Margaret Lazarus Dean first spoke to Scott Kelly when he was living on the International Space Center.
“A strange lag made it hard to communicate,” says Dean, associate professor of English. “Still, even in that first call we talked about the University of Tennessee, the fact that he is an alum and I teach here, and he recalled with great fondness an orange sweatshirt he used to own, and even brought with him to space once, before losing it.”
The conversation launched a friendship between the professor and the astronaut that lead to a collaboration on Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, which recently hit number five on the New York Times Best Seller list.
Endurance is a personal memoir about Kelly’s experience of living aboard the International Space Station for one year – an American record for consecutive days spent in space. He shares the challenges of long-term spaceflight and its effects on his body, as well as the isolation he felt while living in orbit.
“Margaret Dean worked closely with Scott Kelly to get Endurance into print while Kelly’s adventures in space were still fresh in the public’s mind, which in itself was quite an accomplishment,” says Allen Dunn, head of the Department of English. “The fact that the book is currently number five on the New York Times Best Seller list confirms Margaret’s reputation as one of this country’s most prominent writers of creative nonfiction, something that was already apparent after the success of her book Leaving Orbit. This is sure to enhance the reputation of our Creative Writing program here at the University of Tennessee.”
Both Dean and Kelly’s fascination with space and space travel stem from an earlier work of creative nonfiction – Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. For Kelly, it was the first step on his journey to becoming an astronaut. For Dean, it sparked a curiosity and admiration of space travel, as well as the foundation of her book Leaving Orbit, which tells the story of the final days of American spaceflight.
Leaving Orbit is the reason Dean called Kelly on the International Space Station in the first place, so when it was chosen for the 2016 Life of the Mind program, Kelly joined Dean for a discussion in Thompson-Boling Arena.
“Scott was kind enough to visit in order to participate in the event,” Dean says. “He enjoyed getting to visit Knoxville again, meeting some of the students I’m always bragging about, and talking about space with a new generation of Vols. But I think what he enjoyed most of all was being presented with the gift of a new bright orange Vols sweatshirt, just like the one he’d lost.”
Dean will always be grateful to UT and her colleagues in the English department for support her work.
“They helped me in so many ways when this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came up to write this book with Scott,” Dean says. “I’m so proud of the book, and UT plays an integral role both in Scott’s story and in how we ended up writing it together.”