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?
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Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight
By Margaret Lazarus Dean
GRAYWOLF PRESSCopyright © 2015 Margaret Lazarus Dean
All rights reserved.
The Beginnings of the Future: This Is Cape Canaveral
Family Day: September 25, 2010
Say the words out loud: Cape Canaveral. Say them in JFK's voice, in John Glenn's voice, in Walter Cronkite's voice. The very syllables connote rockets and bravery, the countdown to zero, heroes in helmets, banks of inscrutable computers. So it's strange that when you visit the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, when you make the drive from Orlando or from the beach towns south or north, you must first drive through miles of green flats, the low pulsing of insects all around you, alligators lurking in ditches, before you finally encounter the structures built by NASA in the sixties.
You wouldn't necessarily know that you were at the Kennedy Space Center, the swampy, improbable spaceport that inhabits 219 square miles of mostly untouched wilderness in central Florida. The only clue to what goes on here is a roadside sign with the NASA logo and changeable numbers reminding workers how many days remain until the next launch. Kennedy Parkway runs past a wild beach and, past that, the narrow strip of land from which American spaceships leave Earth. Most of this square mileage is a wildlife refuge, closed to any type of development for over fifty years because of the potentially explosive nature of what goes on here. In this way, the tour guides tell their busloads of tourists, technology and nature can help each other.
It's fall 2010. I'm sitting in the backseat of a rental car being driven by my father; in the passenger seat is his wife, Judy. We all found each other at baggage claim in the Orlando airport late last night, having flown in from two different cities, and shared a car out to the coast. There is a special urgency to this trip because the space shuttle program will end soon, and this is one of the last opportunities I or anyone else will have to see the Kennedy Space Center as a working spaceport. The era of American spaceflight that started in 1961 when Alan Shepard became the first American to travel in space is about to come to an end, and few people seem to notice or care. Two more space shuttle missions are scheduled: STS-133 and STS-134. (STS stands for Space Transportation System, the original name for the space shuttle program from the seventies). A third mission, STS-135, will be added if NASA can get approval from Congress. This would mean one final launch for each of the three remaining space shuttle orbiters: Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis.
The decision to end the shuttle program was made quietly, and as a result many people are still not aware it's ending. In the wake of the loss of Columbia in 2003, the investigation board tasked with uncovering the causes of the disaster pointed out the age of the fleet—the oldest surviving orbiter, Discovery, was then twenty years old. The investigation board's report includes, on page 227, an item titled R9.2-1, Recertification. It recommends that NASA, "prior to operating the Shuttle beyond 2010, develop and conduct a vehicle certification at the material, component, subsystem, and system levels." The destruction of Columbia had not been attributable to its age, but the board clearly feared the next disaster might be. The word sounds benign, but recertification would require the shuttles to be taken apart, examined, tested, and rebuilt from the ground up. This process would be prohibitively expensive, and everyone knew it; the inevitable consequence of this recommendation, barring some unforeseen change, was that NASA would have no choice but to retire the shuttle when this date arrived. In this paragraph the end of the shuttle is written.
By adopting the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's recommendations, the Bush administration in effect set a 2010 end date for the shuttle. That date will be extended a bit to allow for assembly of the final components of the International Space Station, but now in the fall of 2010, the last mission is in sight. Space fans and especially the spaceworkers around here have hoped the retirement decision would be reversed somehow, and still do, hoping against hope.
* * *
Wilderness, marshes, palm trees—then, all of a sudden, the Vehicle Assembly Building. From a distance, it looms. I'm directing my father from the backseat, using both the GPS function on my phone and a printout of e-mailed directions. I'm tempted to use the Vehicle Assembly Building as a landmark, but I know better because I've been here before: the vast size of the VAB makes it impossible to tell whether you are one mile or three miles away from it, and a turn that seems to be right before the VAB may in fact be three turns earlier. Marked with an American flag the size of a football field on one side and an equally huge blue NASA logo on the other, the VAB was the biggest building in the world by volume when it was completed in 1966, and it remains among the largest by volume to this day. No other single-story building comes close to equaling its size, if you are willing to accept that its 525-foot height constitutes a single story. The building is simply enormous in a way that people react to viscerally and emotionally, and its enormity is part of the reason the Kennedy Space Center was named one of the Engineering Wonders of the World. Visitors have not been allowed inside for over thirty years, and the tour buses that constantly crawl through the Kennedy Space Center all stop at the outer edge of the VAB's parking lot. Tourists pile out to take pictures of each other, leaning back in an effort to fit more of the building into the frame. My own picture of myself outside the VAB dates to 2001, and in it only a small part of the building is visible over my shoulder. But today, I have plans to meet a stranger who says he can take me inside.
I've been here at the Kennedy Space Center twice before, twice have ridden the tour buses past the launchpads and hangars and landing strip, twice have paid my admission at the Visitor Complex to look at the artifacts, watch the IMAX movies, and eat at the Lunch Pad. Both times I was here to do research for my first novel, which revolved around the Challenger disaster. On those trips I'd known that I could come back if I wanted to, take another tour, see another launch, and it's different now to approach the enormous facilities of the Space Center knowing how profoundly everything here is about to change. The relentless conquering of the future for which this place has always stood is now coming to a close.
I tell my father how far the turn will be from here. He grunts in agreement; he is following our progress using the GPS on his own phone. A terrible sense of direction is one of my father's legacies to me; another is a love of spaceflight. When I e-mailed to tell him about the invitation I'd received for a behind-the-scenes visit, my father first responded that he very much hoped to be able to join me, but that he would have to check on some things first, to see whether everything could be covered at work. He e-mailed me again a few minutes later to say that yes, he would go, regardless. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and he was going to be there no matter what. I'm pleased that I will be able to get him access to this experience, a re-creation of the Saturdays we spent exploring the National Air and Space Museum when I was a child.
I've been instructed to wear long pants and closed-toed shoes for my safety. I've been told to bring a picture ID that confirms my US citizenship. I've been warned that my tour may be canceled at any time for any reason because the Kennedy Space Center is a working space facility. A few days before, I booked a last-minute flight, asked my husband, Chris, to care for our three-year-old son by himself, and arranged for a colleague to cover my classes. My father and his wife made similarly hasty plans.
Now that I'm here on the Space Coast, I'm feeling nervous about meeting my host, Omar Izquierdo, a spaceworker who has invited me here today as his guest. I feel I know Omar because we are Facebook friends and because we share a love for the space shuttle, but, my more pragmatic friends point out, I don't actually know him at all, don't know for sure that he even exists. I'm grateful my father and his wife are here with me, though I know I would have come even if they hadn't been able to make it. In my eagerness to visit restricted areas here and meet people who have worked to put spaceships into the sky, the risk that Omar is not what he claims to be is a risk I'm willing to take.
* * *
American spaceflight did not begin at the Kennedy Space Center; nor did it begin at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station across the Banana River from here. It began in the early twentieth century when three men working independently in three different countries all developed the same ideas more or less simultaneously about how rockets could be used for space travel. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Russia, Hermann Oberth in Germany, and Robert Goddard in the United States all came up with an eerily similar concept for using liquid fuel to power rockets for human spaceflight. I've seen this pointed out as an odd coincidence, one of those moments when an idea inexplicably emerges in multiple places at once. But when I read through each of these three men's biographies I discovered why they all had the same idea: all three of them were obsessed with Jules Verne's 1865 novel De la terre a la lune (From the Earth to the Moon). The novel details the strange adventures of three space explorers who travel to the moon together. What sets Verne's book apart from other speculative fiction of the time was his careful attention to the physics involved in space travel—his characters take pains to explain to each other exactly how and why each concept would work. All three real-life scientists—the Russian, the German, and the American—were following what they had learned from a French science fiction writer.
Spaceflight began in earnest on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. The degree to which Americans were shaken by Sputnik is all but incomprehensible to people born too late to remember the Cold War. We can only know it from books and films—my favorite is Homer Hickam's memoir Rocket Boys, in which he describes standing outside on cold October evenings to watch the tiny light of Sputnik go by. We can only imagine their panic when they heard on the radio that steady Soviet beeping. The thing was streaking by like a star over Americans' cities and towns. And what was to stop it from raining weapons down upon Americans from that vantage point? If Sputnik wasn't actually big enough to have weapons capabilities, maybe the next satellite would be.
It is fair to say that Sputnik completely changed the way Americans in positions of power thought about both weapons and space-flight. Up until that fall of 1957, the idea of using the rockets developed for World War II to make science fiction fantasies come true was at best a tough sell. But once everyone heard that ominous beeping, the goal of getting an American satellite up there too suddenly became urgent.
A tiny government agency called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics had been in charge of overseeing the development of new airplane technology, including the plane that Chuck Yeager had flown to break the sound barrier in 1947, but their ambitious plans for sending pilots into space had always been dismissed as too expensive, too dangerous, and ultimately pointless. After Sputnik, President Eisenhower took a new interest in the activities of NACA and turned it into NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, with an infusion of funding. NASA was meant to beat the Soviets at their own game. The space race was on, and it seemed that the Soviets already might have won it.
Project Mercury began the same day NASA did, folding in a poorly funded Air Force project known as Man in Space Soonest. Everyone knew how far ahead the Soviets were, but it suddenly seemed there was no choice but to try to catch up. Not to do so would be to concede defeat. Entering the race would mean a justification for a huge upsurge in government spending, some for new projects, some for existing but underfunded ones. Public education was one of the first areas to feel the effects—high schools revamped their curricula to include more math and science, as well as Russian-language instruction.
At the end of World War II, the best of Germany's rocket designers had been recruited to the United States by a covert government group that later became the CIA. The project was called Operation Paperclip because the Germans' affiliation with the Nazi party and/ or the SS had to be covered up through fake documents, which were paperclipped to their files. The most important German rocket expert was Wernher von Braun, who had been responsible for the development of the V-2 rocket used to bomb Allied cities. Now an American citizen, von Braun had been working to develop rockets for the US Army since 1945 and had been finding the support and funding offered him and his staff at Fort Bliss to be insultingly inadequate. But all that changed in 1957 with Sputnik, and the rocket designers soon found themselves working for NASA and enjoying much better accommodations. Suddenly everyone was interested in what von Braun and his team could do and wanted them to have all the money they needed to do it.
As it turned out, the United States came close to being the first to put a human being in space, had it not been for a couple of setbacks and an abundance of caution. As it was, a Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, made the historic first flight into space on April 12, 1961, and Alan Shepard followed soon after, on May 5. Riding the wave of that enthusiasm, and needing a way to recover from the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba, President Kennedy made his move.
On May 25, 1961, Kennedy spoke to a joint session of Congress and made an ambitious pitch: "that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." Not long before, Kennedy had had nothing but skeptical things to say about human spaceflight. The Soviets had changed the script for him. When I watch his speech to Congress now, I am struck first of all by his youth. He was forty-three years old, one of the youngest people in the room, and he appears younger than his years. I've always known that in this speech he urges lawmakers to strike out on a bold path, but I never knew until I watched the entire speech myself that he does so with such sincerity and humility. He emphasizes how difficult and expensive the project will be, that there is no guarantee of success. He admits that "I came to this conclusion with some reluctance," and then closes with this: "You must decide yourselves, as I have decided. And I am confident that whether you finally decide in the way I have decided or not, that your judgment, as my judgment, was reached in the best interest of our country."
What Congress decided was to embark on what would turn out to be the largest peacetime engineering project ever undertaken by the US government. They felt they had little choice, with the terrifying possibility of Soviet weapons in orbit and on the moon. The role of this fear in influencing space policy is not to be underestimated, and proponents of spaceflight would try to keep this fear alive as long as it had any plausibility. Kennedy's speech to Congress is a rousing piece of rhetoric and a key moment in spaceflight history, but it also shows us the first instance of a recurring spectacle: an impassioned spaceflight advocate begging a fickle Congress for money. The script would be rewritten again and again for the space shuttle and the International Space Station, and the results would never be as unequivocally favorable again.
Excerpted from Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean. Copyright © 2015 Margaret Lazarus Dean. Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPrologue: Air and Space, 3,
Chapter 1. The Beginnings of the Future: This Is Cape Canaveral, 11,
Chapter 2. What It Felt Like to Walk on the Moon, 43,
Chapter 3. Good-bye, Discovery, 71,
Chapter 4. A Brief History of the Future, 105,
Chapter 5. Good-bye, Endeavour, 143,
Chapter 6. A Brief History of Spacefarers, 161,
Chapter 7. Good-bye, Atlantis, 195,
Chapter 8. The End of the Future: Wheel Stop, 229,
Chapter 9: The Future, 257,
Timeline of American Spaceflight, 303,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The author reflects on the fact that after fifty years of exploring space, with the death of the Shuttle program, the United States is no longer capable of sending humans into orbit. At the moment, we are entirely dependent upon Russia to send our astronauts into space. I found the first half of the book, fascinating - five stars. The author reviews the space program, contrasting the years of space exploration culminating with the landings on the moon, with the more sedate (but possibly more productive) Shuttle years. Some real jaw droppers about what Americans know and believe about the space program. The second half of the book is, in essence, a memoire of the author's experiences attending the last three launchings of the Shuttle. I found this part of the book, while not entirely uninteresting, so-so - three stars. Thus, my overall rating of four stars.