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cover artWhat does it mean that America has done so much to advance space travel and now we have decided to stop? This is the central question governing Margaret Lazarus Dean’s book Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight. She asks the question to people who work at NASA, to astronauts, to space fans, journalists, her students at the University of Tennessee and discovers that no one has a single answer and most have none at all. Dean herself is not even certain what it means, even over the course of writing the book she can never pin it down. However nearly everyone she talks to expresses varying degrees of sadness, disappointment, confusion and anger that America is no longer sending humans into space on our own ships.

Since she was a child, Dean has been fascinated by space travel. She followed shuttle launches, even got to see one in person, remembers where she was when Challenger exploded and later Columbia. She knows the history of space flight from Gemini to Mercury to Apollo and the shuttle era. She knows the names of astronauts past and present. She even wrote a novel about the Challenger disaster and in the process made a friend of Omar, a NASA worker at Cape Canaveral.

Framed, no not framed, more like companioned, with Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon documenting the Apollo 11 moon landing, Dean weaves together the heroic beginnings of space travel with the end of the shuttle program and thus the end of American space flight. Now all American astronauts going to the International Space Station get there on Russian Soyuz rockets. Far from being a recounting of historical facts, Dean also takes a page from Mailer and “new journalism” and places herself squarely in the narrative. This serves to make the book more personal and provides a high degree of emotional impact. Dean attends in person the final two shuttle launches as well as the installation of Discovery at the Smithsonian. She serves as a kind of witness to the end of an era. What does it mean to see the Discovery’s final launch into orbit and then several months later see it turned into a museum piece?

Dean often has more questions than answers as she moves back and forth through time, narrowing in on the incredible difficulty of getting to the moon and all the things that could have gone wrong and how none of the astronauts on that first flight truly believed they would all make it back to Earth. I was on the edge of my seat as she described the moon landing and I know that it had a happy ending! Then we zoom ahead in time to watching a shuttle launch or introducing Buzz Aldrin at a book signing. As nonlinear as the narrative is, there is a definite feel of forward momentum and as much as it jumps around, Dean handles it all so well that getting lost is not an option.

If you are looking for straight up history full of facts and technical details, this book is not for you. That is not to say there are not plenty of facts and technical details, there are, Dean drops them in throughout. But if you are looking for something a little different, a little less traditional and a little more human, than you will probably like this book very much.

I wouldn’t call myself a space fan, not like the avid people in Dean’s book, but I have a vivid recollection of reading John Glenn’s account of orbiting Earth in an elementary school reader. How it fired my imagination! I remember watching space shuttle launches on TV. I remember where I was when Challenger exploded. I have heard the double sonic booms when a shuttle had to land at Edward’s Air Force Base in California. The base is near Los Angeles and you could hear the booms in the San Fernando Valley where I attended university, they were that loud. And it was both exciting to hear them and also a matter of course, nothing so very remarkable. And yes, when the shuttles were retired I was sad. How could there be nothing to take their place? The Mars rovers are exciting but not in the same way as people going into to space is. Will NASA ever send people to space again? It is open for debate. They have big ideas but Congress has no plans to fund them which is sad in so many ways. Whatever happened to big dreams? To no longer reach for the stars kind of leaves me feeling diminished.

Leaving Orbit was published by Graywolf Press and won their nonfiction prize in 2012. The prize is awarded every 12-18 months to a previously unpublished work of literary nonfiction written by a writer not established in the genre. Dean is in good company as previous winners of the prize include Leslie Jamison, Kevin Young and Eula Biss.

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