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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight

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

"...I have come to feel that the end of the space shuttle is going to be the ending of a story, the story of one of the truly great things my country has accomplished, and that I want to be the one to tell it."

For some reason, I associate spaceflight with the month of February. I'm not sure why. I tried to unpack this reasoning as I read Leaving Orbit, but I cannot say there is any cause for my association. Perhaps it is because when I think of spaceflight, I think of Challenger. I was only six at the time of the explosion. We didn't watch the launch in my first grade classroom—I recall little talk of it beforehand—though neighboring, older classes were watching that day. I remember a teacher from one of those classes came into the room, whispered to my teacher who responded with a gasp. She cautiously announced the accident to the class. We watched this strange adult behavior with awe for only a couple minutes, then returned to coloring our paper coins copper and silver. By the time I unpacked and processed what had happened during the January launch it may have been February. Perhaps this is the reason for my association. Maybe none of this matters, but each February since this book has been published, I have set it on my reading table only to put it off for one more year. 

I don't have the same love for spaceflight that Margaret Lazarus Dean does. I am amazed by the cosmos. I appreciate the beauty of the universe and of stars and planets. It is the majesty of space that I love. Space vehicles in and of themselves do nothing to excite me. That said, I always thought the shuttle was a majestic vehicle. Unlike the rockets before it which ripped apart the sky and penetrated the exosphere, the shuttle was a graceful and beautiful bird that merely skirted space. Unlike the gruff military men of 1960s spaceflight, the astronauts of the shuttle were men and women of the sciences and engineering. Apollo delivered gray lifeless stones. The shuttles set into motion the objects that sent back images of distant galaxies, images that far exceeded our expectations.

So I may not be the target audience for this book. Certainly, I have a greater appreciation for the shuttle than perhaps the average person, but I have no strong opinion about the likes of Aldrin. Even so, I really enjoyed Leaving Orbit. Dean gorgeously unpacks the history of spaceflight throughout this book. It's a wonderful blend of expert research and personal reflection. Leaving Orbit is the story of spaceflight, but it is also the story of Dean's love for spaceflight. This is unlike any work of non-fiction I've read before because it's clear that the author pours her heart into every page. She is incredibly passionate about the topic. Leaving Orbit is a eulogy for not only the shuttle, but modern spaceflight in general, and it is written by someone who knew and loved the deceased very much.

Dean's love for all-things NASA is so great that it could easily be called a religion. She makes pilgrimages, studies the holy works, and offers sacrifices. But Leaving Orbit's appeal wanes in those moments when the author becomes overly evangelical. When she attempts to explain away the doubters, the book becomes less about the glorious experience of spaceflight and more about the argument. Look, I've had doubts about the feasibility of humans traveling 240,000 miles in a metal cone with a twelve-foot diameter and a computer with less memory than the flash drive in my pocket. Even more unbelievable is the fact that without any previous experience, truly accurate data or test runs, they were able to get off the surface of the moon and return to earth. Honestly, it would be much more believable if the first two or three missions failed to return. It's natural for any intelligent person to question. All religion asks us to do is move a mountain from time to time. We either have the faith to believe in the impossible or we do not. Apollo is no different from any other god.

Despite these few hiccups, Leaving Orbit is such a stupendous read. Even though it is bursting with so many marvelous facts, I wanted more. I watched the launch videos. I read the official reports. I developed a greater appreciation for spaceflight in general. And it wasn't enough. My heart was broken for those who've invested their lives into the space program, and I hope against hope that one day the program will soar again.