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What One Book – The U.S. Space Program

courtesy of Bookmarks Magazine

The following experts recommend books, fiction and non-fiction alike, for those of you who plan to colonize another planet – or just want to read about it.

Roger D. Launius


Roger D. Launius is chair of the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Between 1990 and 2002, he served as chief historian of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He has written or edited more than 20 books on aerospace history, including Critical Issues in the History of Spaceflight (2006); Space: A Journey to Our Future (2004); Imagining Space: Achievements, Possibilities, Projections, 1950-2050 (2001); and Frontiers of Space Exploration (1998; 2004).

Probably the most sophisticated application of an exploration imperative to spaceflight, this book by the premier American space scientist of the latter 20th century lays out a rationale for human colonization of the solar system. Sagan believes we should leave this planet because we can. He writes that as far as we know, this is the first time that a species has become able to journey to the planets and the stars. Our leverage on the future is high just now.

In his significant analysis of the close relationship between popular culture and public decisions in space-flight, McCurdy finds that while spaceflight seems to be generally popular with Americans, it is not a high priority for most. He shows how closely the dominant trends in science fiction literature and film, as well as public perceptions, reinforce actual events in spaceflight and fundamentally affect public support. While a close relationship during the 1950s and 1960s between reality and perceptions created an expectation that supported the lunar landing program, the paths of public perceptions and actual events have diverged since then.

This Pulitzer Prize-winning book analyzes the race to the moon in the 1960s. McDougall asserts that Apollo prompted the space program to stress engineering over science, competition over cooperation, civilian over military management, and international prestige over practical applications. Juxtaposing the American effort of Apollo with the Soviet space program and the dreams of such designers as Sergei P. Korolev to land a Soviet cosmonaut on the moon, McDougall explains how the United States recreated the same type of command technocracy that the Soviets had instituted in its effort to reach the moon.


Michael Light


Michael Light is a San Francisco artist and bookmaker. In 1999 he published Full Moon, a collection of photographic images from NASA’s Apollo archive, which was published in 12 editions worldwide. His most recent visual book, 100 Suns, based on historical images of U.S. atmospheric nuclear testing, was released in 2003 in six editions.

An eminently readable and gripping history of Apollo, Chaikin’s thick labor of love remains the definitive tome on the subject, and his extensive personal interviews with each astronaut give immediacy and humanity to his evenhanded overview. Navigating among the large egos of Apollo (including Neil Armstrong delicately taking the Lunar Module of Apollo 11 down into the lunar boulder fields), Chaikin suffuses his book with such enthusiasm that the reader becomes, for a while, the proverbial moonwalker.

This remains my favorite biography because Collins is such a skilled writer and translates the extraordinary nature of space travel with rare sensitivity and restraint. Perhaps one of the reasons Fire shines so brightly is that Collins remained behind in the solitude of lunar orbit to pilot the Command Module while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the moon’s surface — and fame. If you’ve ever wondered what passes through the mind of a sensitive being on the far side of the moon, one who could have well been a professional writer or a poet rather than a test pilot and astronaut, stop here.

The Right Stuff needs no introduction, but as a historical page-turner and cultural meditation on much of what has made (and continues to make), for better or worse, the United States, Wolfe’s 1979 effort is indispensable. I much prefer it to Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the MoonRight Stuff is revealing, sometimes in a critical way but without ever being snide. And it’s a hell of a ride: Wolfe writes like he has Jet-A fuel for breakfast and pure hydrogen and oxygen for dinner.

Dennis R. Jenkins


Dennis R. Jenkins is a consulting engineer in Cape Canaveral, Florida. His many aerospace history books include
Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System� The First 100 Missions (2001), which
recounts the more than half-century history of lifting-reentry spacecraft, and Return-to-Flight: Space Shuttle Discovery(2006), which documents the STS-114 mission of 2005.

This book contains beautiful photographs along with personal stories from 77 astronauts who have flown on the Space Shuttle. Neither an exhaustive history of the program nor a technical reference work, it offers fascinating insights into the experiences of people who fly into space. Unlike many astronaut biographies, these are short enough to be entertaining. Reading Space Shuttle is as close as most of us will ever get to flying aboard the most marvelous engineering achievement of the twentieth century.[

Long and detailed, brilliant in some places and flawed in others, this book captures the early space age like few others. Burrows succeeds admirably in explaining the political, technical, scientific, economic, and cultural history of both the manned and unmanned space programs, weaving in Soviet experiences as counterpoints to the American ones. The book provides a fresh perspective on the space race and is an excellent primer for anybody interested in space. Perhaps its worst flaw is reusing the title of an earlier work in the popular NASA History Series.

I am not much of a fan of biographies, but Hanson has done an excellent job in portraying a difficult subject. The book may be a bit too detailed for most readers, since it covers the complete Armstrong, not just the astronaut Armstrong. Yet Hansen depicts the man as no other biographer has dared. Perhaps there is too much discussion of Armstrong’s childhood, but his background is essential to understanding the later engineer, test pilot, and astronaut. The moon landing was not the center of Armstrong’s life, and it is not the center of this book. But if you want a complete understanding of one of the most recognized human beings in history, First Man will provide it.

This is a difficult book to categorize, perhaps by design. Miller has collected an eclectic set of spacecraft references from the past 100 years. They are presented as drawings, photos, sketches, and, in some cases, words. The collection is a wonderful commentary on the transition of spacecraft from the realm of fantasy and science fiction to engineering reality. If you remember a spaceship from a comic book or a television show, this book probably has a photo or drawing of it. But The Dream Machines also contains the real proposals and designs for spacecraft, as well as descriptions and images of the vehicles that were actually built.


Stephen Harrigan


Stephen Harrigan is the author of seven books, including the novels The Gates of The Alamo and, most recently,
Challenger Park, about a woman space-shuttle astronaut torn between the demands of her career and her escalating concerns about her young children. While researching Challenger Park, I read a number of books about the space shuttle program. I haven’t yet caught up to two astronaut memoirs – Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets (2006) and Thomas D. Jones’s Sky Walking (2006) – that were published too late for me to poach anything from them.

The best-written and most sweeping narrative about the shuttle era is Dragonfly, which tells the story of the star-crossed expeditions of the space station Mir.

Linenger, the American astronaut whose perilous adventures and complex disposition are the central focus of Burrough’s Dragonfly, wrote his own account of his tenure on Mir in Off the Planet, which is worth reading on its own and not simply as a rebuttal to Dragonfly.

Long out of print and maybe a bit of a slog for the general reader, Before Lift-Off is still the best book for learning how spaceshuttle crews are trained. The author spent months following a crew from selection to liftoff , and his detailed account of every aspect of the training process makes this book, now that the shuttle program is drawing to a close, an indispensable historical record.

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(This abridged article provided courtesy of Bookmarks Magazine. All rights reserved. For more information on the magazine, please visit

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