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Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight

3.77  ·  Rating details ·  474 ratings  ·  99 reviews
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, Margar
Paperback, 240 pages
Published May 19th 2015 by Graywolf Press
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Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Lazarus Dean

“Leaving Orbit" is a personal quest to understand the end of NASA’s space shuttle program. Author, professor and space enthusiast, Margaret Lazarus Dean provides readers with a sentimental eulogy of sorts of the space program from a first-person perspective. This heartfelt 240-page book includes the following nine chapters: 1. The Beginnings of the Future: This Is Cape Canaveral, 2. What It Felt Like to Walk
Caitlin Downs
Sep 03, 2015 rated it liked it
I learned a lot of things that I feel like I should have already known. It was very interesting but at the same time the voice just didn't do it for me... She wrote a book about writing a book about the end of American space flight, and her great new friend Omar, instead of writing a book about the end of American space flight.
Sep 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
Until I read this book I did not know that the American space shuttle program has ended. This is a meditative and melancholy exploration of what that may mean. I enjoyed learning more about the space program historically and reading about Lazarus Dean's friendship with a NASA shuttle worker and increasing introduction to the world of 'space fans,' and liked the atmospheric writing. It could have been tighter, and lighter on the Norman Mailer references, but was a slow, worthwhile read.
Nick Black
Jun 08, 2015 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Nick by: slate
more a travelogue than anything else. she sure is obsessed with norman mailer (graywolf prize selector robert polito's similar fascination with mr. mailer, detailed in a "judge's note" at the end of the book, seems possible cause for leaving orbit taking that award). her final chapter's disdain for SpaceX, and a particularly bewildering suggestion that mathematically-inclined students won't study linear algebra because "only the rich will have access to spaceflight" (i was a mathematically-incli ...more
Courtney Brown
Really enjoyed this one. Dean makes science poetic, and examines the specific cocktail of sentiments that took us to the moon, asking what it means to end american space exploration. Not something I'd ever really thought about, and definitely interesting stuff.

I'm not sure she answers her own question, though, and I feel like the insertion of herself and her process into a book that could've been much more far flung was occasionally distracting. (I do think it serves to anchor the book in the p
Apr 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
Excellent. One of my favorite books on the exploration of space. If you have read more than a few books on the space program you need to add this. I'm a bit more optimistic than the author about the non governmental exploration of space. And her view from the stands was a refreshing change. Recommended.

Much better than Norman Mailer. (Aquarius Norman...really?)

Jun 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 52-in-2015, science
As a space launch worker (coincidentally flying to Cape Canaveral for a SpaceX ISS Resupply launch as I finish this), there were a lot of very interesting things to read in this book. The narrative is smooth and easy to read; accessible to both the space loving audience and the general public. However, I just can't give this book 5 stars for a few reasons. First, the obsession with Norman Mailer just is distracting. The references weren't too bad at first, but they just pervade the book and pop ...more
Jul 13, 2015 rated it liked it
I was really excited about this book because I've always wanted to know more about the space shuttle program and this seemed like an accessible route for the layperson to do so. I definitely did learn more about the key facts about the program and its history (I even got 10/10 on a coincidental pub trivia round on the subject), so that's a plus. When Dean delves into the factual side of things I really enjoyed the book. However, she's attempting creative nonfiction in the style of Mailer, so she ...more
Jul 13, 2015 rated it it was ok
I struggled with this book because I love the topic but found the author and book itself to be a whiny mess. Page after page of putting down other people because they love spaceflight, yet the author puts herself above them because she's not really a fan, she's an "author". Her liberal bias shows which is always a touchpoint for me and usually makes me stop reading but because of the subject I didn't this time. She's states throughout the book that she is writing a book about the end of shuttle ...more
Chris Csergei
Feb 09, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
This is basically a book on the space shuttle written by an English professor. While Dean's passion for the topic is clear, there is also so much meandering detail on irrelevant events that it made this book a chore to read. I get it that Florida is warm, you had to drive a lot to get there, and that you are obsessed with Norman Mailer but did you really have to write about these things in every chapter?
There was some detail that I enjoyed, overall I had to skim through to much stuff to get to t
Chris Blocker
Mar 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
"...I have come to feel that the end of the space shuttle is going to be the ending of a story, the story of one of the truly great things my country has accomplished, and that I want to be the one to tell it."

For some reason, I associate spaceflight with the month of February. I'm not sure why. I tried to unpack this reasoning as I read Leaving Orbit, but I cannot say there is any cause for my association. Perhaps it is because when I think of spaceflight, I think of Challenger. I was only six
Jan 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
The death of Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell earlier this week made me realize I had never reviewed Leaving Orbit, Margaret Lazarus Dean's memoir about the "last days" of American Spaceflight. Her reflections on the end of the Space Shuttle program are woven into broader reflections on the decades-long history of American spaceflight that began with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.

The question Dean raises over and over again is what makes the end of American spaceflight so significa
Hugh Ashton
Jun 01, 2015 rated it liked it
I read this book, and at the end of it didn't really know whether I enjoyed it or not. I found it to be a book not so much about spaceflight and the shuttle as about one author's reactions to spaceflight and the shuttle. Unlike Tom Wolfe, who tucked himself neatly out of the way in The Right Stuff, Dean tells the story of the shuttle's last days very much through her own eyes.

It's interesting, but to my mind a little self-conscious (she is a teacher of creative writing at a university), and con
Jul 10, 2016 rated it did not like it
Totally misses the point. No vision. She says space travel is over for the USA. Doesn't see the parallels between space exploration and aviation. The first flight programs were government departments, military and the US Mail. Then entrepreneurs and the free market got involved to the great benefit of society and the world. Commercial airlines were born.

She even says Space X isn't American? What? Just because space exploration is being taken on by the private sector doesn't mean it is over. It
Aug 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-i-own
One of the more heartfelt books about space exploration I've read so far. I liked the personal narrative, and the fact that this book is also accessible to people who are not familiar with the details of Shuttle and the Shuttle program. It was detailed without being technical. I also liked the parallels to Norman Mailer's "Of a Fire On the Moon" – which is the book that more or less gave her the idea for "Leaving Orbit" in the first place – and to Fallaci's works. I think she asks a lot of good ...more
Aug 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. I was a little hesitant at first since I am not a science minded person, but considering the author is an English professor, I quickly was able to relate. I've never read creative non-fiction before but I think it might be a new favorite. Especially with topics like space flight. I think it allows for the STEM novice like myself to understand what's going on. The book also strangely made me feel simultaneously patriotic and enraged at our country's lack of vision. For ...more
2.5 stars

I thought I'd really like this book - see my Space-Exploration shelf. If I remember correctly my ratings of this sort of book are usually 4 stars. But somehow, this book just didn't do it for me. I didn't really appreciate the NASA history, since I have read about that other places. I see that other reviewers have said "Too much Norman Mailer" and I'll add my vote to theirs.

There was just something about this book that didn't click with me, and I'm finding it difficult to put my finger
Lisa K
Nov 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: space, nonfiction
What does it mean that Dean doesn't precisely answer her question, What does it mean that we went to space for fifty years and have decided not to go anymore?

It means that she captured the contradictions of the US and space. Dean explores both the beginning and the end of peopled space flight by Americans. She calls the start a Cold War accident (p 287) and links its ending to concern about the money spent finally beating the romanticization that valued sending people rather than robots.

Dean te
May 26, 2018 rated it liked it
Usually I give overwhelmingly positive reviews of the spaceflight books I read, but I have to admit that I was not a big fan of this book. English Professor Margaret Lazarus Dean has authored a very self indulgent account of the end of the Space Shuttle program. Though she states that her goal is to ascertain the meaning of the end of the program and the end of astronaut crews launching from American soil in 2011, the focus of the book is primarily Margaret Lazarus Dean herself. She describes he ...more
Sep 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
A very engaging book on American spaceflight that is part memoir, part history, and part philosophy. The book is oozing with emotion and passion, bouncing back and forth from notes on the last year or so of the Space Shuttle program, to the author's recollections of reading or watching about space as a child, to other writers' books on space. The book in general is almost meta, as many of the current-day sections are seemingly about the author trying to write the book, and struggling to do so be ...more
Trash Panzer
Sep 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book resonated with me, and, to be honest, I found parts of it pretty heartbreaking. At lot of it is that there are points where the author attempts to cut the pervasive sense of loss with glimmers of hope, yet in the few short years since its publication we seem to have entered a period of history in which culture and politics have suddenly swung in a direction that is decidedly anti-science, post-fact, and post-hope. I guess my point is, there are sections of this book that are probably m ...more
Steve Nolan
Feb 20, 2018 rated it it was ok
It was fine! Wasn't in love with the writing style or the author's obsession with other writers - I never want to read another word about Norman Mailer - but through all that it was OK! If I hadn't made "Into the Black" the 'space book' I read right before it I may have given it more points.

I did sort of tear up at descriptions of going to the moon, though. Which really does emphasize how routine and almost...uninspiring, in comparison the space shuttle was. (That her students thought the Russi
Feb 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Was in the mood for another space book after finishing "Martian Summer" so I picked up Leaving Orbit. Don't share the author's love of all things NASA and space or her angst about the end of shuttle but it wasn't all bad. Enjoyed most the background info on the history of American space flight and the astronauts both past and present. Perhaps I should try an actual history of the space program and NASA if I read more outer space books, instead of a personal accounting of the era like Leaving Orb ...more
Sep 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: space
Margaret has written a fabulous history of the end of the Shuttle era. At times i felt I was there with her in the sand dunes waiting for launch and especially on her visit inside the VAB. Great book.

She refers throughout to Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Oriani Fallaci for inspiration, which is a great thread thru the book.

Special thanks to Omar Izquierdo, who helped Margaret so much with NASA insights.

I'd definitely recommend this one.
Robert S
Jul 16, 2017 rated it it was ok
Leaving Orbit is a fantastic concept for a book but I felt like it was missing the crux of what it was suppose to be about (story of American spaceflight's "last days") and rather a travelogue about her experiences with the last few shuttle flights. Definitely still an interesting story but not what I was looking for out of this book.
Nov 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

The author managed to weave and interlace so many strands that the final accounting showed the many levels the STS intersected with us as a society and us personally.
Joe Wuest
May 13, 2017 rated it liked it
A good look back at the Shuttle program. Leaves you a bit sad, but some hope for the future of the space program.
Erik Tanouye
Aug 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
Bought this at the used bookstore attached to the library in Beacon, NY.
Sep 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Jul 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I actually really LOVED this book. I’ve read a lot of space books, but this one really touched me in a different way.
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Margaret Lazarus Dean grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a BA in anthropology from Wellesley College and an MFA from the University of Michigan. She is currently a lecturer at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor.
“Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Russia, Hermann Olberth 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 the 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.” 3 likes
“Only since the collapse of the Soviet Union have we learned that the Soviets were in fact developing a moon rocket, known as the N1, in the sixties. All four launch attempts of the N1 ended in explosions. Saturn was the largest rocket in the world, the most complex and powerful ever to fly, and remains so to this day. The fact that it was developed for a peaceful purpose is an exception to every pattern of history, and this is one of the legacies of Apollo.” 3 likes
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