The best books on human spaceflight

Many authors have picked their favorite books about human spaceflight and why they recommend each book.

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The Calculating Stars

By Mary Robinette Kowal,

Book cover of The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel

This is somewhat science fiction, but more of an alternate historical fiction novel. This is the first in the Lady Astronaut series. It starts off with a bang, literally, when a meteorite hits Earth in 1952. This meteorite destroys much of the east coast and sets off a ticking time bomb where Earth will no longer be habitable in a matter of decades. Now there is a full effort to colonize space so humans can find another home. Women who were once thought not able to become astronauts are now able to vie for spots in the Astronaut Corps along with their male counterparts. I love science history and reading about the women “calculators” of this area (Katherine Johnson, Rear Adm Grace Hopper, etc.). So if there’s a space adventure set in this era, count me in!


Who am I?

Science Fiction was just something that we did as a family growing up. We’d always gather to watch various iterations of Star Trek as family. Family movie nights usually consisted of whatever science fiction titles the local movie rental place would have on hand, which usually meant watching a lot of B-movie junk, but it was fun. It might sound silly, but I think growing up with all those science fiction movies and books really informed my career choice, electrical engineer. You see, in these movies and books the women just got the job done. I thought, why can’t I do it too?? 


I wrote...

Project Eleutheria: The Singularity Wars

By Paige Daniels,

Book cover of Project Eleutheria: The Singularity Wars

What is my book about?

Lyvia Bax-Dupree just wants to do her job as independent intergalactic transporter and maybe have enough money for a beer left over at the end of a run. But her ship is on its last leg, one of the Keeper’s goons just stole her last drone, and her best friend, Heidi, an android, is in dire need of repairs. So when a customer offers a fare that seems too good to be true, she has no choice but to go against her instincts, and accept it. Lyvia soon finds that completing this job is the least of her worries and she must reconnect with her estranged husband and her outlaw parents if she wants to survive. But enduring her family might prove to be more challenging than living through the biggest conspiracy the galaxy has seen.

The High Ground

By Melinda M. Snodgrass,

Book cover of The High Ground

In most space opera novels, humans are the absolute best. Whether they began the government they belong to, or came to it later, they’re special in a way that makes the universe better. Melinda Snodgrass’ The High Ground is different. In her series, humans went into space, met aliens, and conquered nearly everyone they met. Now the aristocrats of the Solar League spend their time on balls and dancing, while in the dark, a new menace approaches. This is an action series, but the heart of the story is the relationship between Mercedes, eldest daughter of the Emperor, and Tracy, the common-born son of a tailor, thrust together by circumstance and torn apart by the realities of their society.  It’s a great series, full of adventure, political infighting, and humans—some of them, anyway—learning to be better people. 


Who am I?

I’ve loved stories of space, and especially space operas, since I was a child watching Star Trek reruns with my dad. I love the ways very different cultures can work together toward a common goal, but also the many ways those cultures can butt into each other and cause friction. While you can certainly tell stories about that kind of thing on Earth, science fiction lets you tell it writ large, without smacking any particular human group over the head with their differences. I love the way you can tell a story about humans today by focusing on struggles between alien cultures that aren’t a part of our everyday experience. 


I wrote...

The Widening Gyre

By Michael R. Johnston,

Book cover of The Widening Gyre

What is my book about?

Eight hundred years ago, the Zhen Empire discovered a broken human colony ship drifting on the fringes of their space. The Zhen gave the humans a place to live. But it hasn’t been easy. For hundreds of years, human languages and history were outlawed subjects, as the Zhen tried to mold humans into their image. Earth and its cultures are mostly forgotten, little more than legends.

Tajen Hunt, former human soldier, is now a freelance starship pilot. When his estranged brother is murdered, Tajen discovers that Imperial agents killed him. Betrayed by the Empire he used to serve, Tajen gathers a crew and sets out to finish his brother’s quest—to find the long-lost human homeworld, Earth. What he finds there will change everything.

Failure Is Not an Option

By Gene Kranz,

Book cover of Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond

This New York Times bestselling memoir of a veteran NASA flight director, tells riveting stories from the early days of the Mercury program through Apollo 11 (the moon landing) and Apollo 13, for both of which Kranz was flight director. As a child of the Apollo era, I was fascinated by the inside story of the moon landing and riveted by how Kranz and his team overcame the impossible and turned a near disaster into a triumph of ingenuity and determination.


Who am I?

Nick Albert is British, but for close to 20-years, he has lived in a ramshackle farmhouse in the rural west of Ireland with his wife and several unruly but affectionate dogs. He's the author of the bestselling comedy memoir series, Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds, and the twisty thriller Hunting the Wrecking Crew. Nick's greatest pleasure in life has always been to make people laugh. Although outwardly capable and in control of his life, Nick considers himself to be the poster boy for the saying, "If it can go wrong, it will!" Therefore, he has a good eye for inspiring books about dealing with unexpected events.


I wrote...

Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds: Living the Dream in Rural Ireland

By Nick Albert,

Book cover of Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds: Living the Dream in Rural Ireland

What is my book about?

Nick and Lesley Albert yearn to leave the noise, stress and pollution of modern Britain and move to the countryside, where the living is good, the air sweet, with space for their dogs to run free. Suddenly out of work and soon to be homeless, they set off in search of a new life in Ireland, a country they had never before visited. As their adventure began to unfold, not everything went according to plan. If finding their dream house was difficult, buying it seemed almost impossible. How would they cope with banks that didn't want customers, builders who didn't need work, or the complex issue of where to buy some chickens?

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

By Chris Hadfield,

Book cover of An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me about Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything

“Weightlessness is like a new toy you get to unwrap every day, again and again — and it’s a great reminder, too, that you need to savor the small stuff, not just sweat it.” One of many lessons learned offered by the Canadian astronaut (yes, the one who sang a creative version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”) and flew on both the American Shuttle and Russian Soyuz. Like other next-generation astronauts influenced by the Apollo era, Chris reveals a non-jargon view about training and spaceflight with international crews. As Commander of the International Space Station during Expedition 34/35, he writes, “… don’t assume you know everything, and try to be ready for anything” is wisdom that can be related to here on Earth and up there in space.” 


Who am I?

I’ve followed the history of space exploration since I was a kid! Although I spent decades photographing assignments in exotic international locations and co-authored visually driven books on astronomical phenomena, my dream was to photograph in NASA’s restricted space exploration work cultures. Never giving up, I achieved unprecedented access into the shuttle mission that saved the Hubble Space Telescope and, for more than a decade, with the New Horizons team that first explored the Pluto system. I’ve been published in media like Smithsonian, Nat Geo, WIRED, New Scientist, and NPR. Honored that my photographs of astronaut space tools are in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum.   


I wrote...

Infinite Worlds: The People and Places of Space Exploration

By Michael Soluri,

Book cover of Infinite Worlds: The People and Places of Space Exploration

What is my book about?

Infinite Worlds - the People and Places of Space Exploration is a visually driven, beautifully designed, and printed coffee table book that reveals the sublime art of human and robotic space exploration. With extraordinary access over several years into the restricted, behind-the-scenes work cultures of 3 NASA Spaceflight Centers, Michael photographically documented the craft and humanity that frames the team effort behind the historic last shuttle mission that essentially saved the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition, his observations are woven between 18 insightful first-person essays by some of the NASA astronaut crew, engineers, shuttle techs, and scientists who worked on this historic mission. Mercury astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, wrote the introduction.

Into That Silent Sea

By Francis French, Colin Burgess,

Book cover of Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965

This book is written by two dear friends who are the reason I am a published author myself. However, I don’t recommend it just because they are close to me, but because it is a wonderful book that kicked off the entire Outward Odyssey series, of which my book is a part. This magnificent book set a new standard for historical work on space exploration by focusing on the people instead of the hardware. The stories you’ll read here will show you why we are who we are and why humans will always strive for the unknown.


Who am I?

My passion for science and technology is the fault of my father, who first took me to Edwards AFB when I was five years old. He would pawn me off on a colleague to keep me busy while he would do the work he needed to do. That meant that I got to wander around the hangars, watching all the fascinating things happening to take the X-15 into space, and getting to meet the people who made it all happen. That passion spilled over into science fiction as well, along with the idea of trying to discover what the universe was not only like, but what it could be.


I wrote...

The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings Into Space

By Michelle Evans,

Book cover of The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings Into Space

What is my book about?

With the Soviet Union’s launch of the first satellite in 1957, the Cold War soared to new heights as Americans feared losing the race into space. This book tells the story of the hypersonic X-15, the winged rocket ship that met this challenge and opened the way into human-controlled spaceflight.

This aircraft held the world’s altitude record for 41 years and still has no equal to match its speed of more than 4,500 mph. Beyond this are the stories of the men who guided it into space, and all those who kept it flying. This is the X-15 rocket plane, the first piloted and winged vehicle to exit Earth’s atmosphere and make a controlled re-entry.

Space Chronicles

By Neil Degrasse Tyson,

Book cover of Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier

During his speech at the World Government Summit 2018 in Dubai, Neil deGrasse Tyson confessed that his original title for the book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier was Failure to Launch: The Dreams and Delusions of Space Enthusiasts. The publisher rejected this title. I would have purchased this book either way, but the original title is on the mark. Tyson is one of my greatest sources of inspiration because he is so clear-eyed about practical challenges in space travel: from the physical and biological to the political and philosophical. Space Chronicles is one of many fine entry points into his brilliant mind.


Who am I?

I am an author and freelance health and science writer with expertise is in health, nutrition, medicine, environmental sciences, physics, and astronomy. I try to address all these topics with healthy skepticism, realism, and a sense of humanity and humor. I am the author of three books: Spacefarers (2020), Food At Work (2005), and Bad Medicine (2003). I also have written more than 500 newspaper, magazine, and web articles for periodicals such as The Washington Post and Smithsonian Magazine. My upcoming book concerns the engineering of the NASA James Webb Space Telescope (MIT Press, 2022).


I wrote...

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

What is my book about?

More than 50 years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, humans still have not settled on the Moon, let alone done anything remotely interesting in low-earth orbit aside from raising ants on the International Space Station and doing zero-gravity flips for school children. Why? Because space activities are difficult, expensive, and nearly pointless. Yet this is getting easier and cheaper. The book Spacefarers explains the profound challenges and practical limitations of space habitation as we search for a solid reason not merely to visit space but to live on the Moon, Mars, and beyond. A must-read before you start your migration to the stars.

Digital Apollo

By David A. Mindell,

Book cover of Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight

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.


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.

Spacefarers

By Michael J. Neufeld,

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

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.


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.

Bookshelves related to human spaceflight