Space used to signify pure tomorrow, an infinite frontier unrolling in all directions. Now, for those few who still nurse them, the arc of those daydreams has doubled back toward the past, bent by nostalgia. The most recent thirty years of American spaceflight brought hundreds of successful missions, Hubble and the International Space Station. But the fact that this was dubbed the “shuttle era”—following the “heroic era” and the “Apollo era”—seemed symptomatic of a collective imaginative block. Then the shuttle era ended for good when Congress retired its active space vehicles. The telescope revolves; our gaze focalizes through a previous generation’s idea of the future. Having lost our appetite for firsts, what else is there to add to the mythos of American space exploration?
“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,” writes Margaret Lazarus Dean, in her book Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight. Dean is a believer, even if she concedes that “out at the edges of human expression it’s hard to tell whether what you’re looking at is ugly or beautiful, stupid or brilliant.” She makes a personable guide to recent space history, documenting striking encounters with Buzz Aldrin, a newly minted astronaut and a shuttle-integrity clerk with family roots in Florida’s Space Coast. But her dominant mode is elegiac, and she structures her narrative around pilgrimages to witness the final voyages of Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis from Cape Canaveral.
The book’s true subject is the incurable yearning of the space spectator, who may only observe as others make their incredible journeys—and soon won’t be able to do even that. As Dean explains, fewer than half of shuttle missions launch on the first attempt: “Each launch wait brings about in spectators a different quality of boredom, then acceptance, then calm, then something like a childlike openness, an ability to take in the sight we are about to see with minds wiped clear of desire, warped of time.” They’re often “scrubbed” and rescheduled days, weeks or even months later. Dean’s story falls into these stuttering, stop-and-go rhythms. Lengthy passages set the stage for grand finales: she texts her sources about meet-up times, she packs appropriate footwear for the launch site, she applies for credentials, she sorts her reading into stacks. Yet these longed-for events are then themselves obscured by metanarration: “Not for the first time, I reflect on the luxury I have in not having to write about all this today.” Continually deferring revelation, she creates a reading experience that feels like driving from Tennessee to Florida, only to see a scrub.
Riddled with these reflexive moments, Leaving Orbit bids for its place in a literary lineage that includes Jules Verne, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Oriana Fallaci. (It has paid off: Dean’s book won this year’s Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, recently bestowed on Leslie Jamison and Eula Biss.) Of these, Mailer’s book Of a Fire on the Moon looms largest. Dean’s initial assessment of him seems, at first, assured: Mailer “could never quite get both arms around the subject, but he tries in a way that few have.” But he haunts her more than she lets on. She compares their work-life balances—her own impositions on husband and son, versus Mailer’s famous neglect and abuse of family—and speculates that, if they’d met, he’d attempt to seduce her. Yet her declaration that she’d willingly trade the moon landing for a more progressive milieu evades the real reason for her disquiet. Mailer’s generation, she laments, “got to see the beginnings of things and mine has gotten the ends.” If the unrepentant grandiosity of the Apollo era called for a writer with swagger to spare, Dean is uncertain what sort of writer the end times require.
Mailer had turned space travel into a confrontation with his writerly ego, a test of his verbal powers: What use is a man of words at an event made for television? Can a journalistic sixth sense function at such a great distance from the action? Moving into the shuttle era, NASA recruited astronauts beyond its initial, narrow type (military veterans; crew-cut, Caucasian and confident) and selected for a different temperament: team players who prioritized cooperation. Dean implies that she is herself the result of a parallel shift in her own profession, which might explain why she avoids declarative conclusions, contenting herself with asking “what it all means.”
Leaving Orbit is strongest when it gives up on cerebral detachment and goes full throttle on heady advocacy, as when Dean responds to moon truthers with unmodulated heat: “It makes more sense to the doubters that NASA is an organization of frauds and opportunists than that a government agency achieved something beautiful and important, and this angers me on behalf of both the past and the future.” By the end, however, it’s hard to fight the sense that the book’s vision is strangely circumscribed. American astronauts will continue to blast off from Earth, first (in an ironic twist) on Russian rockets and then via commercial crafts; Dean mourns commitment made concrete, the symbolism of owning our ride. Fair enough. But although it’s true that Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour have been interred in museums, in September 2011 NASA announced the design of the Space Launch System (SLS), a new heavy-lift vehicle that could bring a crewed vessel to unprecedented depths of the solar system. Dean mentions SLS only twice, and only to voice doubt that it will ever take off. She evinces surprisingly little interest in its extravagant ambition, shrugging it off as an enfeebled, underfunded version of the Constellation program canceled in 2010.
Perhaps SLS is just a politician’s ploy to kill American spacefaring without getting bloody. But it would be easier to trust Dean’s call on this if her space fever felt less crabbed, cislunar. Each new development makes her yearn for milestones past, from Curiosity’s Mars voyage to, tellingly, China’s announcement that it will send off its own moonwalkers. Freely she admits, “I felt a surge of hope unlike any I’ve felt in a long time. If Americans thought Chinese taikonauts were headed to the Sea of Tranquility with the intention of pulling up Buzz’s American flag and in its place staking a Chinese flag, we might have the conditions necessary for another trip to the moon—namely, an enemy threatening to get there before we get back.” This image is off-putting, its futurism retrograde, conjuring a new Cold War just to stage a rerun of the Space Race. Dean’s eulogy for the passing of an era blocks out even the barest glimmer of another.
Distrust of grandiosity feeds space malaise— “Don’t assume it can’t be true just because it’s cool,” Dean urges the students in her creative writing classes at the University of Tennessee—and it might account for how another post-shuttle space story was received. Christopher Nolan’s movies often invite furious dissection, but Interstellar inspired more than the usual share of listicle takedowns—“21 Things in Interstellar That Don’t Make Sense”; “What Nolan Got Wrong about Reconciling Relativity and Quantum Mechanics”—which pried open its plot holes and prosecuted it for implausibility. But such intense scrutiny of the mechanics of the story left little energy to press on its purpose.
Interstellar imagines a future where humanity ekes out an existence on a hostile and blighted Earth. Scientific inquiry has been shut down. All energy goes to basic life functions. Austerity America has drastically revised its history, claiming that the moon landings were an elaborate hoax to starve out the Soviets. Everyone’s a farmer now, including the protagonist Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA pilot who collects space memorabilia and goes on joy rides to chase rogue drones. Driven into exile, the agency has been secretly scouting out the planets that lie on the other end of a wormhole. Cooper’s old mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) recruits him for a mission to determine which may be habitable. Either the solution of an advanced equation will allow Earth’s population to follow on an ark, or the team will use a bank of genetically diverse embryos to establish a colony that ensures the continuation of the species.
Nolan’s movies are designed to obsessively (some would say schematically) pursue an idea at every angle he can think up; it’s what can make his plots feel overdetermined and his characters monomaniacal. Interstellar’s subject is survival, and its story takes those increasingly improbable turns—time dilation, black holes, interdimensional communication—in the service of this motif.
Each subplot represents a permutation of the theme. Cooper tells his children, Murph and Tom, that he’s leaving them in order to save them. Professor Brand lies about the viability of the equation so that Cooper will forsake his kids on behalf of the species and tricks his own daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) into leaving Earth—saving her life, but ending their relationship. Later, an astronaut named Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) lures the Endurance team to a dead planet, dooming the mission so he might be rescued. (One of this movie’s great pleasures is the scene of Mann trying to kill Cooper, the sight of McConaughey and Damon—with their perfect Right Stuff jawlines—tussling in the foothills of that ashy planet.) Back on Earth, the grown-up Murph (Jessica Chastain) sets fire to her family’s farm to force her brother to seek safer shelter for his family, and to distract him long enough so she might work on the equation.
In screenwriter Jonathan Nolan’s original ending, Cooper tries to convey the solution to Murph through the wormhole, which triggers its collapse. As executed by brother Christopher, Cooper not only saves the day but gets to wake up in a clean white room and see Murph, grown old. The scene of their reunion is pure wish fulfillment: surely the lesson about what’s owed to the future gets its heft from the fact that no one gets to see it for themselves. But who could blame Nolan, knowing that his working title was A Letter to Flora, after his youngest daughter? Perhaps his investment in logical puzzles as narrative devices has prevented viewers from measuring the depths of his sentimentality.
Critics dubbed this Christopher Nolan’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, perhaps because he lifts its imagery so conspicuously. But every symbol gets repurposed to the same end: to assert man’s supremacy. The unblinking, menacing intelligence of HAL and the transcendently inscrutable black monolith are reincarnated into the helpmeet TARS, who’s friendlier than the Microsoft Word paperclip. As for the trippy vortex that hurtles David Bowman beyond infinity, it turns out that there never were any star-children on the other side, just us. As Margaret Lazarus Dean looks to Mailer, and Mailer to Papa Hemingway (whose suicide haunts Of a Fire on the Moon), so too does Nolan try to step out of the long shadow of Stanley Kubrick.
Think of the children, these stories implore. But they all seem fueled by father feelings: some moody mix of jealousy, reverence, longing and one-upmanship, burning a hole in the heart. Nolan suggests that our very existence may depend on space travel, while Dean makes the more modest claim that our civic spirit does. Both believe that we’ve lost the competitive edge that made us want to punch through the thermosphere. But legends that hallow old ground don’t make the most convincing arguments for exploration. Perhaps we no longer feel the urge to outdo the previous generation—but then again perhaps that urge never could sustain real discovery.
These stories respond to a space agency in decline, when even its metaphoric powers seem sadly scaled down. In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama declared this “our generation’s Sputnik moment,” a time to rally Americans to invest in green energy, public education and infrastructure. Within a year of this appeal to the grand and gauzy memory of the Space Race, the United States grounded the shuttle. SLS didn’t make it into that or any subsequent speech; until a few months ago, “NASA” was hardly mentioned. Following NASA’s completion of a $350 million lab tower for testing rocket engines in 2014—for a program that had been canceled in 2011—Lori Garver, its former number-two official, said the organization was plagued by an inability to wed effort to purpose, to make “how” meet “why.”
What space literature will come from a period when we associate the audacity of extraplanetary travel not with public service or national pride, but with entrepreneurship and the hobbies of the eccentric rich, remains to be seen. Adventure has gone private sector. Free-market libertarians and small-government types just might pull up a seat next to the NASA nerds and look to the skies, following the fates of such corporations as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, as they assume the risks (and reap the dividends) of their leaps of faith. It makes a kind of aesthetic sense that tech billionaires—these geeks who, tinkering in their garages, built the online infrastructure we now depend on—will lead us to the stars, their egotism indistinguishable from their vision.
NASA could tell stories of its own about the American public. The agency’s archive of press releases—the patiently drawn diagrams and fact sheets, the optimistic timelines— could itself be thought of as a kind of government literature: one that maintains a narrative of unflagging idealism past failures, fickle funding and dwindling civilian enthusiasm. If anyone knows anything about how discovery shouldn’t be dismissed as discretionary, or how humans have trouble absorbing events across long timelines, if anyone feels the urgency of what we owe to the future, it’s the group trying to send cameras deep into the solar system. Planetary science has a peculiar tempo, further slowed by starvation budgets: the New Horizons mission to Pluto was first conceived in the 1980s but wasn’t approved until 2001; it set off in 2005 and won’t arrive until this July. People will hear about these missions’ findings, or see their spectacular images, and assume that the program’s going strong when, in fact, no new projects are underway. The Obama administration’s 2016 budget calls for an increase in NASA’s overall funding but will slash, for the fourth time in a row, the allotment for planetary science.
Perhaps that’s why, when Orion took its successful test flight on December 5, the vessel carried the front cover of the script for the film adaptation of The Martian by Andy Weir. Originally self-published in online installments, the novel drew fans who admired its strenuous technical specificity and meticulous research; both the hardcover and paperback editions became best sellers in 2014. (The movie happens to star two Interstellar alums: Damon as the astronaut who won’t die, and Chastain as his commander, guilt-stricken for leaving him behind.)
Much like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, The Martian dispenses with backstory and emotional arc, thereby upping the stakes on a simple man-versus-nature tale in an exotic setting. The narrator stays upbeat, too focused on the exigencies of his immediate present to think of the past or future, his loved ones or crew. “I just said like, ‘Nope, that’s not how Mark Watney rolls,’” Weir told Ars Technica, “And the reason I did that was because I didn’t want the book to be a deep character study of crippling loneliness and depression—that’s not what I wanted!”
Weir didn’t write a space story just to get stuck inside an astronaut’s helmet. He wanted to fantasize about what could actually happen on Mars. He was curious to see if he could build a plot purely out of worst-case scenarios and ingenious solutions. And, depending on your taste for competence porn, the book rattles along pretty well, blissfully unburdened by motive. No lessons, no hugging, no firsts. The Martian is set during the Ares 3 mission, fast-forwarding past the fanfare: “The Ares Program. Mankind reaching out to Mars to send people to another planet for the very first time and expand the horizons of humanity blah, blah, blah… Ares 2 did the same thing, in a different location on Mars. They got a firm handshake and a hot cup of coffee when they got home.” Weir puts Watney on Ares 3. Normalizing this impossible trip, he dreams up a shuttle era for the Red Planet.
Perhaps NASA took a page out of The Martian because they aimed for savvy cross-promotion, which might condense moviegoers into an interested public; they could use some of Weir’s heat, or a little of the luck from his improbable success. Or perhaps it’s because the novel envisions a future in which reaching Mars is a given: where the hows reveal themselves at just the right moment, and the whys are so obvious they go unspoken.