The Space Shuttle Program: Background information when reading Leaving Orbit

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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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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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About this Book

The Space Shuttle Program

This article relates to Leaving Orbit

Print Review

In Leaving Orbit, Margaret Lazarus Dean celebrates the utilitarian model of spaceflight as imagined by the Shuttle program, which was initiated in 1981.

Shuttle EndeavorBefore Shuttle, during the "heroic" era of spaceflight, small capsules were launched into space on the backs of rockets and disintegrated over the ocean upon the rockets' reentry and landing. The large spaceships of the Shuttle program, however, were designed to get to space and return so they could be reused. "From the start, the idea of the shuttle had been an idea for a fleet, with the reliability that comes with multiple identical vehicles," Lazarus Dean explains. "One orbiter could be prepared for flight while another was in space and yet another undergoing repairs. Ultimately, the fleet was to consist of five orbiters, taking astronauts and cargo to space with a regularity more like a commercial airline's than the risky one-off ventures of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo."

Shuttle AtlantisThe shuttles left from Cape Canaveral Space Station in Florida on missions that lasted from a couple of days to a week or more. Specially equipped with robotic arms and large cargo bays, the shuttles were used for routine satellite repairs and creating the International Space Station, a permanent laboratory outpost in space. Five shuttles in all — Atlantis, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Endeavour — clocked 135 flights over the Shuttle program's three-decade long run, which formally ended in July 2011 when Atlantis returned after a 13-day trip to deliver parts and supplies to the International Space Station.

Of the five shuttles, two met with tragic endings including the Challenger disaster in 1986, which many children watched live on television because one of the flight crew was a New Hampshire schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe (see Beyond the Book for My Sunshine Away). In February 2003, Columbia disintegrated over Texas just a few minutes before landing.

Pillars of CreationDespite these tragedies, the shuttle program contributed significantly to our understanding of the universe, most noticeably with the April 1990 launch of Discovery, which set the Hubble Space Telescope into operation. Incidentally initial images from Hubble were a touch blurred, but after a 1993 repair by the crew of Endeavour, the Hubble transmitted crystal-clear images back to earth. (This is a story too long to tell but one worth reading about as a great example of creativity and ingenuity.) The images from the Hubble are breathtaking and continue to greatly expand our knowledge of the universe.

The Shuttle program was also responsible for sending Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut, into space on board the Challenger in 1983. The three remaining shuttles and a prototype are now housed in museums across the country.

Endeavor, docked with the International Space Station, courtesy of Soerfm
Atlantis, beginning the last mission of the Space Shuttle Program, in 2011, courtesy of Mark Schierbecker
One of Hubble's most famous images, "Pillars of Creation" shows stars forming in the Eagle Nebula, courtesy of Crisco 1492

Article by Poornima Apte

This "beyond the book article" relates to Leaving Orbit. It first ran in the June 17, 2015 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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