The Best Books On The Soviet Space Program And The Space Race

The Books I Picked & Why

Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon

By James Harford

Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon

Why this book?

Korolev is one of the true architects of the 20th century and the technologically advanced world we live in today, yet most people in the West don’t have any idea who he is. A designer and engineer in the Soviet hierarchy and survivor of Stalin’s purges, he was a remarkable individual who united various small Soviet design bureaus to create the illusion of military-industrial organization that was equal and opposite in might to that of the USA. That was for the purposes of his masters; Korolev really did just want to put a Russian on the Moon. Harford’s book gives a sense of the visionary that lurked just beneath the surface of the canny political operator who changed history. The Russians led the world into space, but it was Korolev who led the Russians there.


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Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974

By Asif A. Siddiqi, Nasa History Office

Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974

Why this book?

This really is the bible for anyone seeking to know about the USSR’s Space Program in detail. Siddiqi’s research is forensic and utterly exhaustive and includes all manner of original Russian language sources as well as interviews with many a Soviet space veteran and scholar. He tells the story of the nascent Soviet space effort and its development into a vast project that shaped the world; it includes the story of every major character and player involved. It’s absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in the other team that played in the Space Race.


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Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle

By Colin Burgess, Chris Dubbs

Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle

Why this book?

This book came out right after I completed Laika, but I wish I’d been able to use it in my research (although Dubbs’ earlier book, Space Dogs: Pioneers in Space Travel was extremely useful).

If Siddiqi’s book focuses more on the human journey behind the Soviet space program, this is a parallel account of some other unwitting (and undersung) pioneers: the experimental animals who were sent ahead of humankind. We share this world with animals and they were dispatched on our behalf to test the deep waters of the heavens also. It was thought - correctly - that if they could survive, so could we. Laika may very well be the most famous of these pathfinders (at least beyond Russia), but there were many more. This book is a history of all those other animal astronauts launched into space both prior to Laika and aboard more recent missions.


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Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space

By Deborah Cadbury

Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space

Why this book?

Space Race was originally a companion book to a BBC docudrama from the mid-2000s and as such shares all the climactic page-turning paciness you’d expect from such an account. While it doesn’t share the deep detail of some of the books mentioned above, it’s an illuminating and highly enjoyable overview of the historical events that culminated in the Americans landing on the Moon in Apollo 11 in 1969.


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Full Moon

By Michael Light, Andrew Chaikin

Full Moon

Why this book?

This visual record is compiled from several different Apollo missions from thousands of archival NASA images to form one complete photographic trip to the Moon and back. It’s a testament to an event that for many has become something like mythology or folklore, but here’s the visceral truth. It really happened and here the reader can get a sense of what one of those journeys in a rocket-powered tin can was like - from Earth to Luna and back again. The lunar surface is a place of “magnificent desolation” (as Buzz Aldrin put it), a genuinely alien place - and yet it is our sister world. This powerful sequential narrative shows us how close it is. It’s probably one of the most awe-inspiring books in my personal collection of books about space.


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