I’m an unapologetic space and NASA geek, and I’ve read dozens of books on the subject. Whether you want a comprehensive view of American spaceflight (read the books in order) or just a taste (pick one or two), these are the books you need to check out.
(1) The Right Stuff – Tom Wolfe
This is it, the ultimate account of the Mercury missions. Read it, then watch the excellent movie of the same name.
(2) A Man on the Moon – Andrew Chaikin
Yes, it’s a doorstopper, but one that will have you on the edge of your seat. This is the ultimate account of the Apollo missions; the (excellent) miniseries FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON was based on it.
(3) Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey – Michael Collins
Michael Collins was the third man of Apollo 11, the astronaut who orbited the Moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed. It’s the best astronaut memoir out there, period.
(4) Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir – Tom Jones
Want to get as close as going to space as you can, without actually going there? Pick up this memoir. It’s uneven but the descriptions of landing a space shuttle are incredible.
(5) Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut – Mike Mullane
Mullane was a shuttle astronaut in the same class as the first female astronauts, and his views of women were…not great. It’s extraordinary to watch him grow and change over the course of his memoir.
(6) Dragonfly: NASA and the Crisis Aboard Mir – Bryan Burrough
This history of American astronauts aboard Mir is shocking, to say the least. It’s a wonder everyone came home alive. It’s sadly out of print, but you can find copies online pretty easily.
(7) Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space – Lynn Scherr
This biography, written by a journalist friend of Ride’s, is an intimate look at the private astronaut’s life and legacy.
(8) An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Chris Hadfield
This is half astronaut memoir, half advice, and fully awesome.
(9) Death by Black Hole (and other cosmic quandaries) – Neil deGrasse Tyson
If you’re interested in the science of space, but don’t have the background to understand the nitty gritty, this book of essays is a perfect and entertaining place to start.
(10) How I Killed Pluto (and why it had it coming) – Mike Brown
Still sad that Pluto isn’t a planet? This book, by the scientist who got the ball rolling on Pluto’s demotion, is a fun and interesting read.
(11) Packing for Mars – Mary Roach
Curious about the science of how we keep men and women alive in the void? Then this book is for you.
(12) Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight – Margaret Lazarus Dean
America is no longer a space-going nation. Yes we have vehicles in the works, both public and private, but the days of American manned spaceflight are over for now. This is a great reflection on the last space shuttle launches and what this means going forward.