Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight

On July 8, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis launched from the Kennedy Space Center with the same fire and wonder with which rockets have launched for the past fifty years. But this was the last time a space shuttle would ever fly, and professor of English Margaret Lazarus Dean was there to bear witness to the end of an era. She had decided to be present for the last launches for each the three space shuttle orbiters—Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis—and for other spaceflight “lasts” like the last rollout and last landing.

Driving the project was her obsession with the writers of an earlier generation who had documented the American space program at its zenith—Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Oriana Fallaci. By documenting the end of the shuttle era, Dean sought to answer the driving question: what does it mean that this country has achieved so much in space flight, and what does it mean that we aren’t going any more? In search of answers to these questions, she traveled to Cape Canaveral thirteen times; interviewed astronauts, scientists, as well as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) employees and families; and became acquainted with the spaceflight press corps and other fans who follow launches. The results of the project are captured in her most recent publication (Leaving Orbit, Graywolf 2015).

Her presentation will address her exploration of what spaceflight has meant to ordinary Americans in terms of past history and potential future directions.