The best books about space from someone with 35 years at NASA

Stephen P. Maran Author Of Astronomy for Dummies
By Stephen P. Maran

Who am I?

I’ve studied space for 60+ years, including spotting Sputnik from atop 30 Rock for Operation Moonwatch; monitoring an exploding star for a PhD at University of Michigan, leading the Remotely Controlled Telescope project at Kitt Peak National Observatory, hunting pulsars from Arizona and Chile, and helping develop scientific instruments for the Hubble Space Telescope. I worked for 5 years at Kitt Peak and 35 years for NASA. As Press Officer (now retired) of the American Astronomical Society, I organized press conferences on many notable cosmic discoveries. Minor Planet 9768 was named Stephenmaran for me, but I haven’t seen it yet. What I have spotted are five exceptional books on space.  Enjoy!

I wrote...

Astronomy for Dummies

By Stephen P. Maran,

Book cover of Astronomy for Dummies

What is my book about?

Do you know the difference between a red giant and a white dwarf? From asteroids to black holes, this easy-to-understand guide takes you on a grand tour of the universe. Featuring updated star maps, charts, and an insert with gorgeous full-color photographs, Astronomy For Dummies provides an easy-to-follow introduction to the night sky. Plus, this new edition also gives you the latest theories, explanations, and insights into the basic workings of the universe.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Rock from Mars: A Detective Story on Two Planets

Why did I love this book?

Politics, ambition, and science collided when NASA announced that a small rock that fell on Antarctica contained tiny fossils of ancient life on Mars. Advance plans for the public report were kept secret while coordinated all the way up through President Bill Clinton. Aides wondered if the great discovery would help his re-election. But after a televised press conference and the subsequent media circus, many qualified scientists disputed the claimed fossils. NASA is still searching for past or present life on Mars.  They will surely take greater care in reaching future conclusions, won’t they? And if you may wonder why an alleged DC sex worker had prior knowledge of the “breakthrough,” read ace Washington Post reporter (now retired) Kathy Sawyer’s brilliant and thorough account.

By Kathy Sawyer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Rock from Mars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this riveting book, acclaimed journalist Kathy Sawyer reveals the deepest mysteries of space and some of the most disturbing truths on Earth. The Rock from Mars is the story of how two planets and the spheres of politics and science all collided at the end of the twentieth century.
It began sixteen million years ago. An asteroid crashing into Mars sent fragments flying into space and, eons later, one was pulled by the Earth’s gravity onto an icy wilderness near the southern pole. There, in 1984, a geologist named Roberta Score spotted it, launching it on a roundabout path…

Book cover of Life With Hubble: An Insider's View of the World’s Most Famous Telescope

Why did I love this book?

Do you recall when the Hubble Space Telescope was launched with supposedly the world’s most perfect mirror, but proved out of focus, a billion-dollar “techno-turkey?” Despite widespread doubts (including mine), it was repaired in space and became arguably the most powerful telescope ever, making extraordinary discoveries about the birth of stars, the age of the universe, what happens when comets smash into Jupiter, and much more. Behind the scenes there were engineering quandaries, inter-agency disputes, and MacGyvering repairs by astronauts. Dave Leckrone, the ultimate insider who worked on Hubble for 33 years, ending as its top Project Scientist, knows what really happened, the “story behind the story,” aided by what must be a photographic memory, incessant notetaking, and one guesses, closely-held Hubble X-files. He tells all of it here.

By David S. Leckrone,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Life With Hubble as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most important scientific and engineering endeavors of our time. It has given humankind the first truly clear view of the heavens and has revolutionized almost every area of modern astronomy. The author of this text, David Leckrone, worked as a project scientist on Hubble for 33 years. From 1992–2009 he was the Senior Project Scientist for Hubble at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. In that role he had an insider’s view of the trials and triumphs of the Hubble mission, including its extraordinary scientific discoveries and the personal journeys of the astronomers…

Book cover of Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth

Why did I love this book?

The first known object from interstellar space, ʻOumuamua, plunged through the solar system and headed out again in 2017. It was seen by telescopes for just 17 days, enough to tell that it wasn’t as the saying goes, a bird, a plane, or Superman. Perhaps it was a space vehicle or other artifact from distant aliens, an older and superior civilization than ours. At least that’s what the brilliant Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb suggests. I think his theory is soundly based on the limited observational data, but that doesn’t make it true, and other astronomers won’t touch aliens with a ten-foot telescope. They offer alternative explanations none of which clearly fit the data but that smack less of science fiction. Inquiring minds should read the book and decide for themselves.

By Avi Loeb,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Extraterrestrial as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'An astronomical Sherlock Holmes' WASHINGTON POST


'Compelling . . . The book is not so much a claim for one object as an argument for a more open-minded approach to science - a combination of humility and wonder' NEW STATESMAN</font>

Harvard's top astronomer takes us inside the mind-blowing story of the first interstellar visitor to our solar system

In late 2017, scientists at a Hawaiian observatory glimpsed a strange object soaring through our inner solar system. Astrophysicist Avi Loeb conclusively showed it was not an asteroid; it was moving too fast along a strange orbit, and leaving…

Book cover of Spacefarers: How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars, and Beyond

Why did I love this book?

I don’t know who will reach Mars first, Elon Musk, NASA astronauts, or Chinese Taikonauts. Whoever does must deal with serious problems of long-duration space flight, including lethal radiation and life support, plus issues of living, breathing, and raising food on Mars or other objects, such as Callisto, Jupiter’s second-largest moon. No natural object in the solar system other than Earth is inhabitable. Chris Wanjek, a science writer with NASA experience and solid knowledge of medical matters and nutrition, writes with humor; he was a contributing joke writer to the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Wanjek advocates terraforming Mars to support human colonists. That means engineering changes in the planet to enable people to live there without resources from Earth. If you’re thinking of relocating from Earth, read Spacefarers first.

By Christopher Wanjek,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Spacefarers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Telegraph Best Book of the Year

A wry and compelling take on the who, how, and why of near-future colonies in space. From bone-whittling microgravity to eye-popping profits, the risks and rewards of space settlement have never been so close at hand.

More than fifty years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, why is there so little human presence in space? Will we ever reach Mars? What will it take to become a multiplanet species, colonizing the solar system and traveling to other stars?

Spacefarers meets these questions head on. While many books have speculated on the possibility of…

Book cover of Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo

Why did I love this book?

When NASA’s manned spaceflight program began, engineers focused on technology to launch men, sustain them in orbit, and eventually take them to the Moon and back. But U.S. Presidents approved the program to improve America’s image, not for scientific purposes. They wanted to counter the successive shocks of the USSR’s first artificial satellite and first person in space. This wasn’t about bragging rights, but to deter emerging nations from choosing communism over democracy. NASA launches welcomed media and US astronauts were sent abroad, guided by the State Department. They gave unscripted speeches, so listeners could relate to them as regular folks. After John Glenn orbited Earth, his Friendship 7 capsule went on tour, drawing 4 million visitors in Bombay alone. Operation Moonglow explains the unspoken politics that drove early NASA.

By Teasel Muir-Harmony,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Operation Moonglow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On July 20th, 1969, over half of the world's population tuned in to witness the first lunar landing, waiting with bated breath as Neil Armstrong ventured outside the cabin door of Apollo 11 and declared "that's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." As the most expensive civilian scientific and technological program in American history, Project Apollo symbolised the unmatched prestige of American space exploration. Yet despite appearances, the project was never just about winning the Space Race, advancing scientific progress, or even conquering the final frontier. Instead, the ambitions of Project Apollo would ultimately reveal…

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