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'Leaving Orbit': Margaret Lazarus Dean on the end of the space race

The space shuttle Atlantis lands on July 21,

The space shuttle Atlantis lands on July 21, 2011 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, bringing an end to the 30-year U.S. shuttle program. Photo Credit: Getty Images / DON EMMERT

LEAVING ORBIT: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, by Margaret Lazarus Dean. Graywolf, 317 pp., $16 paper.

Have you heard that America won't be going to space anymore? Yeah, I know, we can hitch a ride with the Russians or the Chinese, but that's just not the same. And a few entrepreneurs are proposing private space launches. But for the most part, the glory days of American spaceflight are relegated to sterile museum halls. When U.S. spaceflight sputtered to an end four years ago with the cancellation of the Shuttle Program, Margaret Lazarus Dean was among those hoping for a more audible public outcry. What does it mean that America won't be up in the blackness of space anymore? Have we lost something vital to our American dream by turning our backs on reaching for the stars?

Questions such as these underlie Dean's book "Leaving Orbit," her meditation on the loss of American spaceflight. On hand for the last launch of the Shuttle Atlantis on July 8, 2011, she realized she was witnessing an epic ride -- a final blastoff that she believed Americans should have mourned more deeply. "It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends," Dean writes, quoting Joan Didion. Dean is an academic who writes with the flair of a blogger and provides lots of fun anecdotes and trivia. On her quest to chronicle the end of the United States in space, she meets a range of fanatics enthralled by space travel, who keep geek discussions going at all hours on Tumblr and Facebook. She offers personal remembrances of her early trips to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum as a lonely child of divorce, gazing longingly at star charts and spacecraft seats that looked like "beige dentist couches." She pines for a past colored by science fiction that became fact. She sentimentally recalls astronauts' descriptions of the "barren and homey" smell of outer space that was stuck to their suits after a spacewalk. And she claims to know just what that odor is like. "It smells like walking into the atrium of the Air and Space Museum with my father and my brother on a hot Saturday morning in the early 1980s," she writes.

In the end, the fleet of Shuttles grew too old, and too expensive to be recertified, essentially taken apart and rebuilt. Dean commiserated with space fans and NASA workers who until the last moment "hoped the retirement decision would be reversed somehow, and still do, hoping against hope."

Dean tells the stories of those who walked on the moon and of the Eisenhower-era women in cat-eye glasses who sewed together the astronaut's protective suits, and she discusses the life of the first African-American astronaut, Robert Lawrence, who died in a training flight accident in 1967. Dean unsurprisingly spends time on both Shuttle Program tragedies, Columbia and Challenger, which together overshadow the last leg of American spaceflight "shape[ing] the shuttle's story." Dean, whose first book was a novel about a young girl grappling with the Challenger disaster, is clearly moved by the space program. She reminds us that while sitting on the moon's surface, Buzz Aldrin performed communion with a stowed wafer and a chalice of wine in the Lunar Module Eagle. She admits that the very names of Aldrin and Neil Armstrong arouse something deep inside her. "I love the idea of spaceflight. I love the audacity of the handsome young president [John F. Kennedy] challenging us to go to the moon not because it is easy but it is hard," she writes.

Though she was born in 1972, three years after the first manned moon landing, Dean is drawn by the "badass steeliness and crew cuts of the test-pilot sixties astronauts." Above her desk, she tells us, hangs a photo of a steel plaque left on the Sea of Tranquility, "HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON JULY 1969, A.D. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND." She writes, "Is this not stirring?"

I came away from "Leaving Orbit" with a heavy dose of space nostalgia, and I worry about our ability to be stirred again as we were in the past. The journey to space starts with a big collective dream. But in our Facebook-Twittering world, where our horizons are reduced to a little screen -- it's up to each of us to look starward, once more.


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