In the wee hours when it was either very late at night or very early in the morning, Doug Dechow came home from his job as a bartender one night in 1989 and found a party in his living room.

“I saw this woman across the room, and surrounding her were three of my very good friends and it was kind of like she was holding court,” said Dechow, then a student at Knox College in Illinois and now digital humanities and science librarian at Chapman University. “I thought, ‘That’s an interesting person. We should meet at some point.’”

Dechow went straight to bed that night, but soon he would go for a walk across campus with Anna Leahy – then a recent Knox graduate and now a professor of English and director of Chapman’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity. Not long after that, on a date to an air show, they discovered their mutual passion for anything that flies.

“I was shocked that you were willing to go,” he said, turning toward her, “because there was no one else in my life who was willing to go to this air show with me.”

So began the romance that led to Generation Space: A Love Story, the new book by the now-married couple about their love for rockets, shuttles, jets, planes and each other.

Part memoir and partly a nonfiction look at the era of space exploration spanning President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 pledge to put a man on the moon and the last flight of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the book takes readers along on explorations of Cape Canaveral and beyond, guided by a poet and a scientist.

Challenger and beyond

There are discoveries along the way. At one point, Leahy, visiting the Kennedy Space Center on a media credential for the first time, trundles onto a bus with the press herd, not even sure where she was going.

“And then when I got there, I realized that Challenger had taken off from that launch pad decades earlier,” she said. “And I think that’s something that made us think that we had a book that others would want to read, because every time we talked about the Challenger accident, people of our generation remember where they were and have something to say.”

To Leahy and Dechow, Generation Space is made up of Americans born between the Soviet forays into space in the 1950s and the first Space Shuttle mission in 1981.

Dechow’s first memory is of the moon landing and Neil Armstrong’s walk in 1969. And like others who were alive, Leahy and Dechow will never forget the moment they heard the Challenger had exploded in 1986.

A powerful pull

The space program captures people’s imaginations in ways that have a strong emotional pull. Leahy and Dechow remember being on a public bus tour to an outlying viewing area several miles from a Kennedy Space Center launch pad.

“The shuttle’s way off in the distance, and this young Indian woman came up to me and said, ‘My father has come all the way from India. Can he go up and touch it?’” Dechow recalled.

“I think he thought the bus would take everyone up to the launch pad, we’d all get out, and be able to tour the shuttle, the day before launch,” Leahy said.

“My memory is that he did not speak English, and when she went back to him and communicated it to him, you could tell he was heartbroken,” Dechow said. “And so the segment of the book is looking at NASA’s public engagement, in a way. They tell such a compelling story that people want to be a part of. But you can’t just go up and touch it. They captured their imagination, but reality is different.”

As the Space Shuttle program ended, Dechow and Leahy followed the machinations that determined which museums would become the permanent landing spots for the retired shuttles, writing about it for The Atlantic Monthly magazine.

The future of space exploration

What’s next remains uncertain.

“So while we’re winding down the shuttle, we also talk about the robotic present and future and the planned, perhaps, Mars mission. The book kind of ends in 2012, which is when Neil Armstrong died, and Sally Ride died. And my mother died. So it kind of wraps up there as the turning point,” Leahy said.

“The emotional end, if you will, was Anna and I coming to terms with the fact that we’re not going to Mars, despite having been promised that as children,” Dechow said. “The group of people that is Generation Space, we sort of bequeath the future to Generation Mars, and in the end, those who will get there.”

Display image at top/English professor Anna Leahy, Ph.D., and digital humanities and science librarian Douglas R. Dechow, Ph.D.

Evening of Literature, April 7

Join Leatherby Libraries on Friday, April 7, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., for a book launch and signing for both Generation Space: A Love Story, and Living in the Weather of the World, by Professor Richard Bausch. The Evening of Literature is free and will be held in the Center for American War Letters Archives, lower level.