From some very well-known ones to some more obscure titles, here is why I like these books.
“Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon,” Robert Kurson, 2018.
Half a century ago, humans first ventured out of earth orbit and to the moon. But it wasn’t on Apollo 11. First came Apollo 8, an audacious leap forward in human exploration, as spacefarers orbited the moon for the very first time, looked down upon its barren and ancient surface, and glimpsed our home planet as a tiny bright oasis in the blackness of space.
It is not easy to convey how important this mission was, as it has generally been overshadowed by the Apollo 11 moon landing half a year later. Robert Kurson’s Rocket Men does this story justice. Not only does he describe the mission, we learn about the remarkable people who flew the spacecraft, the risk that NASA managers took to push this flight up the schedule, and the wider story of a nation at a moment of traumatic self-doubt and inner turmoil.
The drama of each moment of the mission is conveyed in taut, muscular and dynamic writing that had me eager to know the next moment, even though history already knows how the mission ended. It would have been all too easy to overdo the tension, but Kurson instead clearly conveys what the dangers truly were – it is never overdone.
We are fortunate to live in an era when the first people to truly leave earth are still around and were able to relate their mission to Robert Kurson. You’d be unfortunate to miss the chance to read it.
“The Darkest Dark,” Chris Hadfield, 2016.
I’ve read this children’s book to classes of 4th graders a number of times, and it is perfect. Chis Hadfield is a well-known astronaut, and this certainly is part of the charm of this book, but it’s really about how he overcame his fear of the dark. That is something I can fully relate to, having been terrified at that age. Hadfield not only shows how he overcame it (with wonderful illustrations by The Fan Brothers), but explains how he came to love the deep, velvety blackness he later launched into as an astronaut. I wish this book had existed when I was a kid – I may have overcome my own childhood fears much earlier.
“Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth,” Robert Poole, 2008.
I found this book an engrossing read: an intriguing look at how humans view our planet from afar. What I found most interesting was not just the story of how images have been taken of our planet from space, but also how the taking of such images has apparently been long anticipated in human history. Through studies of paintings and writings made before the Space Age, Poole shows that the impact of such images was anticipated long before they were created. He goes on to discuss how they seem to have made a deep impression on a burgeoning environmental and conservation movement. This book is an interesting study of how the precise literalism of hard engineering can awaken nebulous, imaginative, creative free-thinking on a large scale.
“Apollo to the Moon: A History in 50 Objects,” Teasel Muir-Harmony, 2018.
Tangible, physical objects can be a wonderfully accessible way into any subject. The greatest achievements of humankind can be wonderfully humanized not by high-tech gadgetry (although that is included in this book too) but in small relatable items. We all eat, sleep, breathe, and go to the bathroom. To see the objects that people used in space to achieve everyday tasks, from improvised car fenders to first aid kits, humanizes the space program. Teasel Muir-Harmony, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, has chosen items to highlight in this book with evident affection and great insight into their voyaging histories.
“Drifting on Alien Winds: Exploring the Skies and Weather of Other Worlds,” Michael Carroll, 2011.
Both easy to understand and enjoyable to read while covering some often-complex subjects, this is an outstanding book. With a light and humorous style full of beautiful analogies, Carroll tours the reader through earth's atmosphere and out into our solar system. With clarity and a sense of wonder, we learn insights into our neighboring planets in a way that had me thinking "I didn't know that" with almost every page. Highly recommended for those who want to know what humans can achieve when we turn our curiosity to exploration and understanding. The illustrations are also beautiful and informative.
“Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew,” Michael Leinbach and Jonathan Ward, 2018.
The Columbia tragedy, and its aftermath, was emotional and deeply personal to the NASA family. It also required immediate, clear-eyed forensic specialism. It is this combination of feeling the deep wound while deploying a massive hunt for evidence and answers that Leinbach and Ward relate so well. With a sharp memory that makes you feel like you are a witness to events, they lead us through a search and investigation that changed the space program forever.