Astronauts! They’re just like us! Except not, because they’ve been to space. Of the billions of members of Homo sapiens that have lived and died, only a few hundred have had the privilege of leaving the planet (five hundred and sixty three, to date). To the rest of us stuck here, that experience can seem esoteric—maybe even a little bit magic. Thankfully, books exist, and through them, we can get a taste of what it’s like to cross the Kármán line. Whether you’re writing a story of an astronautical nature or you just want to take yourself off-world from the comfort of your couch, these are some of the things I reach for first when I want to stick my head in the sky.
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, by Carl Sagan
Let’s begin with the basics. Carl Sagan’s genius lay in his ability to viscerally drive home just how tiny and insignificant we are, but in a way that left you feeling euphoric rather than afraid. For a man that never left Earth, his ability to describe the cosmos in a zoomed-out way was truly uncanny. If you haven’t read Sagan before, Pale Blue Dot is a great entry point. It’s one of his best works, brimming with poetry and wisdom. For bonus points, I recommend checking out the recently re-released audiobook version read by Sagan himself. Audiophiles might disagree: the original master tapes were made in the ‘90s and lay damaged for decades, so the sound quality can be rough, and the recording is incomplete. But the gaps have been filled in by writer Ann Druyan, Sagan’s wife and creative partner, who lends her voice to his. I can’t listen to it without choking up.
The Orbital Perspective, by Ron Garan
Few concepts set me on fire more than the Overview Effect: the cognitive shift that many astronauts experience when viewing the Earth from above—an often life-altering feeling of connectedness and awe. There’s a ton of stuff out there that will help you wrap your brain around this phenomenon—from Frank White’s original term-coining book The Overview Effect, to the terrific short film Overview, to watching NASA’s livestream from the International Space Station—but if you want to get the goods straight from an astronaut, Ron Garan (who has clocked over a hundred and seventy days in low Earth orbit) is a wonderful teacher.
Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach
Space travel is weird! It is weird, and gross, and incredibly difficult. Packing for Mars strips the world’s spacefaring heroes of their right-stuff sheen, bringing the clumsy, grubby, human aspect back to human spaceflight. This massively entertaining book covers everything from bathroom procedures to bonkers psych tests to sleep and sex and centrifuges. Packing for Mars is to blame for sparking my insatiable interest in astronaut food, plus cementing my conviction that I will not make my home elsewhere until the Enterprise-D gets built. It’s not always a pleasant read (my embarrassing degree of squeamishness admittedly led me to skip the chapter on cadaver testing), but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Ice Station, by Ruth Slavid and James Morris
This book’s not about space at all, but bear with me. Sometimes, the sort of astronauts you want to think about are the kind that set up shop on other worlds for extended periods of time, and that’s not something we’ve done yet (a few quick camping trips in an Apollo Lunar Module notwithstanding). But if you want to imagine what it’s like for humans to live and work in environmentally-hostile isolation, you don’t have to leave our planet at all. Ice Station is a fascinating book about the creation of Halley VI, a research facility in the Antarctic. This slim read is packed with goodies tailor-made for design nerds. Blueprints! Sketches! Considerations about what paint colors are most psychologically soothing! Spending a hundred and six days a year in total darkness never looked so cushy.
Overview: A New Perspective of Earth by Benjamin Grant
Okay, fine—I’m not done talking about the Overview Effect yet (and I never will be). I’m obviously a big fan of the written word, but as the Overview Effect is something experienced visually, sometimes you need to stop reading and look. Daily Overview is an on-going art project that showcases super high-res photographs of the world from above, with a focus on locations in which humans have left dramatic marks. It’s a potent dose of brain fuel on our planet and how we use it. You can view their work on Instagram or have it delivered to your inbox, but the bound collection is the sort of thing you can happily spend a whole evening pouring over.
Extra Credit: I will use absolutely any opportunity I can find to make people watch this video of astronaut Sunita Williams giving a tour of the International Space Station. This is one of those times.
Becky Chambers is a science fiction author based in Northern California. She is best known for her Hugo Award-winning Wayfarers series, which currently includes The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few. Her books have also been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Locus Award, and the Women’s Prize for Fiction, among others. Her most recent work is To Be Taught, If Fortunate, a standalone novella. You can find her online at otherscribbles.com.