Margaret Lazarus Dean’s space shuttle memoir Leaving Orbit, reviewed.

In Praise of the Space Shuttle, NASA’s 40-Year Embarrassment

In Praise of the Space Shuttle, NASA’s 40-Year Embarrassment

Reading between the lines.
June 1 2015 8:40 AM

Grounded

Margaret Lazarus Dean mourns the loss of the space shuttle, NASA’s 40-year embarrassment.

Illustration by Kevin Cannon.

Illustration by Kevin Cannon

Remember the space shuttle, that lemon?

After the pioneering triumphs of the Apollo program, the workaday shuttle introduced by President Nixon to “routinize” spaceflight was bound to be a disappointment. It’s in the names. “Apollo”: Greek god of truth and light. “Shuttle”: the thing you take to the airport Hilton.

But the shuttle failed by even by its own prosaic standards, and, when NASA mothballed the chunky white spaceplane in 2011, it ended a 40-year national embarrassment. Intended as a cost saver, it was supposed to take material to orbit for the bargain-bin price of $650 a pound; that figure ended up closer to $25,000. It was supposed to have a launch turnaround time of two weeks; the final average was six months. It was supposed to make one-off rockets obsolete; those one-offs turned out to be cheaper and more versatile. Unlike previous manned spacecraft the shuttle had no escape system, so when two of the five vehicles exploded, 14 astronauts died. Toward the end of the shuttle’s moribund career, NASA engineers could be found trawling eBay in search of its discontinued parts. All this for a spaceship that could travel only one six-hundredth the distance to the moon.

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And yet. Who didn’t love the space shuttle? It looked simultaneously so purposeful and so cute. It made a great inflatable toy. It had that cool Canadian arm. For all but the very oldest and youngest of us, the shuttle was American spaceflight.

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Margaret Lazarus Dean, an associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville, loved the shuttle more than most. She loved it so much that she attributed distinct personalities to the individual vehicles. Columbia was “bumbly, a chunky older sister forever dropping crumpled tissues from her sleeves”; Challenger “the fuzziest, friendliest of the orbiters”; Endeavour “a quirky cousin from another country.” She loved the shuttle program so much that over and again in 2011 she forsook her students and husband and young son to drive the 700 miles between Knoxville and Cape Canaveral and witness the surviving shuttles’ final launches. She loved it so much that she wrote a book about these trips: Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight. A memoir of technological obsession, it reminds us that even when a machine fails by all other criteria, it can still succeed erotically.

Like so many obsessions, Dean’s began in pain. After her parents’ divorce, she spent childhood weekends with her father at the National Air and Space Museum, marveling at the high-tech relics and thinking that “despite their long and growing list of appalling limitations, grown-ups had at least done this: they had figured out how to fly to space.” On a film shot by shuttle astronauts she saw Judith Resnik, fourth woman in space, destined to die in the 1986 Challenger disaster, floating asleep and surrounded by the dark ringlets of her hair: “I fell in love.” In a passage that reads almost like Freudian fetish origination, Dean explains that her obsession began there, with “the air-conditioned, musty smell of Air and Space … a space-scarred Apollo capsule, the floating black curls of Judith Resnik, and my father’s calm voice.” Dean grew up, became a writer, and wrote a first novel about Challenger and a NASA engineer’s daughter. When the shuttle’s retirement was announced, she knew what her second book’s subject would be.

Author Margaret Lazarus.
Author Margaret Lazarus Dean.

Photo courtesy Christopher Hebert

Leaving Orbit circles around many of space journalism’s giants. Dean brings a stack of these books on her first visit to the Cape, including Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Oriana Fallaci’s If the Sun Dies, and Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon. She searches them for clues about how to describe mankind’s boldest technology using words, mankind’s oldest. Fallaci, whose native Florence had been bombed in the war by one of her subjects, worked the “Mercury seven” with flirtatious persistence, smoking and drinking with those hard, scientific men in the clubs of central Florida until they caved and became her pals. Wolfe built them back up into national Homeric heroes. Mailer crammed his pages with details both technical and mystical, trying to stun his readers into the trance of the technological sublime. These were the mythmakers of American spaceflight’s heroic era, who wrote in happy ignorance of the disasters, narrowed ambitions and congressional stinginess to come. “Mailer’s generation got to see the beginnings of things and mine has gotten the ends.” 

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That generation wrote for audiences still thrilled by spaceflight. When Dean begins to write, in a post-Challenger, post-Cold War, antiheroic NASA funding cycle, her contemporaries are mostly ignorant about it, and often outright hostile. For reasons she cannot understand, Americans don’t love the shuttle quite like she does. The best explanation for its grounding, she goes ahead and says, is the public’s own apathy. “Most people had not really noticed that we were still flying in the first place.” While commiserating about this with Buzz Aldrin, whom she meets while promoting her novel, the moonwalker tells her that he wishes they had sent John Denver into space. “John Denver could have written a song in space that would inspire generations to come.” 

Then, on Facebook, she meets Omar, an “integrity clerk” at the Kennedy Space Center who loves the shuttle as much as she does, and becomes her eventual accomplice in her yearlong tryst with it. He gets her special access to the Vehicle Assembly Building where the shuttle is prepared for flight, so huge that without elaborate air conditioning it would regularly rain inside from indoor clouds. With Omar’s encouragement, Dean joins the migratory flocks of space pilgrims who refuse to miss a launch, driving much further than the astronauts will fly to spend hours enduring Florida heat and mosquitoes, awaiting launches that are usually scrubbed. She logs hundreds of hours on I-75, eating at Cracker Barrels and singing along to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” popular that year, which becomes her kaddish to the machine she loved so much, the one she was determined to mourn even if nobody else would.

Leaving Orbit is a good book with bad timing. In the years between its composition and publication—somehow, sneakily—space became a little sexy again. Gravity imaginatively resurrected the space shuttle so that it could be spectacularly destroyed in 3-D, and Interstellar sent Matthew McConaughey’s hieratic drawl out from the Louisiana bayou and into the stars. In real life, private companies are preparing to bring astronauts back to space on American vehicles. You aren’t a world-class billionaire, anymore, unless you’re posting homemade rocket footage on YouTube. Even NASA is getting back into the game, with manned flight of its new Orion capsule planned for sometime around 2021. Even amid these new beginnings, though, Dean’s book about endings is valuable, as a reminder of what can happen to even the starriest technological projects after a few accidents, after interest wanes, after the money’s gone. It’s a useful rejoinder to evangelists hymning the inevitable progress of “tech,” and gurus divining what technology “wants.”

Sometimes technology disrupts, but other times it reinforces power. Sometimes technology democratizes, but other times it excludes. Sometimes it expands exploration’s limits, but other times it lets them contract. Defenseless against the fickle will of a tool-making species, technology doesn’t “want” any of these things. Deep down, Leaving Orbit proposes, it really only wants one thing. Technology wants to be loved.

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Nicholas Nardini is a writer, editor, and Ph.D. candidate in English at Harvard University studying 20th-century American culture.