The best books on astronauts and cosmonauts

Who am I?

My interest in space history began with stamp collecting and continued much later with visits to Russian archives, Star City, and aerospace companies, and interviews with cosmonauts and space engineers, who often told their personal stories for the first time. As a historian of science and technology teaching at MIT, I was especially interested in cases where technology and society intertwined: cosmonauts and engineers lobbied politicians with competing agendas, personal rivalries tore apart ambitious projects, and pervasive secrecy perpetuated public myths and private counter-myths. My digging into tensions and arguments that shaped the Soviet space program resulted in two books, Soviet Space Mythologies and Voices of the Soviet Space Program.

I wrote...

Soviet Space Mythologies: Public Images, Private Memories, and the Making of a Cultural Identity (Russian and East European Studies)

By Slava Gerovitch,

Book cover of Soviet Space Mythologies: Public Images, Private Memories, and the Making of a Cultural Identity (Russian and East European Studies)

What is my book about?

Soviet propaganda, which widely mythologized the heroism of cosmonauts and the skill of engineers, faced a contradiction: were Soviet cosmonauts heroic pilots steering their craft through the dangers of space, or were they mere passengers riding safely aboard perfect automated machines? Under the technical issue of division of function between human and machine this book uncovers a social drama of rivalry of cosmonauts and engineers. Not only were the cosmonauts forced to fit into the automated control system of their spacecraft, but they also had to follow the preset agenda of the state propaganda machine, publicly representing an idealized human face of the communist regime. Pushing back, the cosmonauts tried to grasp control over their space missions, as well as over their public role.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight

Why did I love this book?

The book interweaves the human story of risk and decision-making and the technological account of successes and failures of onboard computing in the Apollo program. It makes a fascinating comparison with the parallel story of techno-human systems in the Soviet space program explored in my book. While Soviet cosmonauts routinely served as a backup for automatics, American astronauts successfully fought to seize control of their missions from the computer and to perform manually each of the lunar landings.

By David A. Mindell,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The incredible story of how human pilots and automated systems worked together to achieve the ultimate achievement in flight—the lunar landings of NASA’s Apollo program
As Apollo 11’s Lunar Module descended toward the moon under automatic control, a program alarm in the guidance computer’s software nearly caused a mission abort. Neil Armstrong responded by switching off the automatic mode and taking direct control. He stopped monitoring the computer and began flying the spacecraft, relying on skill to land it and earning praise for a triumph of human over machine. In Digital Apollo, engineer-historian David Mindell takes this famous moment as…

Book cover of The Cosmonaut Who Couldn't Stop Smiling

Why did I love this book?

This book explores the Soviet efforts to turn a living person into a propaganda icon that would embody and transmit communist values around the world. While Gagarin’s open and warm personality did resonate with wide audiences, he felt increasingly uneasy about his assigned public role, which forced him to lie, distort, and pretend. 

I find this well-documented story an excellent illustration of the Soviet use of cosmonauts in the propaganda machine: to function effectively as propaganda tools, the cosmonauts had to fulfill ritual public functions at the expense of training for new flights, and to swap their professional identity for the role of an ideologically engaged public speaker.

By Andrew L. Jenks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Cosmonaut Who Couldn't Stop Smiling as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Let's go!" With that, the boyish, grinning Yuri Gagarin launched into space on April 12, 1961, becoming the first human being to exit Earth's orbit. The twenty-seven-year-old lieutenant colonel departed for the stars from within the shadowy world of the Soviet military-industrial complex. Barbed wires, no-entry placards, armed guards, false identities, mendacious maps, and a myriad of secret signs had hidden Gagarin from prying outsiders-not even his friends or family knew what he had been up to. Coming less than four years after the Russians launched Sputnik into orbit, Gagarin's voyage was cause for another round of capitalist shock and…

Book cover of Inventing the American Astronaut

Why did I love this book?

Hersch applies the sober, decidedly unsentimental, and almost brutally incisive analytical framework of labor conflict and professionalization to a whole range of issues negotiated within NASA—from the criteria for astronaut selection to the degree of spacecraft automation to mission programming. Each of these issues emerges loaded with interests of various professional groups—test pilots, military pilots, scientists, engineers, and managers. The astronaut profession is born through a series of clashes of professional cultures, each competing for influence within the US space program.

In my view, comparing this story with the parallel developments on the Soviet side reveals drastic differences. While the pilots-cosmonauts found themselves almost completely at the mercy of powerful space engineers, the astronauts skillfully used their symbolic capital to gain influence on decision-making at NASA.

By Matthew H. Hersch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Inventing the American Astronaut as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Who were the men who led America's first expeditions into space? Soldiers? Daredevils? The public sometimes imagined them that way: heroic military men and hot-shot pilots without the capacity for doubt, fear, or worry. However, early astronauts were hard-working and determined professionals - 'organization men' - who were calm, calculating, and highly attuned to the politics and celebrity of the Space Race. Many would have been at home in corporate America - and until the first rockets carried humans into space, some seemed to be headed there. Instead, they strapped themselves to missiles and blasted skyward, returning with a smile…

Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space

By Betty Ann Holtzmann Kevles,

Book cover of Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space

Why did I love this book?

Based on extensive interviews with women astronauts and cosmonauts, this remarkable book traces the thorny path of women into the elite corps of space travelers. This book made me realize that, despite all ideological differences between the Cold War superpowers, the human spaceflight programs in both the Soviet Union and the United States were woefully similar in their cult of masculinity and competitive spirit. Kevles skillfully combines her sharp analysis of gender attitudes in different national space programs and historical periods with a poignant human story of women’s struggle for the right to fly into space.

By Betty Ann Holtzmann Kevles,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The fascinating-and untold-tale of space-faring women, from Valentina Tereshkova to Kalpana Chawla. When we first blasted our way into space a generation ago, we did so with men from each of the superpowers. Women were excluded from one of the most exciting adventures of the century-and not because they weren't up to the challenge. In 1962, three accomplished female pilots took their case before the U.S. Congress, but they were dismissed as unpatriotic. We were in a Cold War-a space race-and NASA had already chosen the Mercury Seven to represent America. In Almost Heaven , acclaimed writer Bettyann Kevles gives…

Book cover of Spacefarers: Images of Astronauts and Cosmonauts in the Heroic Era of Spaceflight

Why did I love this book?

I was fascinated by how much cultural representations of astronauts and cosmonauts reveal about our societies in this rich and diverse volume. US pop culture is analyzed through astronaut gender representations in TV series, different portrayals of pilots-astronauts and scientists-astronauts in the movies, and the use of American frontier mythology tropes. Comparing representations of spacefarers in different national cultures shows that even glossy magazines carried an ideological message: Soviets traced their achievements to the advantages of socialism, while Americans touted liberty and openness. Finally, cultural attitudes are revealed by media attention to the changing professional, gender, and race demographics of the astronaut corps in the 1980s. In particular, the media treated women astronauts differently from men by emphasizing their feminine traits and family life instead of focusing on space work.

By Michael J. Neufeld,

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?

The recent 50th anniversaries of the first human spaceflights by the Soviet Union and the United States, and the 30th anniversary of the launching of the first U.S. Space Shuttle mission, have again brought to mind the pioneering accomplishments of the first quarter century of humans in space. Historians, political scientists and others have extensively examined the technical, programmatic and political history of human spaceflight from the 1960s to the 1980s, but work is only beginning on the social and cultural history of the pioneering era. One rapidly developing area of recent scholarship is the examination of the images of…

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