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

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

The Books I Picked & Why

The Rock from Mars: A Detective Story on Two Planets

By Kathy Sawyer

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

Why 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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

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

By David S. Leckrone

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

Why 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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth

By Avi Loeb

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

Why 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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

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

By Christopher Wanjek

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

Why 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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo

By Teasel Muir-Harmony

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

Why 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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists