Writer Margaret Lazarus Dean is fascinated by the power space exploration has on our society’s collective imagination. An associate Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Tennessee--Knoxville, Dean has published two books dealing with the shuttle era of NASA’s space program. She is currently co-writing a forthcoming memoir on the story of retired American astronaut, Scott Kelly, documenting his four space flight missions, including his most recent year-long stay aboard the International Space Station.
In her book Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, Dean investigates a string of fascinating interconnections between fiction and science during the early days of rocket engineering. She explains how the writings of authors such as Jules Verne and Neil R. Jones spoke to the imaginations of early rocketeers, including Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, Robert Goddard, and Wernher von Braun. Her observation of these feedback loops between fiction and science points to the importance of imaginative speculation and visionary hypotheses in scientific discovery.
Equally significant to Dean were the swashbuckling accounts of the Gemini and Apollo expeditions as told through the lens of 1960’s journalists like Norman Mailer, Oriana Fallaci, and Tom Wolfe. Such stories etched NASA’s accomplishments into modern mythology and propelled a culture of innovation by galvanizing a generation of young engineers and technologists to dream about the interstellar world of tomorrow.
But the challenge of putting astronauts on the moon took the effort of more than a few bold heroes. The accomplishment required the work of massive, diversified teams. A team that included women, black and white alike, operating at high levels in the space program as qualified scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists. And collaboration across national borders eventually became a necessity. The International Space Station proves it takes not a village but an entire world. Scott Kelly’s record-breaking 340-day stay in the ISS in 2015-2016 was shared with Russian astronaut Mikhail Kornienko. As Dean notes, it's ”the room full, or building full of diverse people working together,” that produces real innovation, not the lone hero.
In Leaving Orbit, you describe yourself as a "dreamy little kid" who was often left to your own imagination. Do you believe solitude plays an essential role in creative development?
I think a lot of creative people remember being loners, but not all—so I wouldn’t say it’s essential. I think a lot of writers tend to look back at their own formative experiences and say that those experiences were crucial to their development, but I guess I’m always skeptical of this, partly because I’m generally skeptical of self-mythologizing and the way the resulting myths can be exclusionary. I feel like I was discouraged by a lot of hyper-masculine Hemingway myths about what you have to do or whom you have to be in order to be a writer, and figuring out that those were BS has made me skeptical of all such myths.
You also write about enjoying the trips that you and your father made to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. What was it about aerospace that resonated with your young imagination?
"I think it’s often the case that when some large-scale change takes place, there is a narrative behind it, often a novel, that showed people how to envision this change before we had quite worked out how to do it."
I’ve wondered whether I would have developed an obsession for whatever museum I visited at that impressionable age—contemporary art or American history or zoology. It could be. When you ask people why they do what they do, the answer is usually that they were exposed to the right teacher or the right book at the right time, and it seems like the age is as important as the teacher or the book.
I get the question all the time: “How did you become interested in spaceflight?”, often with a tone that suggests it’s strange that I did. I’m never quite sure how to answer the question because it seems completely self-evident to me that spaceflight is fascinating. Like, why wouldn’t you be interested in people climbing into tin cans and shooting into the sky on a barely-controlled bomb, no matter what your own career choices? But I’m amazed all the time by how intimidated smart people can be by math and science. I’m an English professor, and I see peers and colleagues of mine, brilliant people with PhDs, just completely glaze over with anxiety and fear if someone starts trying to explain to them how their computer works, or what an isotope is. So many of us feel like these subjects are just not available to us, and we’ll somehow be punished for trying. It cuts us off from each other’s work in a really counterproductive way.
In Leaving Orbit you make mention of a very peculiar coincidence - that rocket inventors Robert Goddard, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and Wernher von Braun were each inspired by Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon in their own youth. While the engineering work that these men would go on to undertake demanded rigorous scientific expertise and elaborate technical skill, do you believe that romantic vision was fundamental to their ambitious accomplishments?
Absolutely—they each said so. I guess a related question is whether any of them would have developed their rockets without this work of fiction to guide them. There is so much about this coincidence that fascinates me—it's partly that Jules Verne had such a clear grasp of what it would actually take to get humans into space, but it’s also a narrative that shows how this could actually work at a human level—why would people want to go to space, and why would people want to pay for it, and what would it feel like to watch it from the ground? I think it’s often the case that when some large-scale change takes place, there is a narrative behind it, often a novel, that showed people how to envision this change before we had quite worked out how to do it. So many of the people I know who are involved in spaceflight are there because of science fiction narratives that showed them (usually as children) how spaceflight could create positive changes in society.
What role do you feel your NASA storytelling heroes, such as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Oriana Fallaci, played in kick-starting a culture around the lunar missions of the 1960’s?
All of these writers were reacting to Apollo once it was already underway—in Tom Wolfe’s case, the heroic era was already over by the time he wrote about it. But what Wolfe, Mailer, and Fallaci have done is to give us narratives to help define Project Apollo in retrospect, which has in turn helped to define our expectations for the shuttle era and for whatever comes next. In many ways this is good—having an example of a daring and successful space program in a previous generation makes it more likely that we will choose to create one for this generation. At the same time, the specific example of Apollo is unreproducible, so it might not be helpful to have this model in mind as the only one, or even as the best one. We will never again have the set of circumstances that brought about the space race, so thinking of the next big thing in spaceflight as if it has to be an enormous government-funded project with a single specific goal might not be useful. The assumption that the next step in spaceflight will look like Apollo might be keeping us from dreaming a new dream that would be better suited to our time.
Do you see a relationship between culture and technological innovation? Could the stories generated from the Apollo-era of space exploration have had a significant effect in shaping the collective mindset that led us towards the tech innovations which occurred through the 70's, 80's, and 90's?
Within NASA there is a lot of talk about spinoffs—new technology that exists as a direct result of NASA innovations. The list is impressive—the microchip is a big one—and depending on how broadly you interpret the idea of the spinoff, most of the technological change of the last few decades have been connected to spaceflight in some way, including cell phones, GPS, and most advances in computing. This creates an implicit economic argument—that every dollar invested in NASA is returned to the economy ten-fold, that sort of thing. Yet that argument never really catches on in the way spaceflight enthusiasts seem to think it should, and I think it’s because we like to think that innovation comes from individuals, entrepreneurs, not from the government.
We love narratives about people like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Elon Musk—individual entrepreneurs who changed the world by making these breakthrough changes through sheer force of genius and personality (and, not insignificantly, becoming incredibly wealthy in the process). When NASA pokes its head in to point out that your computer or cell phone actually owes its heart to a bunch of nameless civil servants toiling away in a government building, the essentially capitalist narrative behind the Jobs/Gates/Musk model gets disrupted and that seems to make everyone uncomfortable.
"The assumption that the next step in spaceflight will look like Apollo might be keeping us from dreaming a new dream that would be better suited to our time."
You write that, "...the sense of danger, the sense of achieving the impossible, was what made the Heroic Era (of spaceflight) feel heroic." Looking back on that era, the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts became glorified icons in American culture for risking their lives to journey to space. The bold vision and courage of earlier heroes in the movement, such as John F. Kennedy and Wernher von Braun, challenged the American public with a sense to achieve the impossible. Do you see some of those same characteristics in figures today such as Elon Musk?
Related to the previous answer— This is an interesting question, because it may be that celebrating the heroism of individuals in the heroic era has kept us from seeing more collective, or more incremental, ways of solving the problems to get to space. NASA had to consciously decide to change the definition of the astronaut from the John Glenn model to a broader model that included scientists as well as pilots, and women and minorities as well as white men. A lot of people didn’t like that at the time, but they got used to it. The same is going to be true for the engineers and innovators— if we assume we are looking for a von Braun, then another charismatic figure like Elon Musk might seem like the person we’re looking for. And maybe he is. But it’s just as possible that the answer to some of the questions of how to get to Mars will be found by a room full, or a building full, of diverse people working on the problem together.
There was a great example of this a few years ago when India first put a spacecraft into Mars orbit. This picture appeared in many outlets:
"In some ways I’m more interested in this roomful of women, what they might do next, than a single charismatic genius like Elon Musk."
I saw this in some places with a caption like “Indian women celebrate the success of their country’s space program.” But this is actually a picture of the scientists and engineers who achieved this feat. The fact that some photo editors could not quite wrap their minds around that is telling in a number of ways. Aside from gender, ethnicity, and the fact that they are wearing saris rather than lab coats, the fact that the photo frames them as a group, rather than a single person (or a figurehead surrounded by followers), is also disruptive of expectations. In some ways I’m more interested in this roomful of women, what they might do next, than a single charismatic genius like Elon Musk.
Since the end of the NASA Shuttle Program, how has your perspective on space exploration changed? Do you maintain the same level of enthusiasm? What do you look forward to most when glimpsing ahead towards a new era of human space exploration?
I had a lot of skepticism about what might come next when I was writing Leaving Orbit, and some fans of spaceflight were annoyed with me for not being more optimistic in the book. In some ways, I have more cause for hope than I did while watching the shuttle orbiters being put into museums, because the private contractors have come through with a lot of their promises about being able to get cargo to the International Space Station. At the same time, we don’t seem to be getting closer to a consensus about what the next big project should be or how we should do it. Should we set our sights on Mars, or go back to the Moon first (or instead), or do something else? Should we prioritize human spaceflight or robots and probes? Should we prioritize scientific discovery or finding ways to make spaceflight profitable? It seems as though most spaceflight enthusiasts spend a lot of their energy being annoyed with other spaceflight enthusiasts who are pulling for the wrong goal, or the wrong means of paying for it.In another way, I’ve become more optimistic because I’ve gotten to know more about the International Space Station and what an accomplishment it is (I’m co-writing a memoir with astronaut Scott Kelly about his year on the Station). The work being done up there every day is contributing to solving the problems of taking the next steps in spaceflight, and it’s hard to learn about that—and the enormous cross-cultural international undertaking the station represents— and not feel excited for the future.