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  Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight (Margaret Lazarus Dean)

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Author Topic:   Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight (Margaret Lazarus Dean)

Posts: 5188
From: Geneva, Switzerland
Registered: May 2006

posted 08-27-2014 01:46 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for cspg   Click Here to Email cspg     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight
by Margaret Lazarus Dean
In the 1960s, humans took their first steps away from the 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 like 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?

(Description is a working document and is subject to change.)

Margaret Lazarus Dean grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. She holds a BA in anthropology from Wellesley College and an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Time It Takes to Fall (Simon & Schuster, 2007), a novel about the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Her work has appeared in StoryQuarterly, FiveChapters, Michigan Quarterly Review, and the Huffington Post, and she is a recipient of an NEA fellowship and a Hopwood Award for the novel. She is an assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee and lives in Knoxville.

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press (May 19, 2015)
  • ISBN-10: 155597709X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555977092
Note: The author won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize for this title.


Posts: 1907
From: Atlanta, GA, USA
Registered: Feb 2007

posted 05-27-2015 04:51 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for garymilgrom   Click Here to Email garymilgrom     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Book Review - Kindle edition

First things first - this book has the most misleading cover graphics of anything I've seen in years. This book is not just about the end of the shuttle program, it's about the end of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, the end of funding, the end of public interest, the end of anything to do with space over the last 50 years. Everything from Sputnik to SpaceX is in this book and mentioned as some way of ending another era, program, or method of getting into space.

In trying to cover every reason for why humans might not explore space indefinitely and with unlimited funding the author does a poor job of discussing any specific ideas. Near the end of the book, summarizing her thoughts about Americans in space since the first Mercury flight, she finally comes up with some probing questions that go beyond any program or spacecraft: "What does it mean to stop exploring? To disappoint children? To cancel the future? To hope for private companies to take over something we used to do as a nation? To hobble the one government agency people feel good about? These are good points for debate but none are discussed. We don't even learn which ones the author agrees or disagrees with.

The author does a good job, perhaps unintentionally, of communicating the emotions of the KSC workforce as the Shuttle program came to a close. In all her trips to KSC the author was feted by one employee, and her discussions with him reveal a proud, intimate side to what must have been a difficult and poignant time for the thousands of people who had worked on the program for decades. Even here the (Kindle edition) book let me down - she speaks of endless photos around KSC covering years of briefings, launches and landings but not one is shown.

There are a few technical lapses in the book but these are for the most part forgivable - this is not a textbook. One example - Columbia was not brought down by "a dent in a tile" but a TPS breach was the cause of the accident.

Overall this seems like a self-indulgent memoir that lacks a central theme and wanders through too much territory. The rest stops on Florida's interstates are covered as closely as Apollo 11's trip to the moon, John Glenn's military bearing or a Space Shuttle landing. The author completely ignores the potential of new NASA programs and private access to space while giving considerable time to revisit 50 year old attitudes toward women. This lack of focus made the book hard to read and ultimately unrewarding for me.


Posts: 2751
From: Titusville, FL USA
Registered: Feb 2005

posted 06-08-2015 08:53 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for KSCartist   Click Here to Email KSCartist     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I recently finished "LEAVING ORBIT: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight" by Margaret Lazarus Dean.

When I first learned of the book on the Space Hipsters FB page, much of the comments were about the cover photo chosen and the subtitle. Not all of the comments were kind.

The author offered a few people a complementary book if they would write an honest review. Full disclosure: I took her up on that offer - and I'm glad I did.

What follows is my review.

"LEAVING ORBIT" is a warm and honest memoir of one woman's desire to understand and experience the end of the Space Shuttle Program in person.

Like many books on the space program, the author provides a synopsis of space exploration history. She shares her childhood experience of visiting the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum on the mall in Washington, DC with her father.

Becoming friends with Omar Izquierdo, a NASA employee at the Kennedy Space Center via Facebook, he invites her and her father to a Family Day in 2010. This visit sets the stage for Margaret to decide to attend the final three launches of the shuttle program and write about the experience.

In her writing Dean details what someone attending a launch goes through in loving detail. She has a great affection and admiration for Norman Mailer ( that I don't share ) and spends more time than I cared for comparing her experience with Mailers when he attended the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969. My opinion of Mailer was that he was a pompous ass. I read "Of a Fire on the Moon." In 1970 and didn't care for it. It's not among my library of important space books. But I can understand Deans desire to relate to him. I suppose if I wrote a book about my artistic contribution to our space program, I might compare myself to Robert McCall or Paul Calle too much for some readers taste.

Dean watches the final launch of Discovery on mission STS-133 from the 528 causeway in Merritt Island.

She is able to join Omar for the launch of Endeavour STS-134 next to the VAB at the Kennedy Space Center.

For the final launch STS-135 Atlantis Dean receives credentials for the KSC Press Site. Dean is a gifted writer and having watched launches from those places in the past , I am transported back in time to reliving my experience.

There were some things about the book I didn't agree with. She describes the cause of the loss of Columbia as "a dent in the tiles." In fact it was a hole about the size of a large pizza that allowed the hot gases to destroy the orbiter and kill the crew.

I also didn't like the description of the ending of the shuttle program as the end of American human spaceflight. It's not. Seventeen American astronauts have flown aboard the ISS since the shuttle program ended. Yes they have had to "hitch rides" aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Dean also doesn't share my optimism of the Commercial Crew Program. She travels back to KSC for a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch which ends up being scrubbed. The next day before she leaves to return home Omar invites her to launch a model of the Falcon 9. She finds this poetic and fitting as an allegory of American capability.

I worked for a NASA and United Space Alliance supplier and was laid of in 2010. As an employee I was allowed to participate in the "End of Shuttle Program" emblem contest. I came in third. By the time I was awarded my certificate, I was unemployed. Izquierdo was Deans personal introduction to the program and it's through his eyes that she laments the end. I understand her frustration in seeing a capability thrown away and her friend laid off.

How I wish Dean had attended the National Space Symposium hosted by the Space Foundation in Colorado Springs like I did in 2012. Maybe then she would have been as optimistic about the future of American Space Exploration as I am.

I came away from the book liking Margaret Lazarus Dean. I think she is a genuine space enthusiast who wished she was born a generation earlier. Someone who wants to see us send humans beyond deep space again.

For those who disparage this book, I invite you to read it. If like Margaret Dean (and I), you are frustrated with NASA funding and ever changing mandates from the White House contact your representative in Washington. Tell them to stop short changing Commercial Crew and decide on a mission for NASA and fund it. But don't "kill the messenger", the author of LEAVING ORBIT.

— Tim Gagnon


Posts: 3127
From: San Diego
Registered: Feb 2002

posted 01-23-2016 09:27 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for FFrench     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Here's a review I wrote of this book.

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