Projects of memory are rarely concerned with all three forms of nostalgia: nostalgia for the past, nostalgia for the future, and nostalgia for the present. Leaving Orbit, Margaret Lazarus Dean’s account of the last days of the space shuttle, and only somewhat less prominently, her reflections on vintage Norman Mailer, flickers with each. What makes Leaving Orbit enduring is not its indulgence in nostalgia, but its distinction of nostalgia from the subject matter. It is not a consciously stylish book; it is an honest book. Dean’s honesty allows us to profit from an indirect consideration of themes by focusing far more on their instrument of measure, the space program, than on direct sentimentality.
Dean refers specifically to America’s leadership in spaceflight when she laments, “Norman Mailer’s generation got to see the beginnings of things and mine has gotten the ends.” This illustrates how elective is the lens through which we view time’s passage, and how crucial is the totem by which nonfiction writing circumvents its base urges. The shuttle program, which ended in 2011, primarily relied on technology developed forty years prior. The type of investment required to simply sustain that anachronism is one that the engineers at NASA did not choose, but was willed on them by short-sighted politicians – Dean points out that the 2008 bank bailout cost more than the entire fifty-year budget for NASA. For those in mine and Dean’s generation, this fiscal reluctance characterized the space program with an ethos of coasting while the world changed around it. Yet, as we got “the ends” of American spaceflight, we also got the internet of things, the social media fabric upon which Dean made the connections necessary to get behind the scenes of NASA and private spaceflight.
Dean spends a great deal of time reflecting on the heroic prose of Norman Mailer, who chronicled the Apollo program in his Life magazine serial and later book, Of a Fire on the Moon, and considering her contemporary echoes of his visit to Florida’s Space Coast. This nostalgia for the past, tropic and impersonal, is evoked in the real-time events of the shuttle’s last days through archetypal features like barbeques, low-slung motels, and grueling humidity. Its imminence, however, through her use of the present tense, a stylistic choice at first as odd to me as Mailer’s third person was odd to her, tends to strip away the saccharine soft-focus of nostalgia. Dean’s nearly styleless voice, the unassuming voice of a spacefan, is what came to compel me more as an argument than an indulgence. Compare, for instance, Mailer and Dean both describing the rollout of a spacecraft from the Vehicle Assembly Building:
Mailer writes, “Workers … watching their mighty moonship edge along the horizon from morning to dusk, or even more spectacularly at night, with lanterns in the rigging, like a ghost galleon of the Caribbean! The beginning of the trip to the moon was as slow as the fall of the fullest flake of snow.”
Dean writes, “We watch and watch, and now the stack is mostly outside the doorway. People continue to clap and holler. The sound of the crawler transporter is monumental, like hundreds of heavy-duty tractors running at once, which, I guess, is more or less what it is.”
Perhaps hers was indeed the best voice to tell this particular story. This is the story of the shuttle, the workhorse, not the self-congratulatory voice of the heroic past of spaceflight. It is the voice of the present. And perhaps it is the voice, steeped in skepticism as much as it is in unconditional love, that is meant to chime in for the future of spaceflight, the future that most Americans have come to see as the norm, unaware of its bureaucratic fragility. It brings to mind the famous appearance of Fred “Mr.” Rogers in front of congress arguing for continued funding of PBS. Rogers won over the machine through simple honesty, the quiet urgency of the present, something that could never be said of Mailer.
Dean’s most lush and precise imagery comes in the prologue recounting her own past, growing up as frequent visitor to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. She writes:
the truth is a little more confused and intimate, as it always is. The truth is the air-conditioned, musty smell of Air and Space, the crisp homey smell of the cosmos, a space-scarred Apollo capsule, the floating black curls of Judith Resnik, and my father’s calm voice.
The language is most evocative, most whole, because it is Dean making her own place out of what is no longer present. Her childhood being farthest from her as possible, and always fleeing.
Nostalgia is insidious. It is the melting pot of chronology. Dean recognizes that nostalgia is different than time. She makes an object lesson of Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist covering the Mercury program (1958 through 1963), and astronaut Deke Slayton, who participated in a World War II bombing raid that destroyed Fallaci’s family home less than twenty years prior, about the lifespan of a lucky house cat. More insidious, Dean describes driving from Tennessee to Cape Canaveral for the penultimate shuttle launch and listening to Katy Perry’s song, “Firework,” on the radio. This juxtaposition struck me as willful. Certainly the shuttle program, which seems to have ended an eternity ago, could not have been contemporaneous with Katy Perry being on the radio, for she must have only appeared within the last three years. Yet, researching the dates, “Firework” was released in 2011, the same year the last shuttle flew. This was a chronological mind-bender. Two things occurring at exactly the same time, both things that I experienced, were measured on completely different subjective chronologies, the shuttle seeming so distant, so hopeless, and Katy Perry’s song still plays in the supermarket. Though unintentional, Dean’s landmarking of time is especially poignant regarding the shuttle, something that had been a reality for our entire generation, something I took so for granted, something whose inertial mass existed entirely in my childhood and spent the rest of my life tapering off, such that when it finally ended in 2011, it could have just as easily been recalled as 1991.
I also have a confession to make. I am one of those non-committal, ambivalent by-standers Dean so often wonders about. What is worse is that my relationship with the space program is deep. At my parents’ wedding reception at an inn outside Boston, revelers stayed up into the night (10:56 p.m.), gathered around a black and white television waiting for the moment Neil Armstrong would step on the moon. As young adults, my parents moved to Florida’s Space Coast. Our little house, much like those Dean describes, was nineteen miles south of launch pads 39A and 39B and across A1A from the ocean. I was one of the kids who “grew up with space shuttles rattling their windows.” I saw nearly every shuttle launch, whether by walking to the beach with my parents, traveling to a causeway near the Cape, or standing in the parking lot with the other students at Indialantic Elementary. The last is the condition under which I saw the Challenger explode. I am ashamed to say that my fourth grade class cluelessly erupted in cheers. Even at lunch in the cafetorium – a cafeteria with a stage – we were far more struck by the fact that a television had been brought in, than the gravity of what we had just witnessed firsthand. Later, as a youth interested in aerospace engineering, I had the tremendous good-fortune to be selected for a career-shadowing program at NASA. I accessed all of the restricted settings Dean describes, the OPF, the VAB, the SLF, and even the launch pad itself (sans shuttle). Ambivalent as I was, I used the opportunity to realize that I had no interest in the field, and became an architect instead.
In 2006, in Florida to visit family, I saw the first ever July 4th launch, the second launch after the Columbia accident. It was at that launch, understanding that what I’d grown to love over several years of practicing architecture, the extreme specificity, the reliance on others, were the very things that turned me off from engineering, that I wept for the first time seeing a launch. Thousands of lives had been dedicated to the endeavor. After thirty years on the Space Coast, I saw what Dean means by, “I see it (space travel) as a grand act of civic performance art.”
The problem with my epiphany is the central problem Dean addresses: it came too late. The Columbia accident sealed the fate of the program, if it had not already been sealed before I was born when the shuttle program was pushed in lieu of a more adventurous long-range, evolutionary set of goals. Both America’s hubris and ambivalence characterized its imperative for space flight, and this canceling equation is in the quiet voice of Dean’s prose.
In this quietness, this deferral, we find the elegiac blending of the three nostalgias. The end of the shuttle program, of American spaceflight, whose persistence, inevitability, taken-for-grantedness characterized Dean’s youthful trips to Air and Space with her father, is almost a MacGuffin, a vehicle to help her confront the latent fulcrum of temporal loss upon which our generation currently teeters. Yet there is statistically as much time left for Dean as lay between the Wright Brothers and the first supersonic flight. Her lament about getting the ends rather than the beginnings would do well to be juxtaposed with another interesting temporal flip. Dean discovered that Buzz Aldrin’s PhD dissertation was dedicated in advance to those who would one day travel in space. “If only I could join them in their exciting endeavors!” The present tense sometimes leads to the interesting juxtaposition of things that seem very far in the past colliding with things that seem more contemporaneous. It is also inherent with nostalgia for a future that may never be, or one that we just can’t imagine will include us.