Top 10 books about space travel

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The Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti chooses her favourite extraterrestrial reading, taking in fiction by Italo Calvino and Stanisław Lem alongside reportage and history

One of the funny little things I noticed after having lived in space for a while is that, contrary to everyday experience on Earth, it took some effort to keep my arms pressed against my body. Had I remembered better my childhood reading, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Jules Verne imagined this back in 1865. At one point, the protagonists of his From the Earth to the Moon realise that “their bodies were absolutely without weight. Their arms, full extended, no longer sought their sides.”

That wasn’t the first time literature imagined a trip to the moon: in Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516), the knight Astolfo flies to the moon in search of Orlando’s lost wits. Cyrano de Bergerac’s satirical novel The Other World: Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon dates back to the 17th century, and in 1857 Italian astronomer Ernest Capocci wrote a novel about the first journey to the moon, which he imagined undertaken in 2057 by a woman named Urania. Yet Verne was the first to narrate the endeavour with some measure of engineering credibility, eventually coming to be recognised as one of the fathers of science fiction.

Decades later, space travel became a reality. So along with fiction, which continues to challenge the limits of our imagination and confront us with profound questions, we now have books that tell the story of real spaceflight. My book is one of those. It’s the story of my journey as an apprentice astronaut, from the long, nerve-wrecking selection process through five years of training. Years spent in classrooms and simulators, swimming pools and centrifuges, emergency and survival drills, suitcase always to hand, living across continents. Until, one day, a rocket was waiting to take me to the International Space Station, humanity’s outpost in space. For 200 days, I would inhabit a weightless body, I would see the sun rise and set 16 times per day, I would enjoy the sublime view of the Earth moving beneath me. And I would slowly learn to be an extraterrestrial human being.

In fiction and in fact, these books seem truest to that extraordinary experience.

1. Carrying the Fire by Mike Collins
I am fascinated by Collins, by the absolute loneliness of his solitary orbits around the moon while his crewmates Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on the surface during the Apollo 11 mission. This is his autobiography – and it is honest, humble, unafraid to delve into the details. My favourite quote from the book: “I have not been able to do these things because of any great talent I possess; rather, it has all been the roll of the dice, the same dice that cause the growth of cancer cells, or an aircraft ejection seat to work or not.”

2. If the Sun Dies by Oriana Fallaci
One hundred years after Jules Verne published From the Earth to the Moon, Fallaci published this account of the US space endeavour, after months of research and with extensive access to all the famous sites of the Apollo missions and to dozens of astronauts, scientists and doctors. It is written with uncompromising honesty and an engaging style that mixes factual reporting and her own emotional and intellectual struggle. Torn between embracing technology-driven progress and remaining loyal to humanistic tradition, Fallaci creates a vivid picture of the space community, and the astronauts in particular, that shatters every stereotype.

3. How Apollo Flew to the Moon by W David Woods
This is an unapologetically geeky book: the complete story of how the Apollo missions were accomplished and of the engineering feats that made them possible. Rigorous and exhaustive, but written in an accessible and engaging style well-suited for the non-technical reader.

4. Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge by Asif A Siddiqi
This is a scholarly work, grounded in many years of research of Russian-language archival sources available in the post-Soviet era. It is a fascinating account of the epic achievements and struggles of the USSR’s space programme, from its origins to the 1970s, and enjoyable reading for anyone interested in history as well as space.

5. Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
If there is a Q&A session, I know that this question will be asked: how do you pee in space? This entertaining, at times hilarious book is an account of the author’s quest to understand this and many other challenges of functioning as a human being in space. While she makes no effort to hide a preference for the less palatable, sometimes disgusting, anecdotes going back to the early days of human spaceflight, and the work predates the more mature conditions of the International Space Station that I am personally familiar with, this is a fun and informative book.

6. The Martian by Andy Weir
The story is well known because of the film adaptation, in which Matt Damon, stranded on Mars, famously declares: “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.” With the exception of the initial storm setting the events in motion, and the almost supernatural portion of luck needed for everything to work out just right, everything is plausible.

7. The Invincible by Stanisław Lem
Opening with a masterful sequence out of hard science-fiction’s classic repertoire – a vivid depiction of an interstellar spaceship’s landing on an alien planet to investigate the mystery of another crew’s demise – this novel weaves together memorable futuristic battles with an intriguing quest for understanding that shakes conventional, anthropocentric assumptions about intelligence and evolution.

8. Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
The consciousness of the disembodied narrator, to his own astonishment, is projected away from Earth on a mind-blowing journey through time and space that, by itself, would make this book unforgettable. This is obviously not about conventional space travel, not a conventional novel and there is no conventional plot. Rather, it is social-philosophical speculation on a cosmic scale accompanied by boundless, fearless imagination and mythopoeic ambition.

9. The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
In the first of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, devoted to the virtue of lightness, Calvino wrote: “Lightness for me is related to precision and definition, not to the hazy and haphazard.” Paul Valéry said: ‘One must be light like the bird, not like the feather.’” That’s the essence of the Cosmicomics. These short stories are a dizzying journey of the imagination, witty, light-hearted, endearing and yet clearly inspired by scientific theories and coherent with their basic premises.

10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
“‘Forty-two,’ said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm” after pondering for million of years to answer the “ultimate question to life, the universe and everything”. As a crew-member of Expedition 42 on the International Space Station, I made sure that this was in my essential luggage. It provided two important reminders for space travellers. First, don’t panic! Second, let’s not take ourselves too seriously.

Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut by Samantha Cristoforetti is published by Allen Lane. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.

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