Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight
by Margaret Lazarus Dean
Press: Graywolf Press
Reviewed by: Carla Sarett
The Party’s Over
The closest, most thrilling, approach to the dwarf planet, Pluto, is set for July 15, 2015. Its reconnaissance, along with the exploration of the deep, mysterious, Kuiper Belt, is part of NASA’s mission, New Horizons. According to NASA’s website, the mission will “tell the story of the origins and outskirts of our solar system.” Meanwhile, low-orbit trips have been outsourced to private companies (Elon Musk’s SpaceX, among them) to provide cargo to the International Space Station. A far cry from Star Trek, but many of us are optimistic about the future of space exploration.
But Margaret Lazarus Dean, in Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight (the winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize), feels cheated. Dean, an associate professor at The University of Tennessee, misses the old shuttle program. Yes, that one: the clunky shuttle that was touted as a cheap, practical space truck, but over the course of its forty-year tenure, turned out to be neither. But according to Dean, Americans loved watching those take-offs—Dean, more than most, I would think —and the program’s end signals defeat, rather than a strategic shift in technology and resources.
And so, Dean takes us through her experience of the final space shuttles—her joy as she watches the launches, her impressions of the facilities and her fellow space fans, and her befuddlement that others, even astronauts, are not all that moved by the program’s demise. As she tell us, her crush on the shuttle began in childhood at the Air and Space Museum—and like a jilted lover, she feels heartbroken when her favorite program ends (Dean says that she has “never been a believer in privatized spaceflight,” and she is miffed that others do not share her “NASA-only” snobbery, as she terms it). Along the way, she offers entertaining tidbits about the program’s history and complex politics, and sprinkles the text with quotes from other space journalists.
Dean’s good-natured guide in her NASA journey is an “integrity clerk” named Omar – in her own words, “one of the thousands of people who work at the Cape doing various things that need to get done in order to get spaceships off the ground.” Dean dutifully recites Omar’s Facebook posts and texts, verbatim, even his polite reply to one of her queries: “I don’t know.” Leaving Orbit is low-key and pleasant. But I found myself reaching for my copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. That feels like the real party, the one with the cool, brave astronauts.
Perhaps, though, that is Margaret Lazarus Dean’s point. Great powers need, even depend on, great symbols–like a single man’s footsteps imprinted on the pristine surface of the moon. The early space missions were a noisy boast of American’s grandness; and today’s America has a more constrained vision of itself. New Horizons may well shed light on how the universe started, but it won’t lift men up to the stars. And some of us, perhaps more than we care to admit, need men to look up to.
Carla Sarett’s work has appeared in magazines such as Crack the Spine, Loch Raven Review, Blue Lyra Review and several short story anthologies. Carla has a Ph.D. from The University of Pennsylvania, and blogs at http://carlasarett.blogspot.com.