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Best books about space travel

By Cameron Boyd • July 12, 2019The Bookish Life

Fifty years ago, this month, two men from planet Earth set foot on another world; a monumental achievement that took the resources of a nation and the combined effort of more than 500,000 people. In honour of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, here are some of the best books to read from those who worked in the early-manned space program. From renowned astronauts to mathematicians, these people ushered us into the new and exciting age of space exploration.

Light This Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard by Neal Thompson

"Yet for all his maddening iciness, people were drawn to him, because just beneath his cold shell was an intelligent, curious man who could be charming, hilarious, warm, inviting, generous, and even sexy."

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On May 5, 1961 naval pilot Alan Shepard became the first American in space and second in history, narrowly missing out to Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who became the first man in space on April 12, 1961. Becoming the second man in space was just a small notch in Shepard’s impressive career. From his days as a fighter pilot in WWII to playing golf on the Moon, Light This Candle covers Shepard’s life in great detail. A highly revered book within the space community, this title is praised for its accuracy and engaging narrative on the brash, complex, and often misunderstood man.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

"The world froze, congealed, in that moment. Jane could no longer calculate the interval before the front doorbell would ring and some competent long-faced figure would appear, some Friend of Widows and Orphans, who would inform her, officially, that Pete was dead."

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To be a great pilot or astronaut you have to have the right stuff. From the great Chuck Yeager to Gus Grissom, Tom Wolfe’s book examines the courage and grit necessary to become truly great at something. The book (and movie of the same name) is another favourite in the space community, and if you can adjust to Wolfe’s writing style you’ll be treated to a hilarious and thrilling journey into the lives of the those who were involved in the early days of the space program. It offers a fresh perspective that doesn’t bog down the reader with heavy technical terms or dry material.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

"For a group of bright and ambitious African American women, diligently prepared for a mathematical career and eager for a crack at the big leagues, Hampton, Virginia, must have felt like the center of the universe."

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Before computers or digital calculators, NASA relied on the brain power of the best mathematicians in the country. Hidden Figures tells the story of the race to put a man on the Moon through the lives of five women who were responsible for calculating launch trajectories and flight paths by hand with pencil and paper. This book beautifully contrasts the exciting cutting-edge work being done at NASA with the harsh realities of racism and persecution endured by some of NASA’s best. An eye-opening story that sheds light on how far we have come since the civil rights movement and how much work there is still to do.

Failure Is Not an Option by Gene Kranz

"Now, three equally brave men were far beyond us in distance, far out in the vast absolute zero world of space, the most deadly and unforgiving environment ever experienced by man."

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Written by the guy that Ed Harris played in Apollo 13, Gene Kranz’s Failure is Not an Option offers an alternative perspective of life at NASA, on the ground from inside Mission Control. As flight director of the Gemini and Apollo programs, Kranz led hundreds of scientists and engineers during some of the most significant events in NASA’s history. Weaving his experiences with stories of trying to find work-life balance, Kranz’s autobiography highlights the hard work performed by those on the ground that often goes unnoticed.

Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluger

"In the brief time they had before pointing the prow of their spacecraft toward the moon, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were not thinking epochal thoughts. They were, for the moment, thinking about not throwing up."

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Before NASA could attempt a lunar landing, they had to be sure the spacecraft could survive the journey to the Moon and land safely back on Earth. Coming off the Apollo 1 disaster that claimed the lives of three astronauts, NASA needed a success (and a big one) to ensure the survival of the space program. In a bold move, NASA reworked the Apollo schedule and bumped the first manned test of the Saturn V rocket to December 21, 1968. Apollo 8 puts readers in the module alongside Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders as they became the first humans in history to leave Earth’s orbit and also the first to set eyes on the Moon. The mission proved to NASA and the world that a lunar landing was not only possible, but imminent.

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey by Michael Collins

“There seem to be two moons now, the one I see in my back yard and the one I remember from up close. Intellectually, I know they are one and the same but emotionally they are separate entities.”

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He may not have walked on the Moon, but that does not diminish his place in history. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are household names, there is the often forgotten astronaut Michael Collins…the Ringo Starr of Apollo 11.

A USAF Test Pilot by training, Collins was selected in the third round of astronaut hiring by NASA in the early sixties. The Apollo mission was designed for three people and trips to the Moon would not have been possible if not for the brave command module pilots, silently orbiting the Moon in isolation, wondering if they would have to make return journey to Earth alone. In Carrying the Fire, Collins recalls his exciting career with humour and fondness, like a grandfather recalling stories of his glory days. Collins captures a certain je ne sais quoi that makes the book a standout in the genre.

First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen

"No tailgate party at any Southeastern Conference football game could match the summer festival preceding the first launch for a Moon landing."

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The household of household names, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, had his pilot’s license before he was able to drive a car. First Man is the authoritative Neil Armstrong biography and the inspiration for the 2018 film of the same name. Extensively researched, James R. Hansen weaves archive records and dozens of interviews, including Armstrong himself, to tell the story of the man behind behind the myth. Despite his extraordinary career, Neil Armstrong lived a modest life, keeping to himself and focusing his efforts on engineering and teaching. First Man is a rare book that humanizes the most famous man in history without undermining his achievements.

Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon by Craig Nelson

"For all of human history, the lunar surface has remained the same, and this condition reminds us how alive the Earth really is in the weather of its atmosphere, the tides of its seas, the seasons of its tilting axes, and the geology of its volcanoes, tectonic plates, and erosion."

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Readers interested in a more technical introduction of the manned space program will find plenty to take from in Craig Nelson’s Rocket Men. This biography of sorts offers readers a broader understanding of the early space program, the history of the arms race of the Cold War, and the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Sourced from over 23,000 NASA archive documents, dozens of interviews, and hundreds of declassified CIA documents, Rocket Men is a great introduction to new readers of this era in history.

Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11 by James Donovan

"Although the first few Gemini missions had been successes, and the United States was seen as ahead in the space race, CIA spy plane photographs showed that the Soviets were building a monster rocket—one that could only be aiming at the moon."

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James Donovan’s Shoot for the Moon gives readers a detailed and entertaining history of the space program and the monumental challenges involved sending three men to the Moon. Donovan shares stories not only from the astronauts, but from the thousands of support staff and NASA employees responsible for building the rocket and ensuring a successful mission and a safe return home. At almost 500 pages, this book is an impressive account, but don’t let its size discourage you. Recommended by Apollo 11’s Michael Collins, this title is a great introduction to the NASA space program and the events leading up to July 1969.

Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey to the Moon by Al Worden

"Our first surface experiment was complete, and we’d literally changed the face of the moon."

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Astronaut Al Worden was the command module pilot aboard Apollo 15. Much like his Apollo 11 counterpart Michael Collins, Worden orbited the Moon in complete isolation for over three days. As part of the return journey to Earth, Worden performed an “EVA” aka spacewalk. The first and only walk of its kind, Al Worden is the only human in history to see both the Moon and Earth together from outer space. Falling to Earth is a very personal and honest account of life as an Apollo astronaut from one of history’s lesser known Moonwalkers.

The Last Man on the Moon: Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space by Eugene and Donald A. Davis

"Enriched by a singular event that is larger than life, I no longer have the luxury of being ordinary. To stand on the lunar surface and look back at our Earth creates such a personal sense of awe that even Alan Shepard wept at the view."

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Apollo 17 was one of the most interesting missions in the Apollo program. Lunar Pilot, Harrison Schmitt (the first scientist on the Moon) and Eugene Cernan spent over 75 hours living and working on the lunar surface. They performed experiments and collected over 250lbs of samples for study on Earth. The Last Man on the Moon offers readers a comprehensive history of the Apollo program after the infamous first landing. With personality and an approachable narrative, Cernan takes readers on a firsthand journey to NASA’s last mission on the Moon.

For more blog content, read Chris Hadfield's favourite non-fiction books.

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