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Summary and book reviews of Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean

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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     Not Yet Rated
  • Paperback:
    May 2015, 240 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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About this Book

Book Summary

Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, a breathtaking elegy to the waning days of human spaceflight as we have known it.

In the 1960s, humans took their first steps away from Earth, and for a time our possibilities in space seemed endless. But in a time of austerity and in the wake of high-profile disasters like Challenger, that dream has ended. In early 2011, Margaret Lazarus Dean traveled to Cape Canaveral for NASA's last three space shuttle launches in order to bear witness to the end of an era. With Dean as our guide to Florida's Space Coast and to the history of NASA, Leaving Orbit takes the measure of what American spaceflight has achieved while reckoning with its earlier witnesses, such as Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Oriana Fallaci. Along the way, Dean meets NASA workers, astronauts, and space fans, gathering possible answers to the question: What does it mean that a spacefaring nation won't be going to space anymore?

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 ...

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BookBrowse Review


Leaving Orbit succeeds on many levels — in its evocative descriptions of Florida's humid, mosquito-infested space coast, and by delivering a heartfelt ode to a slice of American history. However, readers (like me), expecting a more probing and wide-ranging exploration of the hows and whys of the end days of an era of American spaceflight, might be a little let down by Lazarus Dean's check-all-the-boxes approach to the New Journalism format...continued

Full Review (749 words).

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(Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Media Reviews

Houston Chronicle
Leaving Orbit is a long walk with a space enthusiast who has an eye and ear for detail, a gift for symbolism and an urgent need to understand the end of an era in American space exploration. It is a frank look back and a skeptical-but hopeful-look forward.

The New York Times
Wonderfully evocative. . . . Ms. Dean writes with the passion of a lifelong lover of space exploration and an ability to communicate, with tremendous kinetic power, the glory and danger of its missions.

Library Journal
Dean focuses on human interaction, not technical detail, so this book may appeal to a wider audience of creative nonfiction readers than does most popular space literature.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Dean deftly captures the thrill and discovery of American space exploration, as well as the disappointment and outrage she believes everyone should feel at its ending.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. One of those books you can't put down, don't want to finish, and won't soon forget.

[Dean's] account of her visits, mixed with historical perspective on the space program, allows readers not only to visit Cape Canaveral while NASA was still sending Americans into space, but also to meet the workers and space fans for whom the sky was never the limit. With the countdown clock no longer ticking, Leaving Orbit offers a heartfelt eulogy for the dream and brief reality of American spaceflight.

Author Blurb Lynn Sherr, author of Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space
In this eloquent farewell to NASA's space shuttle program, Margaret Lazarus Dean celebrates the extraordinary optimism that lifted humans off the Earth, dreaming of worlds far beyond. Her passion for cosmic travel is matched by her poetic vision of the past - once our future. If you lived it, you'll rejoice in the memories; if you didn't, you'll wish you'd been there. Either way, you'll beg for more.

Author Blurb Ander Monson
Dean digs deep and does not avert her gaze. She has the heart of a storyteller, the head of an essayist, and a transcendent enthusiasm for American spaceflight. I came away from Leaving Orbit with a renewed case of space brain, my heart once more in my throat

Author Blurb Donovan Hohn, author of Moby-Duck
Margaret Lazarus Dean has written the space shuttle the obituary it deserves, documenting the program's final countdown in prose that makes you feel by turns wistful and wonderstruck.

Author Blurb Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking
Journalist, essayist, memoirist and storyteller, [Margaret Lazarus Dean 's] prized text shows Americans, each and every, how we came to be the ones we are. And where we're going. This is rocket science, reliable witness, replete with poetry.

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