“One of the things that makes the job title astronaut different from other jobs is that it existed in the collective imagination for centuries before it was ever actually anyone’s occupation,” writes Margaret Lazarus Dean in Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, a dazzling work of memoir, research, reporting, and meditation that won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Beginning with Lucian of Samosata in the second century and continuing through Jules Verne in the nineteenth and Walt Disney in the twentieth, Dean surveys the imaginary exploits of fictional adventurers in a job that became a real-life occupation astonishingly quickly—though, because of its associated costs, never without controversy. “The debate over whether it’s important for humans to go to space is a debate about the dream lives of taxpayers,” she writes in an excerpt from the book in The Paris Review:
The scientists and engineers didn’t see the point of sending astronauts, but the people who romanticize spaceflight—the ones who want to see their science-fiction fantasies come true—felt in their geeky hearts that sending astronauts to space, seeing human protagonists for our stories of leaving Earth, was in fact the whole point. And those geeks won. Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon was devoured, and loved, by Tsiolkovsky, Oberth, and Goddard, the three geniuses who developed rocketry more or less simultaneously and in isolation from one another; it was also read and loved in childhood by Wernher von Braun, who developed the rocket that actually achieved the goal. Viewed from more than a century on, the most outlandish bit of invention in Verne’s novel is the idea that a flight to the moon could be funded entirely by a subscription service—regular citizens all over the world voluntarily paying into the project with no hope of being paid back.
But after decades of spaceflight funded by taxpayers, NASA is now as imperiled as it has ever been, writes Dean in a recent essay for The Washington Post: “For people who love spaceflight, who take pride in what our nation has accomplished and hope to see those achievements in science and exploration continue, the current state of our investment in NASA is depressing—just 0.5 percent of the federal budget, a tiny fraction of what it was at its height (the greatest share of the budget NASA ever saw was 6 percent, in the run-up to the Apollo moon landings).” And the idea of a subscription service that allows regular citizens to fund exploratory missions to space is no longer inconceivable: the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum just launched its first Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to restore and preserve Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. “Someday in the future, crowdfunding models like the one the Air and Space Museum is using to preserve Armstrong’s suit could actually help finance serious space exploration,” Dean writes.
Such innovations, and the passionate commitment to human space travel that leads to them, barely touch on the full array of subjects brilliantly addressed by Leaving Orbit. The book—which chronicles the end of the space-shuttle era and asks what it means that Americans sent human beings into space for fifty years and then just stopped—has been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews:
“Wonderfully evocative. … Ms. Dean writes with the passion of a lifelong lover of space exploration and an ability to communicate, with tremendous kinetic power, the glory and danger of its missions.” ~Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times
“[A]n exuberant, wistful account of the author’s repeated schleps from her home in Tennessee to swampy Florida, an account interspersed with the history of American spaceflight and quotes from its great chroniclers.” ~ Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, writing in the Los Angeles Times
“A meditation on America’s waning age of manned spaceflight, this book is also about the craft of writing. Its heroes are not only the astronauts who manned the momentous NASA missions of the sixties but also the writers who witnessed them.” ~The New Yorker
“Sentimental and ferocious. … [Dean] is, from the start, dynamite at enveloping the reader, ushering us back to an earlier state of wonder. You almost can’t help, while reading, walking outside and looking up at the sky again.” ~Weston Cutter, writing in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
“With the countdown clock no longer ticking, Leaving Orbit offers a heartfelt eulogy for the dream and brief reality of American spaceflight.” ~Booklist
“Dean deftly captures the thrill and discovery of American space exploration, as well as the disappointment and outrage she believes everyone should feel at its ending.” ~Publishers Weekly’s starred review
“A refreshingly outsider view, coming from beyond the usual insular world of space policy and space journalism. … [Her] elegy to the shuttle program hits home.” ~Alexandra Witze, writing in The Dallas Morning News
“Dean’s enthusiasm for these trips is infectious, her ability to describe the places and people she encounters superb. Even readers who have no particular interest in space cannot help but be swept into her obsession.” ~Michael Ray Taylor, writing for Chapter 16
For more updates on Tennessee authors, please visit Chapter 16’s News & Notes page, here.