Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight

When 2012 came the whole world lost the NASA space shuttle, retired and sent off to different parts of the US to join museum pieces. The space shuttle along with the Apollo shuttles are one of the most iconic pieces of 20th century human ingenuity, innovation, technical and scientific prowess. Iconic machines that have shuttled man to the unearthly reaches of space, landed on another celestial body, and expanded our knowledge of the unknown universe. But when the space shuttle is retired, exploration of space continues but for Margaret Lazarus Dean its end means something else. In her new book she tackles the question of what it all means and tries to make sense of the loss of America’s foremost space program.

Dean chroniclers her experiences in a casual but very informative way. Taking cues from her predecessor space journalists: Tom Wolfe, Oriana Fallaci, and Norman Mailer, she chronicles the end of the space shuttle while drawing parallelisms between the start and end of the space program. Her experiences highlight the significance of what the space shuttle means to the people of America, from its zenith in the heroic age to its gradual demise and waning interest after the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

Leaving Orbit reads like a persuasive essay, imploring readers to reevaluate the significance and magnitude of the space shuttle’s effect on American culture. Throughout her journey she tries to find understanding and meaning and trying to find the same sense of purpose among the people she meets. And at some point, it becomes dragging, every chapter nearing the retirement of the shuttle program, she continuously poses her question to scientists, engineers and astronauts to no avail. By the end of Leaving Orbit, her question still remains unanswered and there is a tinge of bitterness in her writing as she sees NASA transform its once glorious program into a middleman for space entrepreneurs.

The book was very informative and gave personal account of what it was like during the waning days of the program. Having always had an interest in the space program, I envied her position, witnessing the final three launches of the shuttles and being there when the last one finally landed in Cape Canaveral. But on the whole, I felt that Dean was selfish, her belief that retiring the shuttle signaled the end of space exploration as a whole because America was no longer doing it. Her emotions towards this somewhat sullied the reading experience. Nevertheless, Leaving Orbit, unceasingly captivates historic moments in the eyes of someone who truly knows and loves the space experience.

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