The Time It Takes to Fall: A Novel

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9780743297233: The Time It Takes to Fall: A Novel
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It is the early 1980s, and America is in love with space. Growing up in the shadow of Cape Canaveral, young Dolores Gray has it particularly bad: she dreams of becoming an astronaut.

At school, Dolores finds herself caught between her desire for popularity and her secret friendship with the smartest and most unpopular boy in her class, whose father is NASA's Director of Launch Safety. At home, discord begins to grow between her parents when her father's job as a NASA technician is threatened.

Looking for escape, Dolores loses herself in her scrapbook, where she files away newspaper articles about the astronauts and the shuttles, weather reports on launch scrubs, and stories about her idol, Judith Resnik.

Then, on the morning of January 28, 1986, seventy-three seconds after liftoff, the space shuttle Challenger explodes, killing all seven astronauts on board -- including Judith Resnik. It is a moment that shakes America to its core, and nowhere is it more deeply felt than in central Florida. Dolores becomes determined to reconstruct what went wrong, both in her parent's marriage and at NASA, in the hope that she can save her father's job and keep her family together.

The Time It Takes to Fall is a coming-of-age novel that deftly weaves the story of one family's drama into the larger picture of a touchstone event in American history. It is at once an intimate look at a young girl's loss of innocence and a portrait of America's loss of innocence -- the end of an era that romanticized manned space flight and would never be the same again.

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About the Author:

Margaret Lazarus Dean was born in 1972. She grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and received a BA in anthropology from Wellesley College and an MFA from the University of Michigan. She is currently a lecturer at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor.

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Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

My sister Delia and I were splayed on the floor in front of the afternoon shows when we heard the familiar slam of our own car door. We ran to the window. It was only three o'clock. My father had never come home from work early; often, in the push to prepare one launch after another in a continually quickening schedule, he worked late and didn't come home during daylight hours at all.

We watched him walk up the path toward the front door. He was a large man with a round soft belly and a calm face. When he opened the door, he looked surprised to see Delia and me standing there. He nodded and smiled at us.

"Hi, Dolores," he said to me, then, "Hi, Delia."

My mother emerged from the kitchen, where she had been repotting a plant. She looked as alarmed as we were to see him home in the afternoon. Her brown eyes searched his face.

"What's going on?" she asked. "What are you doing home?" Her hands were covered with potting soil halfway up her forearms. She clasped them together. My mother was beautiful, with wild black hair and big brown eyes, but worry distorted her face into something like anger.

"It's what we expected," my father said. His voice was flat, as if reporting that we needed milk. He turned his hands up to her, showing her the pink palms.

"Why are you home, Daddy?" Delia asked. Everyone ignored her; she was four.

"There's been a slowdown with the Main Engines. It has nothing to do with the boosters. But until this gets straightened out, there isn't much for me to do." My mother watched his face closely as he talked, moving her lips slightly as though she were trying to speak along with him.

"Why are you home, Daddy?" Delia asked again.

"Shut up, Delia," I said.

"Don't talk to your sister that way," my parents said together.

"They can't just put me on the next launch," my father explained to my mother. "The payload people need some time to catch up. It's just for six weeks or so. Maybe two months. Long enough I'll have to find something else. But temporary."

My father looked down at Delia and smoothed her hair. He and my mother still made the mistake of thinking we didn't understand their talk, that we knew only what they explained to us. This was still true of Delia, for the most part, but I was eleven.

My mother sat down and began to cry. She covered her face, forgetting the dirt on her hands. Delia crawled into her lap and patted, patted, patted her shoulder.

"It's okay," my mother cooed to Delia through her tears. Delia pried my mother's hands from her face; her forehead was smeared with dirt. Her eyes and nose were red, but she forced a smile.

"Everything's okay," my mother repeated. She sniffed and dried her face with a dish towel, Delia still staring up at her with wide green eyes.

"I've already got some leads," my father said, his hands in his pockets.

My mother shook her head and scoffed quietly.

"What kind of leads?" I asked. They both looked at me.

"Why don't you girls go and play in your room?" my father said.

Delia and I went into the room we shared while he and my mother kept talking, her voice high and quick, his low and quiet. We both tried to listen but couldn't make out any words. I pulled out the space notebook I'd been keeping since the first launch. The most recent entry read:

STS 41-D, Discovery.

Launch attempt June 25, 1984, scrubbed due to computer problems.

Launch attempt June 26 aborted at T minus 4 seconds because of a Main Engine failure, the latest abort ever. Launch put off for two months so Discovery could be rolled back to the Orbiter Processing Facility. The faulty Main Engine was replaced.

Launch attempt August 29 delayed because of more computer problems.

Launch attempt August 30 delayed 6 minutes because a private plane intruded into NASA airspace.

Launch, finally, at 8:41 A.M.

Judith Resnik became the second American woman to fly in space and the first person of Jewish heritage.

My father took me to this launch.

Judith Resnik had been my favorite astronaut since I'd first seen her on TV the day the seven women astronauts were chosen, leaning on a split-rail fence in a slightly forced pose, all of them smiling. The astronauts were about my mother's age, dressed in blouses and slacks, their hair fashionably styled into wings. Judith Resnik, in close-up, had a round baby face, a bright and innocent look. Her voice, her way of speaking, carried just the tiniest thread of friendly sarcasm. She seemed impatient with the silliest of the questions: What do you think it means for a woman to finally travel in space? Are you aware of the dangers involved? How will you feel if you are chosen to be the first American woman astronaut? She answered these questions with a tilt of her head, a sly smile. I'd hoped she would be the first, but Sally Ride had been chosen, the year before.

Delia pulled out her crayons and flipped through her pad of construction paper, looking for a clean page.

"Why is Daddy home?" Delia finally asked, selecting a crayon and scribbling.

"He's laid off. He can't go to work for a while, so he has to get a different job," I explained.


"Why what?"

"Why can't he go to work?"

"The point is..." I said in my best adult voice, "the point is he'll go back there soon." Hearing myself say this, I immediately felt better. It sounded true. "It's not like he got fired. It'll be like nothing happened at all."

"Okay," Delia agreed. She seemed comforted and started drawing in earnest, but after a minute she pointed out softly, "Mom cried, though."

"Yeah," I said. "She didn't understand at first. She overreacted. It's just for six weeks."

Delia scribbled. I waited for her to ask what overreacted meant, but she didn't. I'd been explaining things to Delia since she'd been born, and I always told her the truth. Since her life coincided almost perfectly with the years the space shuttle had been flying, I'd been explaining the shuttle to her all along. Those are the rockets and that's the tank. The astronauts sit in the nose part, there. Those are the three Main Engines. One of them could fail, but not two.

After a while, Delia stuck her head out in the hallway and yelled, "Can we come out now?"

"Yes!" my mother yelled back.

When we came out to the living room, my father was watching the news. Delia curled up next to him on the couch. I found my mother doing the dishes. She had dried her eyes.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"It's not something you have to worry about, okay? It's just for a little while. Your father's very smart. He could do lots of things. Besides, it's just for six weeks." She fell quiet as she scrubbed at a pan. A few minutes later, she said quietly, "This happened before."


"Before you were born. Whenever NASA runs into hard times, they lay off people like your father first. It was hard, but in the end they needed him to come back, so everything worked out okay."

"How long did it take?" I asked.

She looked up toward the ceiling, as if calculating. She blew her fuzzy black bangs off her forehead, then looked down at the pan again. She seemed to have forgotten the question. "Don't you worry, okay? We'll figure everything out."

My father found another job, repairing machinery at an appliance factory. His first day of work, my mother saw him off as always, made his coffee in the same mug, so Delia and I were falsely comforted.

"Good luck," my mother said quietly as she kissed him goodbye.

"Ready?" he asked me.

"Ready," I answered. We said goodbye to Delia, who was waiting for her ride to preschool.

All the way to school, my father talked about the math I would be learning this year. It was one of his favorite topics.

"Soon you'll be getting into real algebra. Multiple variables, the quadratic equation. The concepts you'll learn this year are the foundation for calculus. Everything you learn in the future will build on this." I couldn't help but feel a little proud. All of the women astronauts were either doctors or physicists.

We pulled up in front of the Palmetto Park Middle School, a large, rambling, low-slung building framed by mature and symmetrical palm trees. Three weeks earlier, I had started seventh grade.

"Do you need lunch money?" my father asked. He heaved himself up in his seat to reach the wallet in his back pocket, making the seat squeak and crunch. More than kisses or other signs of affection, that motion embodied his everyday, responsible love for us. He handed me a dollar, then kissed me on the cheek.

I walked up the steps and through the big set of doors, where kids were milling around talking and yelling, some of them wandering into the building as if by accident. Inside, I breathed the smell of industrial cleaners mixed with dust, paper, cooked food, and the bodies of hundreds of adolescents.

I knew only about half of the kids in my class. The kids who had gone to the district's other elementary school seemed alarmingly more mature. They wore more stylish clothes and spoke to each other more harshly. They also had a leader, Elizabeth Talbot, who wore designer jeans and T-shirts with the names of bands I had never heard of. From the first day I'd laid eyes on Elizabeth, I simultaneously hoped she wouldn't notice me and hoped she would choose me as her best friend. So far, she hadn't noticed me. Today she sat between Toby and Nathan, writing something on their notebooks that made them all laugh in low, scornful tones.

I took a seat near my friends from Palmetto Park Elementary, Jocelyn and Abby. Jocelyn had always been pretty, and this year her fluffy blond hair was growing out from an attempt to fashion it into wings. Abby was not as beautiful as Jocelyn, but looked more put-together than the rest of us. She wore her black hair in a glossy cap, and her blue pants matched perfectly the blue stripe in the rainbow on her shirt. Both of them watched Elizabeth Talb...

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