The best space history books that read like novels

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been obsessed with space exploration since watching the Apollo missions as a child. As an adult, I devoured every book I could find on the subject while nursing my own desire to create “what if” stories that were not too far removed from present day. A career in managing flight operations gave me some appreciation of the technical challenges and personality types, experiences which I’ve extrapolated into my fiction. Some of my novels have been described as “Airport for the 21st century” and “Apollo 13 meets The Hunt for Red October.” The books on this list were the foundation of my early research and remain favorites to this day.


I wrote...

Frozen Orbit

By Patrick Chiles,

Book cover of Frozen Orbit

What is my book about?

Set to embark on NASA’s first expedition to the outer planets, the crew of the spacecraft Magellan learns someone else has beaten them by a few decades: a top-secret Soviet project codenamed Arkangel.

During their long race to the Kuiper Belt, astronauts Jack Templeton and Traci Keene must unwind a decades-old mystery buried in the pages of a dead cosmonaut’s journal. The solution will challenge their beliefs about the nature of humanity and force the astronauts to confront the question of existence itself. And the final answer lies at the edge of the Solar System, waiting to change everything.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts

Patrick Chiles Why did I love this book?

I loved this book because it reignited my childhood obsession with the Apollo program and filled in many of the gaps in my understanding. Besides the technical hurdles which had to be overcome, it illustrates the challenges of a crash project populated by type-A personalities.

Beginning with the Apollo 1 fire and its aftermath, it offers engaging insights into the planning, the people, and the execution of each mission. The chapter devoted to Apollo 12 is especially entertaining, as Pete Conrad was one of the most colorful characters in the program and left an indelible stamp on their mission (propeller beanies and flying naked, for starters). It reads like three best friends on the road trip of a lifetime, which I suppose is exactly what it was.

By Andrew Chaikin,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked A Man on the Moon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'IMPRESSIVE AND ILLUMINATING' TOM HANKS

This is the definitive account of the heroic Apollo programme.

When astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their 'giant leap for mankind' across a ghostly lunar landscape, they were watched by some 600 million people on Earth 240,000 miles away.

Drawing on hundreds of hours of in-depth interviews with the astronauts and mission personnel, this is the story of the twentieth century's greatest human achievement, minute-by-minute, through the eyes of those who were there.

From the tragedy of the fire in Apollo 1 during a simulated launch, Apollo 8's bold pioneering flight around the…


Book cover of Rocket Boys

Patrick Chiles Why did I love this book?

The basis for the movie October Sky, this isn’t an account of the space program so much as it is a study of the types of people drawn to it, in particular a young man in 1950s West Virginia striving for something more than a life in the coal mines. The culture shock of Sputnik sets him and his friends off into increasingly dangerous—and often hilarious—experiments in amateur rocketry.

Set against an awkward adolescence in a small coal town, it’s a vivid illustration of the obstacles that must be overcome to break free of the cycles life can impose. The screen adaptation takes some liberties, most notably with Hickam’s father. The book portrays him as being cautiously supportive, if understandably skeptical, of his teenage son’s unlikely obsession.

By Homer Hickam,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Rocket Boys as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Previously published in paperback as October Sky.

Three years in the life of Homer 'Sonny' Hickam, from the moment he sees the Sputnik satellite overhead in West Virginia to his successful launch of a prizewinning rocket.

In 1957, Coalwood, West Virginia, was a town the post-war boom never quite reached, and dominated by the black steel towers of the mine. For fourteen-year-old Homer 'Sonny' Hickam there are only two routes in life: a college football scholarship, or a life underground. But from the moment the town turns out to watch the world's first space satellite, Sputnik, as it passes overhead,…


Book cover of Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys

Patrick Chiles Why did I love this book?

Written by the command module pilot of the first lunar landing mission, this book appeals to me if only for the author’s lament that “the space program needed more English majors.” Terrific, where do I sign up?

Of the many astronaut memoirs, this is by far the most eloquently written. The late Mr. Collins’ command of the language and narrative skill provides a deeply personal glimpse into experiences few humans have had, in particular being left alone to orbit the moon while his Apollo 11 crewmates landed on its surface. Narratives of hair-raising spacewalks on the Gemini 10 mission and the comparatively mundane aspects of navigating his way through a complex government program are all equally engrossing.

By Michael Collins,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Carrying the Fire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Reissued with a new preface by the author on the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 journey to the moon

The years that have passed since Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins piloted the Apollo 11 spacecraft to the moon in July 1969 have done nothing to alter the fundamental wonder of the event: man reaching the moon remains one of the great events―technical and spiritual―of our lifetime.

In Carrying the Fire, Collins conveys, in a very personal way, the drama, beauty, and humor of that adventure. He also traces his development from his first flight experiences in the…


Book cover of Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13

Patrick Chiles Why did I love this book?

By now, nearly everyone has seen Apollo 13, the movie based on this gripping account by the mission’s commander. The book delves into both the events themselves and the background of the mission in ways a movie cannot, including an unlikely event during the spacecraft’s assembly, which ultimately led to the oxygen tank explosion.

Of all the hard-charging, high-achieving astronauts, Mr. Lovell was perhaps the most “normal” of the group, which I think is illustrated by the fact that he was one of the few to get through the Apollo program with his marriage intact. His humanity, intelligence, and determination shine forth in this account, illustrating what it took to survive their ordeal.

By Jim Lovell, Jeffrey Kluger,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Lost Moon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In April 1970, during the glory days of the Apollo space program, NASA sent Navy Captain Jim Lovell and two other astronauts on America's fifth mission to the moon. Only fifty-five hours into the flight of Apollo 13, disaster struck: a mysterious explosion rocked the ship, and soon its oxygen and power began draining away. Commander Lovell and his crew watched in alarm as the cockpit grew darker, the air grew thinner, and the instruments winked out one by one. The full story of the moon shot that almost ended in catastrophe has never been told, but now Lovell and…


Book cover of Flight: My Life in Mission Control

Patrick Chiles Why did I love this book?

This is an enlightening memoir from the founder and driving force of Mission Control at the beginning of the space program. Kraft’s account offers a more complete understanding of this era, with behind-the-scenes perspectives which are no less gripping than those of the more celebrated astronauts.

He deftly illustrates the tension of making rapid-fire decisions with life-or-death consequences, often with incomplete information. While both controllers and astronauts had strong technical backgrounds, and equally strong personalities, flight directors required a different mindset which Mr. Kraft likens to conducting an orchestra. His accounts of certain events, when juxtaposed against those of the astronauts involved, demonstrate why the people doing the flying are not necessarily the ones who should be running the program—which can be a staggeringly hard sell when pitted against forceful characters hailed as national heroes.

By Christopher Kraft,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In his New York Times bestseller, Chris Kraft delivers an unforgettable account of his life in Mission Control. The first NASA flight director, Kraft emerged from boyhood in small-town America to become a visionary who played an integral role in what would become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It's all here, from the legendary Mercury missions that first sent Americans into space through the Gemini and Apollo missions that landed them on the moon. The great heroes of space are here, too-Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Buzz Aldrin-leading the space race that would change the…


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I Am Taurus

By Stephen Palmer,

Book cover of I Am Taurus

Stephen Palmer

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Philosopher Scholar Liberal Reader Musician

Stephen's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

The constellation we know as Taurus goes all the way back to cave paintings of aurochs at Lascaux. This book traces the story of the bull in the sky, a journey through the history of what has become known as the sacred bull.

Each of the sections is written from the perspective of the mythical Taurus, from the beginning at Lascaux to Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, and elsewhere. This is not just a history of the bull but also a view of ourselves through the eyes of the bull, illustrating our pre-literate use of myth, how the advent of writing and the urban revolution changed our view of ourselves, and how even bullfighting in Spain is a variation on the ancient sacrifice of the sacred bull.

I Am Taurus

By Stephen Palmer,

What is this book about?

The constellation we know as Taurus goes all the way back to cave paintings of aurochs at Lascaux. In I Am Taurus, author Stephen Palmer traces the story of the bull in the sky, starting from that point 19,000 years ago - a journey through the history of what has become known as the sacred bull. Each of the eleven sections is written from the perspective of the mythical Taurus, from the beginning at Lascaux to Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Greece, Spain and elsewhere. This is not just a history of the bull but also an attempt to see ourselves through…


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