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Book pairing: "Leaving Orbit" by Margaret Lazarus Dean & whole wheat sourdough bread

Book pairing: "Leaving Orbit" by Margaret Lazarus Dean & whole wheat sourdough bread

In Leaving Orbit, Margaret Lazarus Dean grapples with what it means that NASA’s space shuttle program has come to an end. Part memoir, part history of spaceflight, Dean tracks her decision to attend the final launches of the space shuttles, and each long drive from from Tennessee to Cape Canaveral to see Discovery, Endeavor and Atlantis take their last flights.

Dean continually asks, “What does it mean that we went to space for fifty years and then decided not to anymore?” and with each 12-hour drive alone to the Kennedy Space Center, leaving her husband and young child behind, she grapples with this question, and in her search for answers, she touches a broad scope of topics.

She looks at the people involved in NASA, from J.F.K., who ignited the space race, to the astronauts who completed it — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. From the NASA employees who spent the preceding thirty years watching over and maintaining the shuttle fleet like protective parents, to the ever-present space fans who came down to Cape Canaveral to see launches and scrubs alike. She looks at the physical objects involved in the space program, from the Vehicle Assembly Building (a structure so large rain clouds form within the distant heights of the ceiling), to the shuttles themselves and the personifications she has assigned them over the years.

And, perhaps most closely of all, she looks at the space writers who have come before her: Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe and Oriana Fallaci. Her every move is intended to trace the footsteps of those who came before her, even though she is separated from them by a generation, even though today’s space program is nothing like that impossible first dash to the moon.

Dean boxes around the idea that “the story of American spaceflight is a story with many endings,” but I wonder if it’s more that she’s asked a question with many answers. The meaning of all of the actions and bravery and mishaps and tragedies that brought us to the end of shuttle program cannot neatly be defined. By asking a question about meaning, Dean spins the scope of her exploration into a near infinite expansion. It’s why she can’t find a clear pattern or precise answer about all that has transpired. But, if anything, the elusive nature of the answer makes her question even more imperative, and it’s what makes Leaving Orbit a necessary pursuit.

To go with Leaving Orbit, I chose to make a loaf of whole wheat sourdough, a hearty place to start. Use it for toast with butter and jam, or kick it up a notch by topping your toast with avocado, fried egg, goat cheese and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Use it for a grilled cheese, or go the fancy route by adding strawberry, basil, and red pepper jelly to goat cheese.

Similarly, Leaving Orbit is a springboard, a crash course in NASA history that you can enjoy in isolation, or use as a starting point for a multi-month space exploration of your own. For a running start, check out some of the books that inspired Dean with our list of five must-read space books.



  • 227 grams sourdough starter, fed and ready to use
  • 255 grams lukewarm water
  • 340 grams King Arthur White Whole Wheat Flour or Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour
  • 14 grams whole grain bread improver (optional: for a better, faster rise)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 25 grams vegetable oil


Combine all of the ingredients, mixing until a shaggy dough forms.

Let the dough rest, covered, for 20 minutes, then knead until fairly smooth and slightly sticky.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover it, and let it rise until almost doubled, about 60 to 90 minutes.

Gently fold the dough over a few times on a lightly floured work surface.

Shape it into an 8" log, and place it in a 9" x 5" loaf pan.

Cover the loaf and let it rise until it's crowned 1" over the rim of the pan, about 60 to 90 minutes.

Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350°F.

Bake the bread for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the loaf is golden brown and a digital thermometer inserted into the center registers 205°F to 210°F.

Remove the bread from the oven, let it sit in the pan for 5 minutes, then turn it out onto a rack to cool.

Recipe via King Arthur Flour

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