Before reading Margaret Lazarus Dean's sentimental and ferocious "Leaving Orbit," I considered NASA and spaceflight as little more than romantic anachronisms — compelling aspects from America's past. I was 7 when Challenger exploded, and then 17 years later was just out of college to see Columbia break apart on re-entry, and anyway all that shuttles seemed to do was go up to the space station and orbit Earth.
I was years from being born when the last of the 14 white American men who have so far set foot on the moon did so, and while I understood I had some citizen's duty to respect past accomplishments, I never quite got contemporary spaceflight. We had gone to the moon in '69; why, since then, hadn't we done much else?
I don't know how clear Dean has made things: "Leaving Orbit" isn't a book of answers but a book of questions, a book that tries to wrestle what it means that after 50 years the United States is ceasing putting people into space.
Dean knows well the romance of the field and is keenly aware of how the endeavor has stirred other writers (she's deeply aware of her own work within the shadow of, say, Norman Mailer's), and she is, from the start, dynamite at enveloping the reader, ushering us back to an earlier state of wonder. You almost can't help, while reading, walking outside and looking up at the sky again.
Because it is wonderful, awesome, amazing — all those — that our country sent humans to the moon. It is, literally, incredible. Almost all of NASA's accomplishments are phenomenal — a rocket bigger than the Statue of Liberty! — and this sense of awe is what Dean traffics in so well here. About the Saturn V rocket, that tall candle atop which astronauts were launched to the moon, Dean writes, "The fact that it was developed for a peaceful purpose is an exception to every pattern of history." The shuttle, for all its banality, launched the Hubble telescope, which single-handedly has given us more of a sense of the universe than almost anything else humanity has ever done.
Dean's adoration of spaceflight's daring hubris is enough to carry the reader gladly through the book, and, on finishing, most U.S. readers will wish we were still headed to space. Yet the sorrow one feels is less about the shuttle era itself coming to an end than it is about the contraction in scope and wildness of our collective dreaming and risking.
We once were able to "make the impossible come true within eight years," and by the end of Dean's book one hopes we'll soon shake off the old constraints and dream our way further.
Weston Cutter is from St. Paul and lives and teaches in Fort Wayne, Ind.