Sneak Peek: Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight


Welcome to our latest installment of Sneak Peek, an occasional series in which we spotlight a book in advance of publication. You can read previous installments here


When we started the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize almost a decade ago, we had a clear vision in mind of the kind of books we were looking for: innovative, boundary-testing, and singular works of nonfiction that would make a lasting impact on the genre. The authors who have won the prize have more than delivered. (See: Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Kevin Young, etc. It’s a remarkable list!). So it is with great anticipation and excitement that we present to you an excerpt from the newest Graywolf Nonfiction Prize-winning book, Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Lazarus Dean.



Lynn Sherr, author of Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space, has chimed in with this early praise for the book:


“In this eloquent farewell to NASA’s space shuttle program, Margaret Lazarus Dean celebrates the extraordinary optimism that lifted humans off the Earth, dreaming of worlds far beyond.  Her passion for cosmic travel is matched by her poetic vision of the past – once our future.  If you lived it, you’ll rejoice in the memories; if you didn’t, you’ll wish you’d been there. Either way, you’ll beg for more.”


And earlier this week we received this lovely endorsement from a previous winner of the Prize, Ander Monson:


“What is it about spaceflight that activates our hearts and asks our brains to yearn? And what does it mean that we've now (mostly) stopped? Margaret Lazarus Dean wants to know—and so she goes to talk to Buzz Aldrin, to watch the last shuttle launches, to talk to astronauts whose names most of us no longer recognize. Dean digs deep and does not avert her gaze. She has the heart of a storyteller, the head of an essayist, and a transcendent enthusiasm for American spaceflight. I came away from Leaving Orbit with a renewed case of space brain, my heart once more in my throat.”


Reader, get ready to catch a case of “space brain." Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight launches into stores next year on May 19.




From Chapter 1. The Beginnings of the Future: This Is Cape Canaveral

Family Day: September 25, 2010


Say the words out loud: Cape Canaveral. Say them in JFK’s voice, in John Glenn’s voice, in Walter Cronkite’s voice. The very syllables con- note rockets and bravery, the countdown to zero, heroes in helmets, banks of inscrutable computers. So it’s strange that when you visit the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, when you make the drive from Orlando or from the beach towns south or north, you must first drive through miles of green flats, the low pulsing of insects all around you, alligators lurking in ditches, before you finally encounter the structures built by NASA in the sixties.


You wouldn’t necessarily know that you were at the Kennedy Space Center, the swampy, improbable spaceport that inhabits 219 square miles of mostly untouched wilderness in central Florida. The only clue to what goes on here is a roadside sign with the NASA logo and changeable numbers reminding workers how many days remain until the next launch. Kennedy Parkway runs past a wild beach and, past that, the narrow strip of land from which American spaceships leave Earth. Most of this square mileage is a wildlife refuge, closed to any type of development for over fifty years because of the potentially explosive nature of what goes on here. In this way, the tour guides tell their busloads of tourists, technology and nature can help each other.


It’s fall 2010. I’m sitting in the backseat of a rental car being driven by my father; in the passenger seat is his wife, Judy. We all found each other at baggage claim in the Orlando airport late last night, having flown in from two different cities, and shared a car out to the coast. There is a special urgency to this trip because the space shuttle program will end soon, and this is one of the last opportunities I or anyone else will have to see the Kennedy Space Center as a working spaceport. The era of American spaceflight that started in 1961 when Alan Shepard became the first American to travel in space is about to come to an end, and few people seem to notice or care. Two more space shuttle missions are scheduled: STS-133 and STS-134. (STS stands for Space Transportation System, the original name for the space shuttle program from the seventies). A third mission, STS-135, will be added if NASA can get approval from Congress. This would mean one final launch for each of the three remaining space shuttle orbiters: Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis.


The decision to end the shuttle program was made quietly, and as a result many people are still not aware it’s ending. In the wake of the loss of Columbia in 2003, the investigation board tasked with uncovering the causes of the disaster pointed out the age of the fleet—the oldest surviving orbiter, Discovery, was then twenty years old. The investigation board’s report includes, on page 227, an item entitled R9.2-1, Recertification. It recommends that NASA, “prior to operating the Shuttle beyond 2010, develop and conduct a vehicle certification at the material, component, subsystem, and system levels.” The destruction of Columbia had not been attributable to its age, but the board clearly feared the next disaster might be. The word sounds benign, but recertification would require the shuttles to be taken apart, examined, tested, and rebuilt from the ground up. This process would be prohibitively expensive, and everyone knew it; the inevitable consequence of this recommendation, barring some unforeseen change, was that NASA would have no choice but to retire the shuttle when this date arrived. In this paragraph the end of the shuttle is written.




Margaret Lazarus Dean is the author of The Time It Takes to Fall. She is a recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Tennessee Arts Commission and is an associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee and lives in Knoxville.

(photo credit: Christopher Hebert)