Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight
(Graywolf Press, 2015)
At least in books, it’s easy to see the ends. I make this quip because endings and their ambiguity are one of the themes of Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight. And also because for much of the book, I couldn’t wait for the end to arrive.
In Leaving Orbit, Margaret Lazarus Dean recounts her many trips back and forth from her home in Tennessee to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to witness the last launches and landings of NASA’s space shuttles, which retired in 2011. She makes these pilgrimages in an attempt to answer the question: What does it mean that we went to space for 50 years and now we are stopping?
To find her answer, she relies on firsthand reporting, earlier writing about the space program, and her previous knowledge of spaceflight. A lifelong space enthusiast, Dean previously published a novel, The Time it Takes to Fall (2007), about the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
It seems like a promising setup but, unfortunately, its realization is, for the most part, repetitive and slow. The book’s structure—Dean witnesses three space shuttle launches, a landing, and a launch attempt by a privately owned SpaceX vehicle—assures some repetition, but Dean draws it out with too-detailed descriptions of lackluster moments, one just like the next. For example:
Once again, I’m standing in a grassy field at the Kennedy Space Center […] waiting for something to happen. The sun is setting, and people mill around us excitedly, chatting and buzzing with anticipation, like every other time I’ve been here.
Perhaps in the hands of a writer more adept at elevating the everyday, these ordinary moments—on the road, in her office—would make good reading, but lively description is not Dean’s talent.
Far from it to say, however, that Dean, an associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee lacks literary self-awareness; on the contrary, her writing process is part of the narrative of the book. Extending this meta-narrative, Dean intertwines her history of spaceflight with excerpts from and analysis of writings—by Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, among others—about spaceflight’s beginnings. She compares these classic works to her own project, to write about its end. The book becomes not just reportage but also literary criticism. Her sources are wide-ranging: Jules Verne, Captain James Cook, and Ponce de León all make appearances.
While these references provide a rich historical context for Dean’s endeavor, her selections also serve as a sort of meditation on the idea of endings:
I feel as though [Mailer] and I are tugging on opposite ends of the same thread, a thread forty years long. I am often struck with jealousy for the era he lived in. Sometimes it seems as though Norman Mailer’s generation got to see the beginnings of things and mine has gotten the ends.
The book’s epigraph features the first line from Joan Didion’s famous essay, “Goodbye To All That”: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” It’s a compelling idea that once something has begun, it is connected to its ending, and that when you’re in the middle of something, it’s hard to know exactly where you are in the story. America’s time in space began with the excitement of the space race and the goal to put a man on the moon before the 1960s were out. That beginning was clear, and Wolfe and Mailer kicked off the genre of New Journalism in part by writing about it. Dean’s challenge then, as Didion observed, is harder, and that’s in part why it appeals to her.
Seeing the ends of spaceflight forces Dean to reconsider its whole story. Early in the book, she recalls watching a movie at the Air and Space Museum called The Dream Is Alive (1985), featuring astronaut Judith Resnik. “My father, brother, and I came back to see this film over and over, and I practically memorized it frame for frame.” She thinks of this film, shot by astronauts on three different shuttle missions, as “a portrait of the space shuttle at its most hope-filled.” But she comes to realize that at this point in 1985, when she fell in love with the space program, it was already on the downturn:
Six months after the film came out, Challenger exploded and one of the film’s stars, Judith Resnik, was dead. I’m not sure I ever got to enjoy this golden period of shuttle history that I’ve come to associate with my childhood. It may be that by the time I had any understanding of shuttle at all, Challenger was already lost, and that was the beginning of the end.
She comes to have a similar revisionist view of the moon missions: “Though Norman Mailer thought he was seeing the start of something, he was wrong. In fact, he was seeing its pinnacle.”
Where is that “exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was?” as Didion wrote. What was the climax and where did the end begin? These are questions that can only be answered in hindsight.
When you’re at the end of anything, you notice that what was once young and new has gotten old. American spaceships have retired to museums like Air and Space, which, as Dean aptly comments, “is meant to look ultramodern, futuristic, which is to say it looks like a 1970s idea of the future.” Similarly, the New Journalism conceit, which Dean imitates, of telling a story through the reporter’s personal experience is no longer original; it’s been overused, and Dean’s lukewarm writing serves as an accidental illustration of the style’s decline.
Dean, on the other hand, views her enterprise as something grand, heroic, and nearly impossible, analogous, in some ways, to the moon missions:
In order to start this project I will have to set aside the novel I’m already halfway through, a novel I’m expected to publish soon in order to qualify for tenure and keep my job, which is the sole source of benefits for my family. All this might well turn out to be for nothing. But I’ve decided to try.
It’s as if Dean is trying to rekindle ’60s optimism while she chronicles the end of a program that represents that hope. To compare anything to the moon missions might seem grandiose, but considering that Dean set out to experience and write about the end of spaceflight with no publication behind her and no press credentials (for most of the book), I can understand why she made it. Dean persisted, wrote her book, and won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, which came with publication and put her in company with such luminary writers as Leslie Jamison and Eula Biss.
When a book tells the story of its own creation, it doesn’t end on the last page. The prize provides a nice resolution for Dean’s quest, but her story and the book’s will continue as reviewers and readers respond.
I guess even book endings are complicated.