A Love Letter to my Favorite Space Books

Space books

I’m frequently asked what my favorite space books are. It’s a tough question, because there are so many fascinating stories out there. But if I narrow it down to books about human spaceflight, I would count these six as a wonderful beginning – most are so well written that you don’t have to be a space fan to enjoy them. Even when they are about technology, they are all very human stories.

“Carrying The Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys” by Michael Collins (1974) I believe is unbeatable as the best of the Apollo astronaut memoirs. Written so close after his Apollo 11 mission, Collins brings an unparalleled cultural intelligence to his recounting of the Apollo era. Many have written about that time, but no one else has his wry, witty, dry sense of sharp observation. Smart, funny, and entertaining were never parts of the job description of a top test pilot. Thank goodness Mike Collins is all of those things, and was on the first voyage to land people on the moon so he can relate it to us so very well.

Andrew Chaikin’s “A Man On the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts” (1994) is essential reading for anyone trying to understand those brief years of 1968-72, when humans did something unprecedented – and then never did it again. There are books written about Apollo before this one, and books written after, and you can tell the dramatic change this book made to the entire genre. I recall as a teenager watching the NASA informational films about the later Apollo missions, with blurry 70s TV images of astronauts picking up rocks and driving around. It was all presented as very worthy, and I recall thinking "I bet they are doing something important, but I don’t have a clue what it is." Andy's book, because of his exhaustive research and keen geological grounding, made me understand why those later missions were so important and how, in many ways, they remain the pinnacle of human exploration. He did so much deep research that you sense every paragraph is only a summary of what he knows, and he could have gone off in any fascinating direction. He is dancing along the top of his knowledge, giving you the cream of it, all done within a clear narrative. I remember sitting in a garden in south London reading it and feeling my brain expand with every chapter. Every film and book that came afterwards has been clearly swayed by the light he shone on the subject. As you can tell... I like it.

“Apollo: Race To The Moon” by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox (1989) is a wonderful counterpart to the Andy Chaikin book. This book focuses on the managers and the engineers who made the moon landings happen. That sounds like it could be quite dry, but it’s not. It is a page-turner with its description of how a bunch of previously disparate people came together to do in the impossible within eight years. It’s a fascinating work that gives the folks more behind the scenes the same attention usually only given to astronauts, done in a wonderfully readable way.

Walter Cunningham's "The All-American Boys" (1977) is probably the Bad Boy of the list. Like Mike Collins' book, it benefits from being written right after the events, so it is fresh and raw. But Walt doesn't hold back on his opinions then or now, and this book gives a lot of grit and gossip from behind the scenes of the program. If astronauts still had a saintly, heroic image when this book came out, this book took care of that myth forever. Later editions expand his narrative, right up to the loss of the Columbia shuttle, once again with Walt’s self-described “opinionated s.o.b.” approach.

The closest equivalent of Cunningham’s book for the space shuttle era, and another remarkably good read, is Mike Mullane's "Riding Rockets" (2006). The shuttle program is a tough one for people to write about, especially while it was still going on, because there was so damn much of it, over so many decades. I'd seen Mike give his presentations to school kids long before this book came out and he was very Boy Scout-like in his delivery, so I was expecting the book to be pretty straight-laced. Boy, was I wrong. Killingly funny, wonderfully self-deprecating, this book took us behind the scenes of the early shuttle program in all its gossipy glory, complete with back-stabbing office politics. It works well because Mullane is also not afraid to air his own shortcomings and his steep learning curve in working well with others.

After five American authors, I’ll close with a book by a Scottish writer who managed to capture one particular space program better than anyone else. David Harland's "How NASA Learned to Fly in Space: An Exciting Account of the Gemini Missions" (2004) is exactly what its title describes, and it is a revelation. The Gemini program, sandwiched between the Mercury and Apollo missions, is unjustly underrated. David brings it to vivid life with mission-by-mission human moments. Where photos don't exist, he has captured stills from film footage. The near-forgotten program deserved a book highlighting its achievements, and it got one.

If you enjoy book reviews and recommendations like this, let me know and I’ll do more of them.