Today@Sam Article

MFA Series To Take Flight During ‘Orbit’ Reading

Oct. 12, 2015
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt

Please note that this article was written by Scott Kaukonen. 

Margaret Lazarus Dean isn’t quite old enough to remember when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. And she was yet a small child when those most glorious days of American spaceflight—days mythic in the American imagination—could be said to have ended in 1972 with the last of the moon missions.

Margaret Dean
Leaving Orbit cover

But even through two Space Shuttle disasters—Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003—and with the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, spaceflight—its past, its present, and its future—continues to hold a powerful allure, both personal to Dean and public to the American culture.

It’s this allure—and its meaning—that Dean explores in “Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight,” winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.

Dean will visit Sam Houston State University on Oct. 19 as part of the MFA Program in Creative Writing, Editing, and Publishing’s on-going reading series. She will meet with students at 4 p.m. in Evans Building Room 212 to discuss the craft of writing, followed by a public reading from her work at 6 p.m. in Austin Hall. Both events are free and open to the public. Copies of her books will be available for sale.

“Margaret Lazarus Dean’s enthusiasm for spaceflight in ‘Leaving Orbit’ infects readers with a hopeful curiosity about the universe,” said Amanda Nowlin-O’Banion, clinical assistant professor of English. “Dean reminds us that NASA and the United States government accomplished astonishing achievements between 1961 and 1972 during the heroic era of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Through this patriotic, yet critical lens, we see anew what we are capable of as human beings and how those capabilities, in the case of spaceflight, were employed for peace.”

In early 2011, Dean traveled to Cape Canaveral for NASA’s last three space shuttle launches. She set out to chronicle “the beauty and the strangeness in the last days of American spaceflight, in the last moments of something that used to be cited as what makes America great.”

In “Leaving Orbit,” Dean guides readers along Florida’s Space Coast and through the history of NASA, taking measure of what American spaceflight has achieved, while reckoning with its earlier witnesses like 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?

In the prologue, Dean writes, “If we want to see people take risks, we have to be prepared to sometimes see them fail. The story of American spaceflight is a story with many endings, a story of how we have weighed our achievements against our failures. It may also be a story with many futures—new spacecraft will leave Earth one day, whether they belong to NASA or not, and some of the spacefarers traveling on those new spacecraft will be killed. We are at a moment of reconsidering what this means.”

A New York Times review said of the piece that “Dean writes with the passion of a lifelong lover of space exploration and an ability to communicate, with tremendous kinetic power, the glory and danger of its missions.” 

The Knoxville News Sentinel described “Leaving Orbit” as “both a stirring eyewitness account of the final launches of the three surviving space shuttles in 2011 and a thoughtful, eloquent meditation on the nation's loss,” and called Dean's enthusiasm “infectious.

“Her ability to describe the places and people she encounters is superb,” the review said.

Dean is an associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee and also authored the novel “The Time It Takes to Fall.”

She is a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Tennessee Arts Commission. 

For more information, contact Scott Kaukonen, director of the SHSU MFA Program, at 936.294.1407.

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