I picked up this book at a sale in the Museum of Flight in Seattle. My husband and I had secured tickets to see Destination Moon ahead of the premier, and we couldn’t wait to be around the artifacts of human space exploration. As fans of the Space Shuttle Program, or “shuttle”, a fleet as old as we were, this book called out to me. The realization that a female writer penned the last moments of my friends the Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour (a spelling of the word I prefer using to this day much to autocorrect’s chagrin), and Atlantis. These five spacecraft had shaped my childhood, inspiring me to become a mechanical engineer just in case I ever had an opportunity to work on these amazing pieces of machinery, and had also taught me the value of compassion and humility when facing adversity.
I still remember where I was the days we lost Challenger and Columbia.
Margaret Lazarus Dean does an exceptional job narrating, via creative nonfiction terms and lessons (think Mailer, Wolfe, Fallaci), the joy and sorrow of watching the last three missions – STS 133 to 135 – that closed out the 30+ year old NASA orbiter project. She recounts and relives conversations with journalists, space workers, fans, astronauts young and old, and her University of Tennessee students as a means to provide insight into the implication of the events, and the many benefits that came out of this taxpayer funded investment in technology, beyond Velcro and Tang. Her goal is to inspire the next generation of NASA candidates, and STEM professionals, advocating for the revival of space exploration as an enterprise – to extol humanity.
Conceived in a world driven by social media -Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – the author manages to write down her perception of events using her smartphone and trusted electronic devices. Brilliantly, hints and bread crumbs are inserted into the prose, indicating where to find the imagery that best summarizes the action captured during her journey. I felt she was saying goodbye to an old friend through deliberate pauses in the narrative to allow you to look up the information and see for yourself why the end of her relationship with the shuttle had to be shouted from the rooftops. A noble endeavour on its own merit.
My favorite character was Omar, her friend and NASA insider, who provides a natural sounding board for her thoughts and questions from a space worker legacy and Space Coast family view. His role as an orbiter integrity clerk, photographer, videographer, and historian served as an excellent representation of my Puerto Rican heritage and culture’s contributions as citizens of this great, yet racially divided, nation: Frank Izquierdo, his father, was an engineer for shuttle, a crucial member of its success. It’s a beautiful tribute to the sacrifices of all those who lived and breathed life into the space race, of those unsung heroes that made our collective dream of voyaging to the stars come true.
Holistically, Leaving Orbit is a story about feminism, opportunity, grit, history, failure, resilience, family, and togetherness, of defining moments for STEM, our country and the entire planet. Among its many pages you will find a sincere account of the facts outlined by a heartfelt desire to do justice to an icon of her childhood. I have to commend the professor for not only nailing the essence of talking to an engineer (page 149), but of immortalizing the fruits of innovation under peaceful times. Hopefully, the last Atlantis launch is a mere pause in our quest to learn about our pale blue dot from above, reach Mars, and eventually leave our solar system.
To infinity, and beyond!
The paperback I read was released in 2015 and includes references to SpaceX’s Falcon/Dragon program launch failure (2012) which, as of August 2020, has sent humans from US soil into space, and back home safely. Ten years ago, I shared the same apprehension about space commercialization and the proposed reusable rocket technology design. Dude, they nailed it! Now, I’m hoping Boeing’s Starliner can play catch up to see capitalism at its best. Can’t wait to see multiple rockets and vehicles tracing a route that leads us directly to the Red Planet. One can dream, again!