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.

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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?