June 09, 2015
  • Margaret Dean Lazarus
  • NASA
  • Literary Journalism
  • Book Review
  • Michael Evans
  • Graywolf Press

To Infinity, and Back Again

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By The West View

Dean’s title reads like a lament. Her book contains regrets and criticisms of political decisions, but Leaving Orbit is about much more. When Dean writes about people, she is almost always positive. When she writes about the people of NASA she is warm and laudatory, even at cold dark Cape Canaveral during pre-launch hours, dealing with apparently opaque rules.

After a while, the term “Orbiter Integrity” sinks into the reader’s consciousness under the light of her writing, especially when she tells about Omar Izquierdo, her main contact at NASA, and his father, Francisco Izquierdo , who started working for NASA in 1979, right after getting his Mechanical Engineering degree in Puerto Rico at the dawn of the Shuttle Era, raising his family on the Space Coast of Florida.

Education itself is a character in Dean’s book – from future astronaut Edwin Aldrin’s Ph.D. thesis, to the rigorous training of NASA personnel, to her own job of teaching at a Tennessee college. When asked about the end of the Space Shuttle in 2011, “Buzz Lightyear” Aldrin tells the author: “It’s too bad ... it’s all still perfectly good hardware, and we’ve got the facilities and the people who know how to keep it flying … We should have had something newer by now, but we should be building on what we have, not starting over.”

One of the most poignant sections of this book re-creates Dean’s discussions with her students. She offered a list of questions about space exploration and told them, “Don’t look these up on your phones." Only a minority of them got close to “[t]he most basic facts, the ones I would have thought everyone would know.”

“So what are the answers?” they ask, but she needs to teach her Creative Nonfiction class, and treats us all with tasty examples from Tom Wolfe and the great Oriana Fallaci writing about the space program. She finds herself surprisingly drawn to the initially unlikeable Norman Mailer, whose quotes provide learning experiences for author and reader alike.

This embedded introduction to literary journalism is refreshing and wonderful. One key to her motivation for contributing to this genre is encapsulated for me in a passage where a student tries to include the ridiculous “moon hoax” myth in their discussion of spaceflight. Dean leads a rational conversation in response to that paranoid fantasy and speaks these words: “Don’t assume it can’t be true just because it’s cool. Sometime people pull off cool things.”

Dean writes vivid eyewitness descriptions of NASA’s final three shuttle flights, its workers and astounding infrastructure. She then asks further questions: “What does it mean to stop exploring ... to cancel the future?” Her epilogue mentions “signs of hope” in the present, including SpaceX utilizing Florida’s trained but underemployed workforce, but the sad fact remains that our country no longer launches humans into space.

Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight. By Margaret Lazarus Dean. Published in May by Graywolf Press. 317 pages. $16.00