Recommendation Club: Space Race History

On social media and over email, I’ve fielded several questions about what someone should read to learn more about the space race. While writing the Fly Me to the Moon series, I’ve inhaled dozes and dozens of space histories. So for prosperity’s sake, here’s what I recommend.

A few caveats: my list is focused on the period between Sputnik and Apollo 11 (or 1957 to 1969) and on US/Soviet crewed space flight. If you’re interested in rocketry, for example, that would be a whole other list and it would start a lot sooner.

Also, I’m not a scientist or engineer. So while I’m interested in the history of technology, I prefer books pitched to a general audience.

I do have a PhD in American studies, so my bias is for new history that is intersectional, considers the economic and social factors that create institutions, and includes marginalized voices.

  1. The classics: Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1979) and Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon (1994). While these aren’t my all-time favorite space histories, they are probably the most influential. Wolfe’s book and its film adaptation and Chaikin’s book along with the related HBO series and the film Apollo 13 are the core of what most Americans know about human space exploration. There are problems with these narratives, though. Wolfe is completely seduced by the hyper-masculinity that he sees in the Mercury astronaut group. Anything that doesn’t fit his thesis he discards;  he worships at the altar of his subjects. Chaikin writes about Apollo rather than Mercury and he isn’t quite as breathless as Wolfe, but he falls victim to some of the same flaws. His narrative is told in a top-down, personality-driven, and utterly panegyrical style. It’s all about the risk-taking of the steely-eyed mission men astronauts and the sacrifices of the nerdy but determined engineers who are often collective and rarely individual. Setting aside a few passing references to the astronauts’ wives, those are the only two types profiled here. The books themselves are easy and compelling reads, and Wolfe in particular can turn a phrase, but I include them because of their popularity not because I think they’re the best.
  2. The astronauts: Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire (1974) and Starman (see below). I’ve mentioned several times how much I liked Collins’ book, but to sum up, no other astronaut from this period wrote so well about astronaut selection and training, the daily life and contributions of the astronauts to the space program, and the details of missions themselves (e.g., Gemini 10 and Apollo 11). Collins’ voice is funny and deprecating, though I selfishly want more about his family life. An honorable mention in this category is Martha Ackmann’s The Mercury 13 (2004). While I had some issues with Ackmann’s focus on the conflict between Jerrie Cobb and Jacqueline Cochran and while the book needs editing for length, it’s the best history of the would-be female astronauts.
  3. The Soviets: Asif Siddiqi’s The Soviet Space Race with Apollo (2003) and Piers Bizony and Jamie Doran’s Starman (1998). NASA has remarkable online archives, and so while histories are terrific, there’s a trove of primary sources right here. But when it comes to the Soviet space program, sources are much harder to come by, at least in English. Enter Siddiqi’s book. It covers the period between the mid 60s and Apollo 11 exploring essentially how the Soviets let their lead in the space race slip. I’ve been dipping in and out of it the past few weeks, and it’s great. It is also an academic history, which means it can be exhaustive and exhausting and the page layout is exceedingly ugly. But if you can get beyond those things, Siddiqi covers material no one else does. It’s part of a series, and I haven’t read the prior or subsequent volumes, but I’m enjoying this one quite a bit. If, however, the steep price tag deters you, might I suggest Bizony and Doran’s biography of Yuri Gagarin? It’s incredibly well contextualized and, as I read it before Siddiqi’s book, it provided nice continuity. Gagarin himself is larger than life, almost too pure to be believed, but the book does an excellent job showing him as a real person.
  4. The support staff: Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (2016) and Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls (2016). Both of these titles focus on women mathematicians; Hidden Figures on the African American women who worked at Langley in Virginia and Rise of the Rocket Girls about the women at JPL in California. They’re both fascinating. While I loved the Hidden Figures movie, this is a definite case where the book is better. Notably, Shetterly frames her narrative perfectly. The book doesn’t go on too long nor does it ever lose its urgency. I’m certain Shetterly left terrific material on the cutting room floor, but the book is stronger for it. Holt’s book could have used a bit of tightening early and late in its story, and at times, I wanted a bit more authorial intervention. What does Holt think these women’s stories mean? But the discussion of how the women did (or didn’t) achieve work-family balance is especially fascinating and sadly still resonate. Interestingly, there isn’t a single book focused solely on NASA engineers, at least that I’ve read. In terms of Mission Control, I found Gene Kranz’ biography to be self serving and Go, Flight! too esoteric. Richard Paul and Steven Moss’ We Could Not Fail is fascinating, but overly long and because it’s so academic, I hesitate to recommend it to everyone.
  5. The cultural context: Lily Koppel’s The Astronaut Wives Club (2013) and David Halberstam’s The Fifties (1994). I’ll admit I had a few problems with Koppel’s book. Her argument is basically “the story of the astronaut wives is that of gender in America in the 60s,” which is both too weak and too over determined. There were literally dozens of astronaut wives, and their experiences weren’t in any way monolithic. I wondered if Koppel would have been better served either talking only about the Mercury wives or limiting herself to a handful of women’s stories. Also, the tone of the book was gossipy and I found that a bit distracting. But–and this is a significant but–she found material no one else has and it’s an impressive oral history. Halberstam’s book is a classic that explores the start of the space race in its last hundred pages or so, but to understand what Sputnik meant to Americans and why NASA came into being, it’s great.

So have I missed anything? What are your favorite space histories?


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