Review: “Leaving Orbit” by Margaret Lazarus Dean

A farewell to NASA’s shuttle program.

Paul Patane, Sports Editor

Author Margaret Lazarus Dean captures the heartbreak of the shuttle program having ended in her 2015 nonfiction book that was published by nonprofit Minneapolis publisher Graywolf Press. Raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Dean grew up having frequently gone to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. She describes the Smithsonian building that opened in 1976 as “an exception: it is meant to look ultramodern, futuristic, which is to say it looks like a 1970s idea of the future.”

Dean’s regular visits to the museum impacted her future as she was amazed at what mankind had accomplished, falling in love with the idea of manned space missions and the shuttle program’s potential offerings. Then in 1986, Challenger exploded and everything changed, leaving the program’s goals scaled back and its future curtailed.

While the Challenger disaster hurt the shuttle program, it didn’t end it. However, another shuttle disaster in 2003 would: the Columbia breakup upon reentry of Earth’s atmosphere. The destruction of Columbia led to a professional recommendation that NASA’s shuttle program be ended, leaving the three remaining shuttles, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor, to wrap up their remaining missions before being permanently retired in 2011.

Dean writes of the impactful tragedies, “The lovely dream of spaceflight I grew up with is marred by the images of Challenger and Columbia breaking apart in the sky, the lost astronauts smiling on hopefully in their portraits, oblivious. Some people took the disasters to mean the entire space program had been a lie, that the dream itself was tainted with our fallibility.” It’s that thought and series of complex emotions that led to Dean’s in-depth mission to chronicle the end of NASA’s shuttle program.

Divided into nine essays that serve as chapters running approximately 30 pages each, Dean weaves readers through her emotions, knowledge and personal history with that of NASA’s. From Apollo 11 landing on the moon to the last missions of Discovery, Endeavor and Atlantis, she brings both space lovers and casual readers along for an experience that’s true, complex and heartbreaking.

In addition to the chapters that separate the book into nine complete narratives, Dean doesn’t scale back as she includes a thorough timeline, a selected bibliography and a couple illustrations to help fill out the experience contained within the project that won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize in 2012.

Despite the five shuttles having flown a combined 135 missions over three decades, the shuttle program’s ending has left doubts in the minds of many regarding cost and whether or not it was really a success. Despite Dean acknowledging the failures and setbacks behind the program, she makes compelling and romanticized arguments that make it difficult to argue against all the good the shuttles and their astronauts accomplished.

Even though the chapters cover a lot of ground and history, the prose reads easy enough for a novice oblivious to science and technology terminology to follow along, creating an elegant reading experience that allows the book to avoid feeling dense or overwhelming, making a remarkable experience that engages the senses while raising compelling questions, including: “How many years will it be before astronauts can get to space again on an American spacecraft? Will a human flight to Mars take place in my lifetime, and if it does, will its voyagers be NASA astronauts or will they be wealthy pleasure seekers?”

Dean has a BA from Wellesley College and an MFA from the University of Michigan. She is the author of “The Time it Takes to Fall” which was published by Simon & Schuster in 2007. She lives in Knoxville and is an associate English professor at the University of Tennessee.


space shuttles! for the interwebsPaul Patane

Author Margaret Lazarus.
Christopher Hebert
Author Margaret Lazarus Dean.


Notes From the Last Days of American Spaceflight

By Margaret Lazarus Dean

317 pages. $16. Graywolf Press.