Wednesday, December 05, 2007

I must now take back everything I've ever said about the federal government.

Because of this.

Actually, I'm being facetious—I've said almost all nice things about NASA, which is also a government agency. Not that there's any connection between the two, of course. Or there would be lots more novels singing the praises of the SEC, the EPA, the FCC. Hmm, that gives me an idea...

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Just As I Suspected

Scholars, I've blogged before about the troubling misconceptions my fellow Americans hold about our national space agency. But this demonstrates that the trouble goes even deeper than many of us had feared.

When asked to estimate NASA's allocation of the national budget, people respond with amounts averaging 24%. TWENTY-FOUR PERCENT. Scholars, if NASA got 24% of the national budget, I would be writing this from my moon condo. And I wouldn't be typing on a keyboard, I would be using nanotechnology to blog using only the power of my thoughts.

It's telling that NASA was the part of the budget on which people overestimated most wildly. I hate to blame the media, because it's such a cliche, but to hear the mainstream media talk about it, you'd think NASA was burning up all our money on their pointless toys. In fact, they do quite a bit with very little.

For the record, NASA's allocation is 0.58%.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

MLD in Five Chapters!

I have a story this week in Five Chapters entitled "Lives of the Great Baristas." Five Chapters is a cool online journal. Check it out!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Female Pioneers in Space

Scholars, I'm happy about this sort of thing, of course. As noted last time, Commander Melroy (still in space as we speak) is the second Feminine American to command the space shuttle, and it's a nice coincidence that she's meeting another of her gender commanding the International Space Station. But I'm a bit troubled by this kind of coverage.

"Melroy and Whitson are showing it doesn't matter whether someone is male or female," according to Eileen Collins, the first woman to command the Space Shuttle. And that's true. Yet we have a contradiction here because this kind of coverage--the inspiring of the Girl Scouts and so on--insists that it does matter. Otherwise why cover it as such?

I've written about this contradiction before with respect to the first woman to play professional baseball, and I still don't really have my story straight: It bothers me that these women's accomplishments get filed under Women's Accomplishments rather than under Accomplishments, yet I get choked up when little Girl Scouts are inspired to become daredevil pilots by seeing big girl pilots.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Godspeed, Commander Melroy

Tuesday will be the first launch attempt for STS-120, helmed by only the second female commander in shuttle history. She will also be the last, as there are no other Feminine Americans qualified to command the shuttle, and none coming down the pike before the shuttle is retired in 2010.

Commander Melroy's career is especially interesting to me because we share an alma mater. I think it's incredibly cool that we had the same astronomy professor, Dr. Priscilla Benson, though presumably Commander Melroy got more out of the course than I did, seeing as how she has had the chance to experience some of its concepts in their real-life applications.

I know it's kind of cheesy to identify too closely with public figures based on simple demographic facts like gender, but I do think it's cool for little girls to get to see a shuttle commander with a ponytail. None of the first batch of female astronauts were qualified to be pilots because the military still didn't allow women to fly. But Commander Melroy was a navy test pilot, no less, the old-school Right-Stuff route to getting to fly NASA's spacecraft.

She says that her goal is to be the next astronaut to set foot on the moon. I hope she does; it will be an even bigger feather in our alma mater's cap than getting the 44th presidency of the United States.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Sputnik anniversary: Ahmadinejad's Mars Ambitions

Fifty years ago today, the first artificial satellite was launched. You could look at this and remark upon how much we've accomplished since then and breathe a patriotic sigh of satisfaction, as some space writers have done. Or you could look at this and wonder how we can possibly equal the accomplishments of the sixtes, as others have done.

I find it frustrating to read all the coverage of this anniversary, because so much of it misses the point. And the point is clear right there on the cover of Life magazine: "Why Reds Got It First." A lot of Americans (more to the point, the Americans who controlled the money) didn't much care what an artificial satellite did or how it worked nearly so much as they wanted to know how the Russians could have beaten us to it. So, after it became clear that they couldn't get a human being into orbit first either, they made up a new goal (man on the moon) and the rest is history. (History that a shocking percentage of Americans don't believe happened-- but that's another post.)

So in all this hand-wringing over why we haven't followed through on the promises implied by our early successes in space, the answer seems obvious--there's no more enemy to race. It's not only that our enemies don't express themselves through technological achievement (if only they did) it's also that we have no enemies capable of engaging in this sort of sparring with us at all. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had Mars ambitions instead of nuclear ambitions, and if he had the resources to get there, we'd be going too. And until we get an enemy worth racing, we're not going to do much.

Well, that's depressing. Happy Sputnik day...

Monday, September 24, 2007

NASA announces search for new astronauts

Thanks everyone for thinking of me, but you can stop forwarding me this now. I've decided not to go back to college to get a degree in math, engineering or science in order spiff up my application.

I think this is actually a weird gesture on NASA's part. (Not as weird, for the record, as sending the lightsaber into space). These astronaut candidates will begin duty in 2009. But doing what? Not going into space, I can assure you, unless they manage to beg a seat on a Soyuz capsule. The space shuttle will be no longer available, its last few remaining missions having long before been promised to astronauts with more seniority. The lunar transport will still be little more than a glint in an engineer's eye. As it is now, there are close to 100 astronauts cooling their heels in Texas hoping for a mission, many of whom have never flown and won't get to before the shuttle is retired.

But by making this announcement, NASA makes it seem as if there are lots of missions scheduled, so many that they need to hire more people to fly them. Perhaps they think this will create a sense of inevitability--because the astronauts are there, Congress will pay to build spacecraft to keep them busy. But this is not how it works, I don't think. I fear that instead this hiring binge will send out the message that NASA has all the money they need and a secure future, so we need not lobby our Congressional representatives on their behalf. I think they will come to regret this. Meanwhile, lots of young Americans are unknowingly applying to become NASA PR officers in blue flight suits, maybe never to see a real mission.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

one half-empty bottle of tequila

I earlier reported on the alleged drunken-astronaut scandal, so felt I should be responsible and follow up. Apparently, further investigation has found
no evidence that astronauts have ever flown drunk.

Though there is some tantalizing talk of "booze runs" and a half-empty bottle of tequila in one of the astronauts' cupboards. Tequila? Isn't that a bit... undergraduate? I thought these were supposed to be the best and the brightest.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Lightsaber to Fly on Space Shuttle

Scholars, am I the only one who finds this really depressing?

I'm not even going to bring up the tacky commercialism of flying the original lightsaber prop on the shuttle. Space enthusiasts had to start getting over that type of outrage when astronauts were obliged to try both Coke and Pepsi in orbit in 1985. I bet the astronauts are really peeved about having to make room for this thing when they are allotted so little space for their own souvenirs. Case in point: Christa McAuliffe wanted to bring her son's favorite stuffed frog on board ("Fleegle") but to make him fit they had to take his stuffing out and vacuum-seal him in a plastic bag.

No, it's details like this one that depress me:
Chewbacca, the towering Wookiee best known from the film as Han Solo's co-pilot on the Millennium Falcon, will officially hand the lightsaber over to officials from Space Center Houston during a ceremony at the airport. Joining "Chewie" will be other characters from the six-part sci-fi classic, including Boba and Jango Fett and together they help push back the airplane on the tarmac.

"Together they help push back the airplane on the tarmac"? I'm sorry, what? I can't help but feel deep pity for the hard-up actors who agree to wear these costumes and carry out this "ceremony at the airport." Is there any more depressing place to carry out a weird photo-op "ceremony" than the Houston airport? With the beige tile floors and the announcements squawking overhead and the smell of jet exhaust and Cinnabons in the air?

Let's see how that went down:

Ugh. It makes me want to cry.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Review in Small Spiral Notebook

Dean weaves together an insider’s story of the space-shuttle program and the life of protagonist Dolores Gray with a thread of cynicism about both adolescence and space technology. Ultimately, The Time it Takes to Fall is a tale about confronting and denying mortality.

Click here to read the full review.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sunday, August 19, 2007

NASA Decides Not to Fix Heat Shields (or: Get your Outrage Goggles On)

In the past, I've written about the Outrage Goggles through which we tend to view the actions of NASA now that they have proved less than completely reliable at keeping shuttles from disintegrating. Before the Challenger disaster, no one wanted to hear about how temperature affects the elasticity of O-rings. Before the Columbia disaster, no one wanted to hear about the insulating foam that kept popping off the External Tank or how long the scratches on the heat shield were. Now that disasters have been caused by lack of concern about each of these issues, media attention has been raptly focused on them to the exclusion of anything else, and we watch the coverage with a frisson of pre-disaster excitement, tingling slightly with the feeling that disaster WILL be caused by one of these things, and predicting the future satisfaction of knowing we were rightly concerned while NASA engineers blithely hit the go button. All this when the biggest danger to any space shuttle mission is, as it has always been, those kooky main engines with their tendency to crack their turbines and blow up.

I'm moved to think of the Outrage Goggles again this week, when NASA has decided, sensibly it seems, not to have their astronauts fix a gouge in the heat shield, a process that itself puts the shield in more danger than the gouge warrants. Coverage of this decision has ranged from the nervously mistrustful to the mildly alarmed. Every article recounts the Columbia disaster (though they've stopped retelling the Challenger story, have you noticed? What is the condition of those Solid Rocket Booster joints? We just don't know). The coverage is suffused with the feeling that NASA is putting its astronauts, and the orbiter we all own, at risk by refusing to fix it.

I'd be the last to say that we should all relax and assume that NASA knows what they're doing, but it's maddening to see our attention directed so narrowly toward the one thing that happens to have caused the last crack-up.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Look up at the sky.

Endeavour is above us, scholars. And on board is Barbara Morgan, an educator-astronaut. (Some people tried to call Christa McAuliffe a teachernaut, but thankfully that didn't stick.) Anyway, here are my thoughts about her flight.

When Ronald Reagan announced in 1984 the plan to send a teacher to space, he anticipated that the mission would be a reminder “of the crucial role that teachers and education play in the life of our nation. I can’t imagine a better lesson for our children or our country.” These words would come to have an unintended meaning when the space shuttle carrying that teacher, Christa McAuliffe, broke up in the sky on January 28, 1986. I was among the children McAuliffe’s mission was intended to instruct, and the Challenger disaster became one of the more memorable lessons of my youth. The lesson was about the fallibility of NASA, of politicians, of technology—the hubris of adults. When we learned the truth about the astronauts’ deaths, that they had survived the breakup of the space shuttle and may have been conscious during a two-and-a-half minute fall back to earth, the lesson became even more pointed: these institutions, these ideals, are not to be trusted.

Most of us don’t remember that Christa McAuliffe had an alternate, Barbara Morgan. She trained for a mission that only Christa McAuliffe was meant to make, then watched as Challenger disintegrated with seven of her friends aboard. She moved her family to Houston to await assignment to another mission, then watched as Columbia, the shuttle she was meant to fly on next, disintegrated during re-entry in 2003. After waiting for a total of 22 years, Barbara Morgan will finally get to fly on or after August 8. And in many ways, her story encapsulates America’s ambivalence about spaceflight even better than Christa McAuliffe’s does.

For those of us who were changed by watching the destruction of Challenger, watching Barbara Morgan’s flight is going to feel strange. In a sense, it will mark a final end to the Challenger tragedy, tie up a loose end. To finally get to see a teacher fly will make us feel as though a promise made to us as children has finally been fulfilled. Christa’s message was that the fruits of American ingenuity should be open to anyone, not just “Right-Stuff”-era Apollo supermen. When I think of Barbara’s flight, I can’t help but reflect that surely this is what Christa McAuliffe and her crewmates would have wanted to see.

Yet watching this launch will remind us of how long it’s been and what has happened since. The morning of that launch for which Barbara served as an alternate, I was a thirteen-year-old eighth-grader. Now I am a thirty-four-year-old mother. Challenger has become part of a set of eighties signifiers that have ossified with age, like legwarmers, sticker collections, and hair metal. It’s disconcerting to think that the space transport NASA is using to assemble its International Space Station is also old enough to invoke kitschy nostalgia. The shuttle was designed in the seventies and first launched in 1981, so when we see a launch now, are we to be impressed with the technological achievement it still represents? (After all, no better spacecraft has been build since). Or are we to be impressed that machines older than our cars are still running at all?

Also, of course, this flight takes us back to the space shuttle disaster—both disasters, actually—and to our ambivalence about sending everyday people into space. Not to mention our ambivalence about NASA, our disappointment when their astronauts, still idolized as the best of the best, are caught drinking before flights or chasing each other across the country in bizarre love triangles.

When questioned about the disasters that have gone before, Barbara Morgan gives this answer: she wants her perseverance to be a lesson to her students. Children are watching what adults do when something goes wrong, she says, and it’s important that they see us investigate, pick up the pieces, fix the problem, and keep on flying. This is a nicely crafted sound bite, of course, in the way it makes a virtue of the spotted past, yet there is truth to it. There aren’t many things that can still capture children’s enthusiasm the way spaceflight can. NASA made a mistake in 1986, and again in 2003, and if they are to keep our respect, and our tax dollars, it should be by finding some redemption in what has gone before rather than in sweeping it under the rug. And as odd as it feels to quote Ronald Reagan: I can’t imagine a better lesson for our children or our country.

...Of course, now we find ourselves face again with the question of why NASA can't stop their insulation foam from scratching up their tiles. More on this at a later date.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Insert "Houston, We Have a..." joke here

Just don't know what to say about this, except that I'm dying to know what astronauts flew drunk, and why.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Nancy Pearl review on NPR

"One of the nicest written coming-of-age stories that I've read in a long time. It's always hard to think of what an author can do to make a coming-of-age tale new, and what Margaret Lazarus Dean does in her novel is [...] meld the public tragedy of the Challenger disaster with the private tragedy of Dolores's family."

Click here to listen to a great review from Nancy Pearl of NPR.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Review in BookPage

The Time it Takes to Fall is a deft reflection on the loss of national and personal innocence that skillfully explores a series of events rarely addressed in fine adult fiction. Writing might not be rocket science, but Dean's first novel does the science and art of both proud.

Click here to read the full review.

A review in the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Lazarus Dean has created an immensely believable heroine and delivers a fascinating and approachable look at that most intimidating of all endeavors: rocket science. If there's any justice at all, her book will be read by women's book clubs across the country.

Click here to read the full review.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Sunday, January 07, 2007


I'm doing two upcoming readings at independent neighborhood bookstores.

In Minneapolis, I'm reading at Magers and Quinn on Thursday, February 15 at 7:30pm.

In Ann Arbor, I'm reading at Shaman Drum on Wednesday, February 21 at 7pm.

Please join me!