With the recent deaths of John Glenn (the first American to orbit the Earth) and Eugene Cernan (the last man on the moon), it’s a good time to reflect on the contributions of astronauts, as well as where we’re heading from here. If you’re interested in reading more about the history of NASA through the eyes of those we sent into space (or learning more about some of the legendary figures of our recent history), here are 8 memoirs and biographies to have on your radar.
1. Carrying the Fire – Michael Collins; 2. The Last Man on the Moon – Eugene Cernan; 3. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything – Chris Hadfield; 4. Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe – Mike Massimino; 5. Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race – Dave Scott and Alexei Leonov; 6. Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space – Lynn Sherr; 7. Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut – Mike Mullane; 8. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong – James R. Hansen
Swapna Krishna is a freelance writer, editor, and giant space/sci-fi geek.
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Carrying the Fire
Author: Michael Collins
Publisher: Cooper Square Press
Carrying the Fire is widely regarded as the best astronaut memoir of the Apollo era, and for good reason. Best known as the third man on Apollo 11, Michael Collins orbited the moon while his colleagues Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the lunar surface. Collins excels at descriptions of that sheer and utter loneliness, but more than that, this memoir is celebrated because of its honesty. Collins candidly discusses astronaut training, his fellow astronauts, and life at NASA, giving the reader an honest glimpse (rather than the sugar-coated one that so many other books about this era provide) of what it was to be an Apollo astronaut without feeling tawdry.
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The Last Man on the Moon
Author: Eugene Cernan
Publisher: St Martin's Press
Gene Cernan was the commander of Apollo 17, NASA's last lunar flight. Lunar Module Pilot Jack Schmitt entered the Lunar Module first, leaving Cernan a few brief moments alone on the lunar surface, the last man to ever have his booted feet on the lunar surface. This is a great overview of the space program during the Gemini and Apollo years—Cernan is quick and witty, but doesn't descend into too much detail, which makes it great for more casual readers. The excellent documentary of the same name (available on Netflix streaming) is based on this book.
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An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything
Author: Chris Hadfield
Publisher: Hachette Book Group
Part astronaut memoir and part self-help wisdom, Chris Hadfield's book is full of awesome. He frames his narrative by discussing what he learned from his ISS mission, having his videos go viral on YouTube from space, and how his astronaut training influenced his daily life. My favorite part of this book is Hadfield's emphasis on family: He couldn't have accomplished what he has without their support, and he makes it clear over and over again in this book how important they are to him.
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Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Mike Massimino
Publisher: Crown Archetype
You probably know Mike Massimino from his role (playing himeself) on The Big Bang Theory, but he's an accomplished and celebrated astronaut in his own right. Massimino was actually on two Hubble servicing and repair missions, including an incredibly delicate make-it-or-break-it repair for a part never designed to be serviced in space (Massimino recounts the harrowing space walk, including finally having to rip a handle off the telescope with brute force, in this book). More than that, though, Massimino is an unlikely astronaut success story—he grew up in Queens and never expected to leave his borough, much less his planet—and his memoir is absolutely charming.
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Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race
Author: Dave Scott and Alexei Leonov
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
This is actually two autobiographies in one, telling the story of Dave Scott (commander of Apollo 15) and Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space and the commander of the first (cancelled) Russian lunar mission. As a result, this book stands out because it gives us insight into the Russian cosmonaut program, which was incredibly secretive. It doesn't go into too much depth (though it has some fascinating details), and while I wouldn't recommend it for the American side of the story—there are memoirs that do that much better—the account of the American/Russian space race and the cosmonaut memoir are well worth picking this up for.
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Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space
Author: Lynn Sherr
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Sally Ride, who died unexpectedly of cancer in 2012, was a legend to Americans, but who was she behind that myth? That's what journalist Lynn Sherr, who knew Ride personally, tries to suss out in her excellent biography. Sherr explores NASA's male-dominated culture as she charts Ride's career, through her first flight and service on panels investigating the destruction of space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, as well as her passion for STEM education for girls. The world was surprised when it was revealed that she'd been in a happy, committed relationship with a woman for over 25 years, which is a testament to how private the astronaut was. Now, with Sherr's help, we get a peek into her life, her passion, and her brilliance.
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Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut
Author: Mike Mullane
Mike Mullane was selected as an astronaut in the first shuttle class (1978), which also included the first women in the astronaut program. Mullane wasn't used to working side by side with women; he wasn't sure they belonged in the program with him. And that's the reason this memoir is so great: Mullane starts out as quite the chauvinist, yet he recounts how completelyhis views changed after just a few years in the astronaut program. It's great for other reasons too: the vividness of the narrative, Mullane's attention to detail, and the look at what the shuttle program was like in its early days.
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First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong
Author: James R. Hansen
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Neil Armstrong was notoriously private, retiring almost completely from the public eye after his Apollo 11 flight. Not many people got to know the enigmatic moon walker, but James Hansen tries to give readers a fuller picture of the man and the myth in his biography. Speaking with friends, family, and Armstrong himself, Hansen provides a thorough and readable account of Armstrong's life (though if you're not interested in detail, this book may not be for you—the first chapter traces Armstrong's lineage over centuries), and with the news that it's being adapted into a movie, with Ryan Gosling starring, it's the perfect time to pick it up.