With the upcoming golden anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar mission, Purdue University School of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AAE) faculty have made space-themed summer reading recommendations for our students. We believe the list also may intrigue readers of all interest levels.
Selections range from the humorous “Packing for Mars” that delivers inside stories on how the United States will make it to Mars in a way that NASA doesn’t necessarily want the lay reader to see, to the Michael Crichton fiction thriller “Next,” which details the inner workings of the scientific world.
Whether you are interested in a good memoir, women in space, science fiction, or test flight programs, we have you covered. Enjoy!
Recommended by Professor Kathleen Howell: This story is also part of the history of NASA, yet most do not know it. The Mercury 13 deserve recognition.
2) “Packing for Mars” by Mary Roach.
Recommended by Professor Jim Longuski: Delightful book. The author goes to various NASA centers to tell the inside story of how we are going to get to Mars in accurate and humorous manner. She answers the oft-asked question of how you go to the bathroom in space and shares stories that few have heard, including ones NASA might prefer you didn’t. A must-read!
3) “The Science Fiction of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky” by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.
Recommended by Professor Alina Alexeenko: The collection contains Tsiolkovsky’s 1920s sci-fi novel “Outside the Earth” in which the rural school teacher and inventor known for the eponymous Rocket Equation predicts how humans one day will get away from the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere and gravity. Tsiolkovsky describes, with detailed calculations, many concepts that came to reality much later in the 20th century: liquid propellant engines, multi-stage and reusable rockets, autopilot, space station and human travel to Moon and Mars. Action takes place in 2017.
4) “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe.
Recommended by Professor Steven Collicott: Wolfe was the premier American author writing critically about American culture from the 1960s until his recent passing. Yet “The Right Stuff” is not critical, it is a respectful and wonderfully-told story, starting at Yeager’s first supersonic flight, of a global cultural transition at the start of the space race: the supersonic jet test pilots (such as Purdue’s Ivan Kincheloe) being replaced on the throne of cultural adoration by the seven Mercury astronauts (including Purdue’s Gus Grissom). Wolfe is not writing about technology; he is writing about people and their culture as new technology and achievement propels them into a remarkable chain of events in world history. He writes of the astronauts as humans, of the seven astronauts as a team, of their families, their interactions with the world news industry and American political leaders, and so on. Without reading the book, you are wasting your time if you watch the movie. Book first, then when you watch the movie second you will enjoy it tremendously more.
5) “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser.
Recommended by Professor Timothée Pourpoint: History of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) incidents and accidents and lots of anecdotes on the “fun” around using hypergolic propellants.
6) “Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed” by Ben R. Rich.
Recommended by Professors Karen Marais and Jonathan Poggie: A true classic about Lockheed’s legendary Skunkworks, birthplace of the U-2, SR-71, and F-117. This is an engaging chronicle of Ben Rich’s efforts to fly higher, faster, and with more stealth, and the story of the larger-than-life characters who contributed to the effort.
Recommended by Professor Alina Alexeenko: The NASA JPL space mission designer and Purdue professor tells you “how to be successful and happy in a career where science and politics often clash”. Chapters include How to Survive in Industry and How to Land an Academic Position. All of it in under 100 pages sprinkled with Longuski’s signature pithy humor. One of the most useful books I read in grad school.
8) “Failure Is Not an Option” by Gene Kranz.
Recommended by Professor Dengfeng Sun: This is an interesting memoir by Gene Kranz, the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 flight director. The book provides the “behind the curtains” look at the golden years of NASA. Some technical parts might seem dry to general readers but should be fun for aerospace engineering students and professionals. The author is very humble about his leadership role in the missions while emphasizing that the success was due to broad collaboration by astronauts, controllers, administrators, technicians, scientists, and the support of their families.
9) “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” by Chris Hadfield.
Recommended by Professor Karen Marais: It’s an inspiring account of a Canadian farm boy who grew up to become a NASA astronaut.
10) “Next” by Michael Crichton.
Recommended by Professor Vikas Tomar: The 2006 techno-thriller, the last book by Crichton to be published in his lifetime, is an interesting piece highlighting technology, evolution, and social connections. At the same time, it talks about proposal submission and inner workings of scientific world and funded research. This is a masterpiece if one wants to understand social dimensions of research breakthroughs.
11) “At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program” by Milton Thompson.
Recommended by Professor Jonathan Poggie: Written by pilot / engineer Milton Thompson, his book tells the story of the historic X-15 flight test program, which demonstrated flight at speeds of up to Mach 6.7 and altitudes up to 67 miles. Filled with interesting anecdotes, the cast of characters includes astronauts Neil Armstrong and Joe Engle, test pilot Scott Crossfield, and other famous names. Thompson’s career experiences and choices should be of interest to current and aspiring engineers.
12) “Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto” by Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of New Horizons, which just had the historic encounter with a Kuiper Belt Object on January 1, 2019, and David Grinspoon.
Recommended by Professor Steven Collicott: Well-written and, just like Dr. Stern, pretty direct sometimes. Written before the KBO encounter, this book is about “just” the historic Pluto mission time frame. Chapters two through five should be required reading for any student wanting to work with NASA. Another Dr. Stern book is coming out shortly, not about space science but about program management because he’s viewed as a program management expert since New Horizons was on schedule and within budget.
13) “Rocket Men” by Robert Kurson.
Recommended by Professor Steven Collicott: Kurson’s book is the story of the audacious Apollo 8 mission. Both parts of the story, mission planning and the mission itself, are captivating reads and both parts are hard to put down once you start reading. Right before launch is the only place where it is simple to put down the book. The true Cold-War motivations which were driving the Apollo program are described well. The descriptions of these may seem almost fictional to today’s students but these descriptions align well with my memories of the era and recent historical articles on thespacereview.com
14) “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by James R. Hansen.
Recommended by Purdue University College of Engineering editors: Neil Armstrong himself chose Hansen as his authorized biographer, and the author was granted rare and coveted access to the former astronaut and first man to walk on the moon. The book, which inspired the 2018 movie “First Man”, is full of first-hand glimpses into Armstrong’s personal life and draws from Hansen’s exclusive access to Armstrong’s papers, flight logs, family letters, photographs, and archival documents. Based on more than 50 hours of interviews with the extremely private Armstrong (BSAE ’55), this account is a must-read for anyone who wants an insider’s view of an American icon and, arguably, Purdue’s most famous alumnus.