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.

The Saturday Read – Tom Wolfe, ‘I Am Charlotte Simmons’

When this week’s selection for ‘The Saturday Read’ was released in 2004 the reviews were brutal and unusual for a writer with the reputation of Tom Wolfe. In hindsight, with the headlines from college campuses in the past year, the author might have been more in tune with campus life 11 years ago than reviewers acknowledged.

‘The Saturday Read’ this week is ‘I Am Charlotte Simmons’.

I recommend this novel for both students heading off to college and the parents left behind. In his dedication, author Wolfe acknowledged the contribution of his then college age children who provided input on authenticity throughout his writing process.

“You have been a joy, a surprise, a source of wonderment for me at every stage of your young lives. So I suppose I shouldn’t be astonished by what you have done for me and this book; but I am, and dedicating it to you is a mere whisper of my gratitude.”

“What I never imagined you could do – I couldn’t have done it at your age – was to step back in the most detached way and point out the workings of human nature in general and the esoteric workings of social status in particular.  I say “esoteric”, because in many cases these were areas of life one would not ordinarily think of as social at all. Given your powers of abstraction, you father had only to reassemble the material he had accumulated visiting campuses across the country. What I feel about you both I can say best with a long embrace.”

I include the dedication to remind parents that their children will return home surprisingly different, but recognizable. They may even amaze with their insight. And they will always welcome a long parental embrace.

Now back to Charlotte. She comes from a small Appalachian town in western North Carolina and arrives as a scholarship student at the elite Dupont University. Her acceptance was reported as the lead story in her hometown Allegheny News.

Charlotte is seeking a life of the mind but ends up with popularity and prestige linked to her relationship to a star basketball player. Her journey registered with a number of readers in college at the time of the book release.

The Yale Alumni magazine published comments from undergraduates to find out if alumnus Wolfe’s fictionalized view aligned with the student experience. Here is a sampling from three respondents.

“It’s possible! I certainly identified with Charlotte through much of the book. I came to Yale, I’d led a very sheltered life in a little suburb and couldn’t fathom what I’d find here, and it was shocking to me. In high school, none of my friends drank or smoked, so I was wide-eyed at the party scene here. While I think at times Wolfe took it too far, there were times when he was spot on. The other characters were somewhat stereotypical, but I did think that Charlotte was really complex, especially towards the beginning of the book.”

“I’m from a very small town in Ohio and though by no means was I as naïve as Charlotte, I identified with some of the class issues. There was definitely a difference between my life and the lives of my roommates, who were mostly from New York. I never felt the kind of shame that I think Charlotte does about her family, but it was definitely kind of funny when my dad, who’s a farmer, was hanging out with my friend’s father, who was a VP at Goldman Sachs. I do think that that’s an element that was portrayed very well in the book, when Charlotte’s father suggests to her rich roommate’s parents that they all go to the Sizzlin’ Skillet for dinner.”

“It’s almost like it was hard reading the book because it’s about us. I think he’s dead on with some of the observations.”

For Charlotte the college experience was transformational. And that’s why you go to college; not to get a job in the short term, not to be the same person you were on the first day of class, but to engage in the experience and grow into an ever curious, contributing member of society who will cause continual ‘surprise and wonderment’ in your parents.

Why read the book if you are not a college student or parent? ‘Charlotte’ is a narrative of change and sometimes startling interactions with a new environment. Our global workplace is one characterized by volatility and often unwelcome transition. Spending time in a fictionalized version of our reality provides an alternate narrative to explore. And it’s a good story, with good writing.