar system’s planets. It carries with it artifacts of human civilization. By the time Voyager passes its first star in about 40,000 years, the gold record on the spacecraft, containing various music and images including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” will still be playable.

My Review:

I had the same reaction to The Interstellar Age as I did when I went to the Kennedy Space Center a few years ago. I got choked up. Why? Because to this Star Trek fan, space travel is awesome and the future and I’m not going to get to go. Life is too short, and Congress doesn’t give NASA nearly enough funding for space tourism for the middle class to become “real” in my lifetime.

I will tie this back to Star Trek at the end, believe it or not.

But about the book…if you were ever hooked on space travel science fiction, or if you got up in the middle of the night to watch Neil Armstrong land on the moon, or if you’ve ever traveled to see a shuttle launch (or any kind of spacecraft launch) or if you can’t get enough Hubble Telescope pictures, this is a book for you.

While without rockets, it’s just science, this is a science story told through the people who worked on it or were affected by it. While, as one of the researchers says, we shouldn’t try to humanize or personalize the little rovers and probes that form the bulk of our current space program because, and I quote, “they don’t like it”, we can’t help but invest them with personalities and motivations of their own. They represent us. In a slightly robotic way, they are us, or at least the part of us that needs to go out and explore.

Possibly, as this recent strip from xkcd attests, they represent other parts of us as well:

On January 26th, 2274 Mars days into the mission, NASA declared Spirit a 'stationary research station', expected to stay operational for several more months until the dust buildup on its solar panels forces a final shutdown.

Back to Voyager and The Interstellar Age. I want to invoke Star Trek again. Because these are the voyages of the Interstellar Voyager Project, its ongoing mission: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no (Terran) has gone before.”

Voyager 1
Voyager 1

In the past 40 years, and continuing, the two Voyager space probes, and the probes that followed in their wake, have extended human knowledge of our solar system, and are now either completely outside of our Solar System (Voyager 1) or are getting there fast (Voyager 2). We humans have sent a piece of ourselves into the space between the stars, both in the hopes that we can continue to learn from its explorations, and that someday, perhaps, some other civilization in some other star-system will scoop it up and discover who we were.

The project is huge and was in many ways all encompassing for the people who worked on it. There are folks now part of the project who were not born when it began in the mid-1970s. But the story of their involvement, in this thing that turns out to have been the biggest and the best time of their lives, is very human and awe-inspiring in that humanity. It’s impossible not to wish you were there when those first photos of Jupiter’s moons appeared. Or with any of the other many firsts accomplished by these probes and the team that worked with them.

In relating the effect that his personal involvement with the Voyager mission has had on his life, the author shows us not just why this journey was important for him, but why it is important for us all.

Reality Rating A: I have a difficult time separating my feelings about the space program from my feelings about the book. Why? Because I want to have been there, and that still touches me deeply.

There are probably a generation (or two) of us who watched Star Trek as kids and saw the hope that humanity would reach the stars. I think we all wanted it to be in our lifetimes, but that is unlikely to happen.

This is a book about the joys and wonders of “big science”. It takes hundreds if not thousands of people devoting their lives and their careers to making project like the Interstellar Voyager mission a success. Or even a possibility. The Interstellar Age is the story of not just how it worked, but why.

It’s also a 40th birthday paean to the Voyager Program itself, and to the people who built them and made them fly.

As a reader, I occasionally got sidetracked with the names of all the different component parts, but all things considered, The Interstellar Age is a popular science story at its best.

One last Star Trek reference. The first Star Trek movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, was released in 1979, two years after the launches of Voyagers 1 and 2. In ST:TMP, at the heart of the alien vessel they find Voyager 6, returning to Earth in search of its creator, NASA.

Voyager 6 from STTMP
Voyager 6 from Star Trek: The Motion Picture

 

Some day, centuries from now, one of the Voyagers, scarred and pitted by the interstellar winds, might come home – in the arms (or tentacles) of explorers from another star system.

We can dream.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Dreams of space

The Space Shuttle Atlantis is in the midst of her final flight. And it’s also the last scheduled manned mission of the U.S. space program. NASA’s future launches are all for satellites and rockets. Very pretty, but people’s hopes and dreams follow people, not hardware. Our hearts lift when they can ride the wings of another’s fulfilled dream, and imagine ourselves at their side, or in their place.

I’ve been re-watching Star Trek: Enterprise recently. While opinions on the series itself may vary, what still grabs me is the montage of images in the opening title sequence. If you always skipped that part, watch it again carefully. Ignore the music if you feel you must.

What gets me every time is that all of the images consist of archival footage up until the last six, when the sequence changes by showing the International Space Station as it should look when it is complete. But all the images, real and science fictional, show humankind’s relentless pursuit of what is beyond the next hill, what is on the other side of the fathomless depths of the ocean, what is out in the vast depths of space.

There are reproductions of old maps of the earth including navigational charts. A shot of Thor Heyerdahl’s raft voyage across the Pacific Ocean on the Kon-Tiki. The Wright brothers’ first successful flight at Kitty Hawk. Amelia Earhart waving “good-bye,”possibly for the final time. Charles Lindbergh next to his famous plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, which is preserved at the National Air and Space Museum. A scene of Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, writing his theories on a blackboard. Chuck Yeager striding away from the experimental aircraft with which he broke the sound barrier. Pictures of a succession of historic ships which all bore the name “Enterprise”, culminating in the experimental Space Shuttle Enterprise in 1977. The crew of Apollo 11 boarding their spacecraft, and then that “one small step for mankind”. A closeup of the Mars Rover exploring. And, a shuttle crew in flight and on a spacewalk.

A friend wrote of the end of the Shuttle Program that the spirits of those who perished in the Challenger and Columbia disasters could finally rest in peace now. I firmly believe that he is wrong. Those who gave their lives in the space program, on Challenger, and Columbia, and with first Apollo disaster at the beginning of the program, made their sacrifice so that humankind could reach further, so we could make our way into the stars. Those astronauts dreamed of space, not safety.

The quote from William Shedd still says it best. “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” Humankind is not made to be safe. We are made to be explorers. Why have we stopped?