The Saturday Read – ‘Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight’ by Margaret Lazarus Dean

“Even before the last launches, NASA had announced the final destinations for each of the orbiters – Endeavor to the California Science Center in Los Angeles…”

On Friday, September 21 at 11:59 AM, the Space Shuttle Endeavor flew over Los Angeles and the campus of the University of Southern California. It was completing it’s 26th mission atop a Boeing 747 with a flyover of locations where workers had designed the spacecraft,  built and assembled parts, and tracked it’s 25 earth orbit missions. On that morning, in LA, Endeavor was the Hollywood star as thousands stood on rooftops to catch a glimpse of the final flight.IMG_0534

Today visitors can view the Endeavor in a temporary pavilion. It’s in a museum, a relic of a dream to build spacecraft in low earth orbit that would transport humans to Mars. The story of how we journeyed from the ‘heroic era’ of space travel to the last shuttle flight is told by Margaret Lazarus Dean in this week’s Saturday Read – ‘Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight’. It’s a narrative constructed to introduce us to the workers who enabled the success of NASA, while at the same time recognizing the courage of the astronauts,

On Wednesday the U.S. National Archives tweeted a copy of President John F. Kennedy’s confidential spaceflight schedule.CQAQyZ8UAAA725tOnce we had arrived at the moon, the plan was to begin construction of a vehicle to travel to Mars by 1975. What happened?

“When we think about the Apollo project now, we think of it as being a time when all Americans were united behind a project they could take pride in. The fact is that Americans were slowly falling out of love with Apollo right from the beginning. Even before Neil, Buzz and Mike made it to the moon, only about a third of Americans thought the moon project was worth the cost. At the same time, a clear majority of Americans throughout the sixties said that they approved of Apollo; in other words, uneasiness about the cost of spaceflight has always been paired with widespread positive feelings about spaceflight. This contradiction has made NASA the site of one of the deeper ambiguities of American culture: spaceflight is an achievement we take great pride in, paid for with our own money, over our objections.”

The author’s story is shared through the lens of a family of workers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It’s a connection that began with an email about her first novel, continued on Facebook and provided access to facilities and events at the center. As the shuttle program is coming to an end, these employees retain their optimism, as colleagues are being laid off. With the end of the shuttle program NASA has disconnected from its institutional memory, the bridge to transfer knowledge to the next generation of space architects and engineers.

Ms. Dean is an associate professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. One of the more interesting sections of the book chronicles her interactions with her students about the history of spaceflight and her adventures to view the last three shuttle launches. These conversations reveal another disconnect; a loss of our historical memory of spaceflight.

She was a teenager when the Challenger exploded, and missed the early years of the space program and competition with the USSR to be the first to the moon. But she fills the gap with the words of writers who witnessed the historic events.

“The books that mean the most to me are the firsthand accounts, the people who grapple with what they have seen and experienced, and by doing so take on the emotional meaning of spaceflight…Tom Wolfe undertook to grasp the courage of the astronauts and uncovered a brotherhood that is both unprecedented and ageless. Oriana Fallaci was an Italian journalist who traveled to Houston, Huntsville, and the Cape at the height of the excitement for Apollo but before the success of the moon landing…(and) Norman Mailer’s book about witnessing the launch of Apollo 11…”

In recent weeks there seems to be an uptick in the discussion of space travel. The movie ‘The Martian’ has reignited a conversation about travel to Mars. The filmmakers worked closely with NASA to ensure credibility in the storytelling.

Jeff Bezos is moving his space exploration company, Blue Origin, to Florida where he will operate manufacturing and testing centers as well as launch rockets from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 36. Elon Musk’s SpaceX continues to design, manufacture and launch advanced rockets and spacecraft with a goal to send people to other planets.

“The story of American spaceflight is a story with many endings.”

The workplace of space is evolving. ‘Leaving Orbit’ is required reading to reclaim our history and institutional memory.