The best books about humans taking the next big step into space

David Lee Summers Author Of The Solar Sea
By David Lee Summers

Who am I?

After watching the moon landings as a child, I've long wondered when humans would visit a world beyond the moon and what that would be like. This led me to explore novels that imagine space travel. What's more, I pursued a career in astronomy so I could do my part to explore worlds beyond the Earth. Exploring the solar system and worlds beyond our solar system raises many questions. Some are practical, like how do we get there? Some involve what we'll learn and how the experience of visiting these worlds will change us. The books I recommend explore these themes from several different perspectives.

I wrote...

The Solar Sea

By David Lee Summers,

Book cover of The Solar Sea

What is my book about?

In the year 2074, Jonathan Jefferson became the last human to set foot on the planet Mars. Nineteen years later, Natalie Freeman violated presidential orders and brokered peace in the Middle East. The year is now 2098. Thomas Quinn discovers particles near Saturn that could provide unlimited energy to Earth. The Quinn Corporation builds a solar sail spacecraft commanded by Jefferson and Freeman to investigate. Along the way, they stop at Mars and Jupiter and find wonders and dangers beyond their imagination. Step aboard the Solar Sail Aristarchus and sail the solar sea.

The books I picked & why

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By Carl Sagan,

Book cover of Contact

Why this book?

Carl Sagan's PBS series Cosmos influenced my decision to pursue a career in astronomy, but I have always been a science fiction fan. When Sagan released a science fiction novel, I knew I needed it. He doesn't disappoint. He roots his story in the real Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and imagines what could happen if we actually did contact life among the stars and they gave us a way to travel to them. I also love that much of the story is set at the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico, where I worked during my senior year of college. His protagonist Ellie Arroway reminds me of many women I've worked with in the field. 

Red Thunder

By John Varley,

Book cover of Red Thunder

Why this book?

Set in the near future, this novel imagines that the Americans and Chinese are racing to get to Mars. Meanwhile, a group of teenagers team up with an astronaut forced to retire in disgrace. One of the teens has invented a new type of drive that might just allow them to beat both governments to Mars. The book is fast-paced, fun, and shows how a team can come together to solve a problem, without ignoring the very real dangers of space travel. It also gives a nod to how technology developed for space travel can help us right here on Earth.

2001: A Space Odyssey

By Arthur C. Clarke,

Book cover of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Why this book?

What if an alien race shepherded humans from hunter-gatherers to space farers? What would be the next step in that process? While speculating on those questions, Clarke gives us a realistic vision of human habitation in Earth orbit, on the moon, and a voyage to Saturn managed by an artificial intelligence. In the background of the novel, tensions build between the United States and Russia. I first read the novel in the early 1980s as the Voyager mission visited Jupiter and Saturn and the Space Shuttle program got underway. At the time, this felt like a tale that could happen. In fact, it still could happen if you imagine a somewhat more distant year in the title.

The Martian Chronicles

By Ray Bradbury,

Book cover of The Martian Chronicles

Why this book?

Ray Bradbury's masterful collection is less a look at how to solve the problem of visiting and colonizing our neighboring planet and more a look at how such an enterprise will affect humans as people. Not only will noble and brave humans go to Mars, but humans with selfish desires. Humans will bring memories of their hometowns and lost loves. Humans will bring their conflicts, and there is a real danger they'll do harm to Mars in the long run. While the book focuses on Mars, Bradbury imagines exploration of other worlds in the solar system. The book comes from a time when we thought there might be canal-building Martians, but that tells us something about ourselves as well.

From the Earth to the Moon

By Jules Verne, Henri de Montaut (illustrator), Louis Mercier (translator)

Book cover of From the Earth to the Moon

Why this book?

Verne's novel about a journey to the moon appeared in 1867, over a century before the first real moon shot. Despite that, Verne gets many details about a trip the moon right, such as the first ship to the moon having a three-man crew, the ship would be built out of aluminum, and the need to launch from a site between 28 degrees north and south latitude. More to the point, he explains why these aspects are important. Verne also knew the limitations of his knowledge. He didn't know how to accomplish a moon launch, but he took advantage of that lapse to satirize America and its love of guns. Verne's novel still stands up as a book ahead of its time.

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