Astronauts sometimes talk about about the “overview effect”: the revelatory shift in perspective that comes from seeing an outside view of Earth, in all its blue, borderless beauty. Few of us will ever have a chance to experience such an awakening firsthand — but there are accessible ways to achieve a cosmic mindset.
The books listed here let you see through the eyes of great space pioneers and the most gifted science-minded storytellers. Think of them as rockets of the mind that will lift you away from everyday concerns and into the boundless possibilities of the universe beyond.
The books are also great gift ideas for the science-minded friends and loved ones on your holiday list.
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Adventures of the Space Pioneers
Experience the transformative moments of the space age with the men and women who made them happen.
'Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto,' by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon, $15, Amazon
For decades, planetary scientist Alan Stern was obsessed with exploring the last planet of the solar system. He persevered through an almost absurd sequence of obstacles, until the New Horizons spacecraft finally arrived in 2015 to reveal Pluto as a strange, dynamic world of water-ice mountains, methane snows and squishy nitrogen glaciers.
'The Right Stuff,' by Tom Wolfe, $7, Amazon
There’s a reason this one has become a catchphrase. Tom Wolfe is at his peak here, bringing his trademark literary swagger to the story of Chuck Yeager, NASA’s Mercury astronauts and the other pioneers who put their lives on the line to escape the bonds of Earth. The book is an invigorating reminder of what humans can do when we challenge ourselves with lofty goals.
'Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon,' by Robert Kurson, $22, Amazon
Apollo 11 grabbed the glory, but Apollo 8 was the mission that proved humans could travel to the Moon, and its crew (Jim Lovell, Frank Borman and William Anders) captured the landmark photo of Earthrise over the lunar horizon. This is the story of their mission, told in cinematic detail. (For the gripping flip side of the story, check out Lovell’s own 'Apollo 13.')
'Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars,' by Nathalia Holt, $13, Amazon
On TV and in the big photo spreads in Life magazine, men dominated the early days of the space age. But women played a vital role, often laboring with limited support and rewarded with little glory. Rocket Girls goes beyond the scope of the equally worthy "Hidden Figures" to tell their story.
'A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts,' by Andrew Chaikin, $22, Amazon
NASA’s five Apollo moon landings remain the singular achievement of the space age. Here, a veteran space journalist delivers the definitive, you-are-there account of how the Apollo project happened, what it was like and why it has been so hard to recapture that pinnacle of glory.
'Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,' by Mary Roach, $28, Amazon
Rocket science is serious business, but in Roach’s hands it can provoke unexpected snorts of laughter, too. With a wry tone and a reporter’s eye for detail, she ventures into the unglamorous spots where engineers stuff a cadaver into a space capsule for a crash test and astronauts perform space-toilet training.
'An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything,' by Chris Hadfield, $28, Amazon
If you want to get inside the head of a modern astronaut, you could hardly do better than these charming autobiographical reflections by Chris Hadfield, who flew twice on the space shuttle and commanded the International Space Station. As a bonus, his problem-solving approach to life might help you become a better person, too.
Grand Perspectives on the Universe
Not all explorers don spacesuits or launch rockets. Some of them reach out across the universe intellectually, drawing us along as they stretch out though the far reaches of space.
'NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe,' by Terence Dickinson, $32, Amazon
You might be amazed by how much you can see at night with just your eyes (and perhaps a modest pair of binoculars). Even light-choked suburban skies are full of wonders once you know what to look for. Nightwatch is a prime guide for beginners, but it’s also a gateway drug for those tempted to try their hand at more advanced stargazing.
'The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective,' by Carl Sagan, $28, Amazon
Sagan’s first book is a landmark of popular astronomy writing: poetic, emotional, big-hearted, far-seeing and utterly approachable. It includes prescient discussions of planets around other stars and runaway global warming on Venus. Sagan regards the whole universe as his home, and by the time you’re done reading, you will, too.
'Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time,' by Michael Benson, $32, Amazon
This is one of the most gorgeous space books ever published, even though it does not include a single astronomical photo. Instead it showcases the art, artifacts, illustrations and graphics that people have created over the millennia to make sense of the objects in the sky. Start with the 4,000-year-old Nebra Sky Disk, the earliest known representation of the sun and the moon, and marvel at the persistence of our species’ sense of wonder.
'The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking,' by Dennis Richard Danielson (ed.), $34, Amazon
Think of this as the advanced companion to Cosmigraphics. Danielson, an intellectual historian, has compiled landmark texts in the discovery of the universe, many of them impossible to find outside of deep library research. The book is not a light read, exactly, but it is a joy to accompany Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo and the like during their key moments of awakening.
'Black Holes & Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy,' by Kip S. Thorne, $43, Amazon
Sure, you’ve heard about black holes, but do you really understand what they are? Thorne is the world’s leading authority on them (he was the science advisor on the movie "Interstellar"), and here he digs deep into the history and theory behind the weirdest objects in the cosmos. With a forward by Stephen Hawking, no less.
'The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins,' by Alan H. Guth, $21, Amazon
There’s no shortage of books about modern cosmology, but this is the only popular account told directly by the scientist most responsible for shaping it. MIT physicist Alan H. Guth explains step by step how he arrived at the theory of the inflationary Big Bang, in which space went through a period of hyperactive expansion during the first fraction of a second of existence. As a bonus, he offers pointers on how to create a new universe in the lab.
'The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must,' by Robert Zubrin, $50, Amazon
Although Zubrin is not famous like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, his forward-thinking ideas about space transportation very much inspired SpaceX and Blue Origin — not to mention NASA’s recent moves to embrace new low-cost technologies. His manifesto, originally published in 1996, is still the most eloquent argument for why our species needs to expand beyond Earth.
Modern Landmarks of Science Fiction
You already know about Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein (and if you haven’t read them, you should). But there’s a whole other world of writers waiting to take you into realities beyond the one you know.
'The Three Body Problem,' by Cixin Liu, $16, Amazon
A lone researcher accidentally establishes contact with an alien civilization — and from there, nothing unfolds the way you expect it to. Like many trilogies, Liu’s sags a little in the middle (hampered also by the second book’s inferior English translation), but the scope and inventiveness of the story are breathtaking. Read it now before it becomes an Amazon TV series.
'Lilith’s Brood,' by Octavia E. Butler, $15, Amazon
Another far-reaching sci-fi trilogy, but radically different in outlook from "The Three Body Problem." Butler’s post-apocalyptic epic anchors its story on sexual politics rather than the genre’s more common focus on techno-politics, as the scattered human survivors of nuclear war are rescued by the seemingly benevolent Oankali race.
'Fiasco' and 'Solaris,' by Stanislaw Lem, $36, Amazon
Lem was a master of philosophical, satirical science fiction, and these two novels are the definitive expressions of one of his most intriguing themes: How will humanity react if we discover intelligent extraterrestrial life but can’t figure out a way to communicate with it? (The title of "Fiasco" gives you a sense of his answer.)
'Her Smoke Rose Up Forever,' by James Tiptree Jr., $17, Amazon
Tiptree was born Alice Bradley Sheldon and also wrote under the name Raccoona Sheldon. Her short stories — a haunted interstellar mission, a deadly global plague of misogyny, the devastating consequence of a time traveler trying to return home — correspondingly defy gender and genre expectations. An underappreciated classic.
'SevenEves,' by Neal Stephenson, $19, Amazon
One of the greatest first sentences in science fiction: “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason." Better yet, the story that follows fully delivers on the premise while paying respect to physics, engineering and human nature. Best of all, the constraints of realism only make Stephenson’s narrative more engrossing and surprising.
'Aurora,' by Kim Stanley Robinson, $14, Amazon
Like Stephenson, Robinson writes at the hard edge of science fiction. He’s best known for his thoughtful "Red Mars" books, detailing a future in which humans set out to terraform Mars. His latest takes him far deeper into space as he imagines, with photographic realism, an interstellar voyage that does not go as planned, to put it mildly.
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