Born Into That Excitement: A Conversation with Anna Leahy and Douglas R. Dechow About “Generation Space: A Love Story”




IN GENERATION SPACE: A LOVE STORY, co-authors Anna Leahy, a poet and English professor, and Douglas R. Dechow, a scientist and librarian, chart the two great passions in their lives. One is, of course, their own relationship and marriage. But the other is more universal: the magnetic force that drew them together. They are, to borrow the title of a Facebook conference, Space Hipsters: proud, highly educated generalists who have followed NASA’s space program since their earliest years. But not since NASA’s earliest years. They are members of Generation X, which has a different relationship to space travel than that of the Baby Boomers. Neither Leahy nor Dechow were yet born when Sputnik launched. But they have witnessed the triumphs of the International Space Station (ISS) and how private money is changing the idea of space exploration.

They revere the astronauts from the Apollo era and the Shuttle program — astronauts who competed for a hard-won identity. They are less keen on space tourists, for whom money alone can buy an astronaut identity.

I asked them about their book and why they wrote it.

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M. G. LORD: In Generation Space, you argue that another way to characterize Generation X is through its relationship to human space exploration. What did you mean?

ANNA LEAHY: We define Generation Space as all of us who were born between 1957, when the Russian satellite Sputnik launched (and the US birth rate peaked), and 1981, when the space shuttle first launched. This generation never knew a world before spaceflight. Space travel was the reality for us, not an abstraction. In 1982, Time named the computer “Man of the Year.” Generation Space knew a world before the personal computer, but our students know computer technology as part of the reality of their lives. When a person is born has a lot to do with how that person sees the world and the future.

DOUGLAS R. DECHOW: We were born in the mid-1960s. My first memory is sitting in front of the television watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon. At three years old, I was too young to understand what that meant, but that’s the point. For me, space travel was something people did, not just possible but actual. I’d argue this space-faring reality makes Generation Space an especially inquisitive bunch with high expectations. As educators, the notion of what it means to be a Millennial — those who make up our current student cohort — comes up frequently. While we were developing the book, it was also trendy to write think pieces comparing the traits of Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials, and those pieces often highlighted the negative. We think of Generation Space as an aspirational description, a way to tie together the aesthetic, cultural, and scientific associations of space travel with the group of people who were born into that excitement, the feeling of adventure of that moment.

I have to ask: Why do you refer to human space exploration as “manned” exploration? (When I began my own book, Astro Turf [2005], Donna Shirley, who was then head of the team for the Mars Sojourner Rover, gave me an earful about using that Apollo-era adjective instead of the more inclusive “human.”)

DECHOW: We do use the term “human spaceflight” in the book, but not to the extent we should have. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo were men-only spaceflight programs, of course, and a lot of the documentation of that era and the writing since then refers to those programs as “manned.” It’s easy to pick up that old-fashioned diction tick. But the Soviets sent women to space in the 1960s, and the astronaut class of 1978 included six women, all of whom flew in space. We talk in the book about how Shuttle changed the notion of astronaut. Your point is incredibly important, and the larger issue is something we continually address in our daily lives.

LEAHY: You have us thinking about how deeply engrained gender-biased terminology becomes, for the real struggle over not using “manned” is what to call spaceflight without humans aboard. Not “unmanned,” then, but not “un-human” or “non-human” either — so a parallel term isn’t possible for “human spaceflight.” Perhaps “telerobotic,” but that sounds overly technical. The terms should probably be “crewed” and “uncrewed” (which autocorrect wants to type as “unscrewed,” so it’s not yet common parlance). That seems the way to go as we and others continue to write about space exploration.

You each write different chapters of the story — yet you don’t rigidly alternate chapter by chapter. How did you decide who would tell what part of the story and how these chapters would be assembled into the manuscript?

DECHOW AND LEAHY: The first version of Generation Space we drafted was in a “together” voice (like this paragraph), which got us off the hook for deciding who told which part of the story, but which created all sorts of logistical problems, including referring to ourselves as Anna or Doug. People didn’t believe we could agree as much as we do. Or maybe people don’t like to admit that we make shared stories of life too, that sometimes we default to others’ versions if we aren’t sure, or that people who know each other well sometimes really can finish each other’s sentences. So, we talked about what we wanted to cover in the book — we had a draft of that — and who had what to say about each part.

LEAHY: I wanted to talk about my sister’s accidental Sputnik holiday ornament and my mother’s memory of Alan Shepard’s launch. Separating our voices allowed a lot more memory into the story. I saw Discovery on the launch pad the first time we visited Kennedy Space Center (KSC), and Doug didn’t. So, there were scenes only one of us could write.

DECHOW: My childhood memories and my story of planning to become an astronaut and ending up a scientist-librarian quickly became an important through-line for the book. Of course, we had to negotiate a few instances in which we remembered situations differently. To this day, we disagree about which door at KSC we followed Buzz Aldrin through when I caught sight of him. There’s an episode of the ’90s TV show Mad About You in which the couple define blue and green differently and adamantly. I remember us watching that and laughing about the mundane things we see differently. Separating our voices and divvying up chapters taught us to share in new ways and to sit with our differences.

You both graduated from the same college, but in different years. Would you talk about how you met — and how you kept a relationship going when your professional circumstances forced you to live in different states?

LEAHY: When we started writing this book, we didn’t think of it as a love story. We wanted to be the eyes and ears for others, not the subject of the book. As we immersed ourselves in the history of spaceflight, we started using the reference points and the questions to understand who we were and how we had managed to stay together for more than two decades.

DECHOW: We’d been together as college students for barely 18 months when we made our first major shared life decision: leaving Knox College behind and moving as a couple to Maryland. Shortly after getting settled, I started work at NASA’s Center for AeroSpace Information (CASI). Anna was a graduate student, so, in a very real way, NASA was sustaining our lives. This was a very intense period of figuring out who we were and who we wanted to be.

The outcome of that time, that we both wanted to be academics, came with the realization that we might not always be in the same time zone, let alone zip code. Our longest period of separation was during my PhD program at Oregon State University, while Anna was a new professor at a couple of schools in the Midwest. Figuring out how to be together as a couple while leading separate professional lives could have unraveled us. One of the most intense times of loss then was the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. We were on the phone watching the news and discussing our responses nearly the entire day. We also made a habit out of going out in the evenings to watch the International Space Station overhead.

LEAHY: Our daily lives are not like living on a space station, with no way to get home quickly — but that way of life can help us understand what it means to be separated from loved ones while pursuing your life’s goals. Analogies and metaphors make sense to me because they use differences to make similarities clearer, to clarify meaning. Whether two hundred miles away on ISS, two thousand miles across the country, or in the next room, we’re all making choices about how we want to connect with others in our lives and about how much distance a given relationship can endure.

One thing I love about Anna’s sections is the way she discusses the etymology of words with Latin derivations — e.g., “purpose” is “to put forth.” Anna, how did your study of Latin influence your love of spaceflight? And, for that matter, of poetry?

LEAHY: As a kid, I always liked grammar and felt as if it wasn’t something to learn so much as something that made inherent sense in my brain. When I studied Latin in high school, I realized that languages work differently — that ancient Romans must have made sense of ideas differently, because the verb tended to be at the end of the sentence. I took an anatomy class as a senior, one of only a few girls allowed to take a class over at the boys’ school, and that course was filled with Latin terminology (which was as memorable as the frog and cat we dissected). I studied Latin again in college and graduate school, and built an appreciation for how Latin words had made their ways into English — for the fact that words have long histories, or ancestors.

When I was working on my first poetry book, I started playing with Latin again. I was really proud of myself for having done something that felt useful or artful with what people think of as a dead language. It’s now part of my pondering as a writer, whether in poetry or prose. Of course, astronomy draws terminology from Latin — nebula, gibbous, orbit — so the approach feels all the more natural to me in that context.

Do you think the generation after yours appreciates the romance of spaceflight? For years, champions of privatizing spaceflight have said, “Space is a place not a program.” Yet your love affair — the love affair of Generation Space — is with a program, our collective national effort to explore.

LEAHY: When we were following the end of the space shuttle program six years ago, I mentioned to my students what I was doing. Some of them were surprised to hear the shuttle was still flying, and others were aghast that it was being retired. I remember sitting in a hospital waiting room in 2012, and a story about the retired shuttles came on the television. Everyone looked up, and people started talking about it, saying that it wasn’t right that the United States wasn’t flying humans to space anymore. There was the sense that we’d lost something important about who we are.

Last year, though, 18,300 people applied to be part of NASA’s 2017 astronaut class, which should be announced soon. The previous record, of only 8,000, was set by the 1978 class, the first to include women. There’s been a lot of space news lately — black holes colliding, close-ups of Jupiter, Voyager leaving the solar system — and people want to take part in that exploration.

DECHOW: Alan Shepard was the first American to go to space. His parabolic flight lasted only a few minutes, and he’d forgotten to change a filter so he didn’t see the view in full color. Yuri Gagarin had already orbited Earth by then. Later, there was some dispute over whether his spaceflight counted in the same way, because he’d parachuted out of his spacecraft. So, there’s long been quibbling about how to measure spaceflight accomplishments.

But one thing is clear: spaceflight is a cool accomplishment. In the fall of 2010, during one of our nerd date-nights for writing blog posts, we were making backup plans for viewing a shuttle launch in case neither of us became credentialed media. At the table next to us were three young men animatedly making plans for the same trip. Being generally nosy — many writers eavesdrop — I listened in to their conversation, only to hear the word “Titusville” mentioned several times. So, I engaged them in conversation. Just like Anna and myself, they couldn’t believe that the Shuttle program was coming to an end, and they wanted to be there to witness it.

What impact will the privatization of spaceflight have on its appeal? Does it degrade the idea of “astronaut” that anyone with enough money can achieve that identity?

LEAHY: All the Mercury, Apollo, and Gemini astronauts were white men. Although one attains the identity by crossing the Kármán line, for a long time, it seemed that being an “astronaut” was the job of only a few military test pilots. The space shuttle era changed how we think about what it means to be an astronaut. I’d hate to see privatization narrow the definition according to socioeconomic class. If I had $250,000 in spare change — that’s more than the median home price in the United States or the cost of a medical degree — I’d definitely be tempted to hand it over to Virgin Galactic to have six weightless minutes in space. But I can’t imagine the life of someone like that.

DECHOW: To be sure, there are some goofy ideas afloat for human spaceflight. Mars One isn’t so much a proposed spaceflight to the Red Planet as it is a reality television show in which there’s no plan for the return trip. For several years before the shuttle was retired, Space Adventures was able to broker deals for private citizens to pay to ride aboard Soyuz to the International Space Station. The idea that spaceflight might become the purview of only the incredibly wealthy is disturbing, but that’s not what SpaceX or NASA seem to be up to right now.

As we worked on Generation Space, we warmed up to commercial space more than we expected. It’s important to remember that, because NASA belongs to all of us, SpaceX can draw from 50 years of research and development. To watch the video of the Falcon 9 launch and then return to land on a barge is spectacular. This year, the same Falcon 9 launched and landed on that same barge. Despite the tough questions it’s posing, commercial space is earning my respect.

I loved the way much of the drama in the book involved the nuisance of getting credentials for launches — and the hierarchical nature of those credentials. Anna, how did you feel when you were awarded credentials (for a non-launch, if I remember correctly) and Doug wasn’t? Did you feel like you had to do a better job — or that Doug, because of his scientific training — should be there in your place?

LEAHY: Getting a media badge made us feel as if we were taken seriously and had to live up to that well-vetted, professional designation. When I was awarded a badge for Discovery’s last launch and Doug wasn’t, that seemed like a big test for whether we were up to this project, and also a big test of our relationship. It’s easy for a couple to talk about how they want the best for each other and would do anything for each other.

We told ourselves — rightly, I think — that one media badge was better than none. As we prepared, I did panic that I didn’t know enough about the technology to know what to ask or how to see what I was seeing — that Doug should have been the one designated as press. All that fell away as soon as I passed through the security gate at Kennedy Space Center.

I’ve never felt more pressure to do a good job, to learn new terminology quickly, to pay attention. I forced myself to be assertive, to interview an astronaut, to not let myself relax. No one at KSC knew who I was or cared whether I left, so I was my best self during that not-launch trip in part because no one was watching me but me. I stood yards away from Discovery on the launch pad. I could hardly speak, but after I caught my breath, I called Doug. I worried that he would be resentful, but he seemed utterly happy in hearing my joy. That’s something we carry with us now, genuinely being happy for each other.

Okay, now the question the astronauts mostly dodged: Which orbiter is your favorite? Endeavour? Discovery? (Do you both agree?) And why?

DECHOW AND LEAHY: Endeavour. We have too many associations with Endeavour now. It’s the first orbiter we saw in person, when it landed in California in 2008. It’s the first orbiter we saw launch in person, for its last launch in 2011. It’s the orbiter we saw up close, when we got a private tour of Endeavour in the Orbiter Processing Facility after its last launch. It’s the orbiter that we can drive to see any time. And we like the astronauts who chose a favorite too.

Anna, how did Southern California–raised astronaut Mike Coats react when you told him you had never been to Disneyland?

LEAHY: Oh, he was terribly disappointed in me. Mike Coats was the first astronaut I ever met. He’d flown Discovery three times, and he was the director of Johnson Space Center at the time I spoke with him. I hadn’t thought about the sort of access a media badge would entail, and we spent about 10 minutes alone in a KSC conference room for the interview. He really warmed up when I asked him about growing up in California and spending a lot of time at Disneyland. When I admitted that I hadn’t been to Disneyland, he said, “Anna, shame on you.” I still haven’t been to Disneyland. Maybe my refusal is a way to preserve the integrity of that first conversation with an astronaut.

Doug, what cool space artifacts have you acquired for the Chapman University library?

DECHOW: Whistleblowers Roger Boisjoly and Allan McDonald — two of the Morton Thiokol engineers who were adamant that NASA not launch the space shuttle Challenger on that cold, fateful morning in 1986 — have both donated their papers to the Leatherby Libraries. While both collections are wonderful, Roger Boisjoly’s materials contain a wealth of engineering documents, notebooks, and photographs that speak to the technical problems that beset the solid rocket boosters that ultimately led to Challenger’s destruction.

The library also participated in a government program when NASA sought permanent homes for items it was no longer using. We received a number of items, some of which — including a laptop and some gloves — had flown in space. We have an almost-light-as-air space shuttle tile that has been on an orbiter but never left Earth. We also received a number of models of 1960s-era satellites — including a Nimbus weather satellite and an Orbiting Geophysical Observatory — that had probably served as traveling educational exhibits. Each wooden case contained assembly instructions and torn, yellowed photographs of the models in their demonstration roles. That familiar museum storage basement smell wafted from the cases when we opened them. It made us wonder if it had been several decades since the cases were last opened and who had been the last person to touch them prior to us.

In designing syllabi or in your teaching methodology, do you do anything to encourage your students to share your passion for space exploration?

LEAHY: I teach mostly creative writing classes and do talk with students about my writing projects. Encouraging creative writing students, though, focuses more on process and craft. When I see an opening, of course, I sneak in science and space exploration. Not too long ago, a student used “black hole” as a metaphor, and I encouraged some extra research to think about what that might really mean and how the language used to talk about black holes applied or didn’t. Thinking about space and the universe adds some perspective to a writer’s life.

DECHOW: I’ve taught a number of short, one- or two-hour courses based on the items in the Boisjoly collection. I get a chill each time I work with those materials. It’s really something to hold an O-ring in your hand, to know tangibly how small the diameter is, and to realize that that part doomed Challenger. The engineering materials in the collection make clear that the problems and risks associated with the space shuttle program in the mid-1980s were well understood. So it’s my job to use those materials to show that the Challenger accident was a failure of human decision-making.

Would you go to Mars if you had the opportunity?

DECHOW AND LEAHY: We don’t have the opportunity. We’re too old. So, it’s easy to say “yes” without thinking about the consequences such a decision would have. We do want humans to go to Mars, but that’s for Generation Mars to accomplish. Think about what it would mean for people to be born into a world in which living on another celestial body was the reality.

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M. G. Lord is the author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, and The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice. She teaches nonfiction writing at USC.


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