Excerpt from Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Leaving Orbit

Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight

by Margaret Lazarus Dean

Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean X
Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean
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    May 2015, 240 pages

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Poornima Apte
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PROLOGUE
Air and Space

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, has a grand entrance on Independence Avenue, a long row of smoked-glass doors set into an enormous white edifice. Most of the buildings nearby are marble or stone, neoclassical, meant to appear as old as the Capitol and the Washington Monument, which flank them. The Air and Space Museum, completed in 1976, is an exception: it is meant to look ultramodern, futuristic, which is to say it looks like a 1970s idea of the future.

I remember pulling open one of those doors as a child, the airconditioning creating a suction that fought me for the door's weight.

When I was seven, in 1979, I first visited the Air and Space Museum with my father and little brother, and for years of weekends after. This was what we did now that my parents had officially separated, now that our court-ordered visitation arrangements gave our weekends a sense of structure they had never had before. Divorce is supposed to be traumatic for children, and as time went on ours would become so, but not yet. For the time being, there was something festive about leaving our normal old lives and going on an outing with our father. Where we went each weekend was Air and Space.

We stepped over the threshold and into the chilled hush of the interior, one enormous room open many stories high to reveal old- timey relics of flight hanging by invisible wires from the ceiling. I knew the names of the artifacts long before I understood what they had done: The Spirit of St. Louis.. The Wright Flyer. Friendship 7. As a child, I was vaguely aware that everything was out of chronological order, but I wasn't sure what the correct order was. The artifacts were simultaneously elegant and crude, all of them covered with an equalizing layer of dust. I liked to hear the sound of my father's voice, and I liked the way he explained to me things that most adults would assume were beyond my comprehension. My father was in law school, in the midst of switching careers, but being with him at Air and Space revealed how much he missed the math and engineering he studied most of his life, all the way through a PhD from MIT. He told me about orbits, gravity, escape velocity, the Coriolis effect. I tried to understand because I wanted him to think I was smart.

I was often bored in Air and Space, but I was often bored in general: boredom was a natural state for a dreamy little kid often left, benignly, to her own devices. At home and at school I read a lot, stared out windows blankly, and took in whatever music was floating through my fuzzy consciousness: Bach's Brandenburg concertos at my father's apartment, the Supremes and the Pointer Sisters in my mother's car, Top 40 radio at my school's extended day program where those of us with working parents went after class: "Rock with You." "Do that to Me One More Time." "Hit Me With Your Best Shot." "Another Brick in the Wall."

Even at its busiest, Air and Space was always hushed, the only sound the faraway murmurings of tourists who walked reverently past exhibits silent behind their glass. I looked at the exhibits. In the past, apparently, men ate food from toothpaste tubes while floating in space: here was one of the tubes, displayed in a case. In the past, men walked on the moon wearing space suits. Here was one of the suits, moon dust still ground into its seams. Here were the star charts the astronauts used to find their way in space— sometimes they had to do the math themselves, in pencil, and I could see their scrawled figures in the margins. Here was a moon rock, brought back to Earth in 1972, the year I was born. People lined up to touch the relic. At Air and Space, spaceflight seemed like an experience both transcendently pleasurable (the amniotic floating in zero G, the glowing blue world out the window like a jewel in its black velvet case) and also gruelingly uncomfortable (the cramped capsules and stiff space suits). No way to bathe and no privacy, the merciless nothingness just outside the spaceships' hastily constructed hulls.

Margaret Lazarus Dean, excerpt from Leaving Orbit. Copyright © 2015 by Margaret Lazarus Dean. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

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