Building a Great Air and Space Library
To find the very best books about the world of aviation and spaceflight, we asked for recommendations.
- By Our Panel Of Experts
- Air & Space magazine, March 2002
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Burnham's Celestial Handbook: An Observer's Guide to the Universe Beyond the Solar System by Robert Burnham Jr. (Dover Books, 1983). Although the science in this three-volume work is now quite out of date, this is far and away the most interesting and readable treatment of the sky and all of its wonders. It summarizes the legends behind almost every constellation and describes in great detail hundreds of clusters, nebulae, and other objects. Burnham was an eccentric who worked for years at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. When he lost his position there he drifted through various states of homelessness, passing away in a San Diego park in 1996. Burnham never really profited from the books, but tens of thousands of amateur astronomers know the 1,600-plus pages intimately.
Star Names Their Lore and Their Meaning by Richard H. Allen (Dover, 1963). The quintessential reference on the origins of star and constellation names.
The New Solar System, Fourth Edition by J. Kelly Beatty, Andrew Chaikin, et al. (Cambridge University Press, 1998). This is about as technical as one can get without tripping the reader up with jargon. It features chapters on each of the major bodies of the solar system and extensive detail on the smaller ones as well. Some 30 authorities in planetary studies contributed.
Secrets of the Astronauts
The U.S. space program has inspired a copious collection of tales, replete with heroic adventure, technological sorcery, and bureaucratic derring-do. By far the best is the deservedly famous The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (Bantam Books, 1983). A brilliant piece of journalism and an all-around great read, The Right Stuff explores in great detail the astronaut training program, the psychology of the test pilots who became the early astronauts, and the lives of the Mercury crew--warts and all.
The Apollo program is well documented in A Man on the Moon by Air & Space contributor Andrew Chaikin (Penguin USA, 1998). This excellent narrative, which describes the personalities behind the program as well as the technology, inspired the acclaimed HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon" (video) (DVD).
The astronauts have done their share of writing as well. The best of this category, hands down, is Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys by Michael Collins (Adventure Library, 1998). As a writer, Collins is the Lindbergh of the astronaut corps. Buzz Aldrin and Malcolm McConnell wrote Men from Earth (Bantam, 1989) to offer not only an account of Aldrin's spaceflight experiences but also a picture of the U.S. and Soviet efforts during the moon race.
The shuttle program has spun off its own set of scribes. On his mission, Jeff Hoffman did something every astronaut should: He brought a tape recorder on the shuttle and noted his thoughts and experiences. The results, Astronauts Diary (Caliban, 1986), have a striking immediacy. Entering Space: An Astronaut's Odyssey by Joe Allen (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1987) is a nice coffee table collection of images and text, probably the best book by a shuttle astronaut.
Finally, for a juicy expose of what went wrong during the Mir-shuttle program of 1994 to 1998, check out Bryan Burroughs' Dragonfly : Nasa and the Crisis Aboard Mir (HarperCollins, 2000), based in part on interviews with unhappy crew members.
Flying for the fun of it still requires serious attention to detail, of course. The following books document all different aspects of an experience that, when done well, could never be called a "hobby."
The Student Pilot's Flight Manual (Ninth Edition) by William K. Kershner (Iowa State University Press/Ames, 1998). Even if you have no plans to pursue a pilot's license, you'll want to keep this book on hand for explanations of aerodynamics, cockpit instrumentation, navigation techniques, airspace classifications, sectional charts, and the occasional Kershner cartoon of a pilot who has gotten himself into a dicey situation; one is captioned: "The roughness of the engine is directly proportional to the square of the roughness of the terrain and the cube of the pilot's imagination."
Fly Low, Fly Fast: Inside the Reno Air Races by Robert Gandt (Viking, 1999). This book provides a riveting account of the 1997-98 Reno Unlimited-class air races and intimate portraits of the colorful characters who race the souped-up World War II fighters at death-wish speeds and altitudes in the high desert. Gandt's writing style is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff ("Whooooom! The T-33 flashed overhead. Hinton could see that Smoot had gotten stopped. He'd avoided the great fighter-eating abyss out there in the desert").
Skyward: Why Flyers Fly by Russell Munson (Howell Press, 1989). Scattered among Munson's stunning photos are interviews with a cross-section of pilots: a Concorde captain, a P-51 owner, a corporation president who started flying at 49, and now, at 71, flies her own Cessna Citation. A book editor admits that when weather prevents him from flying his Cessna 172, "I'll go out sometimes and just sit in the damn thing." One of Munson's own stories recounts the challenge of logging 13.5 hours in a DC-3 to get a type rating. On DC-3 brakes: "It's like the first time you stomped on the power brakes of a '55 Chrysler and launched your Mom into the glove compartment." One vertigo-inducing photo captures Munson's blue-jeaned legs suspended 1,000 feet over North Carolina's Outer Banks in an Eipper-Formance ultralight.
Flight of Passage: A Memoir by Rinker Buck (Hyperion, 1998). In 1966, the author, then 15, and his brother, 17, flew their immaculately restored Piper Cub from New Jersey to California, on a mission to emerge from the towering shadow of their father, a former barnstormer, and simultaneously earn his respect and their independence. This coming-of-age classic, told from the cockpit of an airplane with nothing more than a compass to guide it from coast to coast, reached a broad audience but was especially treasured by the aviation community.
The Airman's World by Gill Robb Wilson (Random House, 1953). The modest exterior of this book conceals a treasury of penetrating aviation poetry and prose. Each of the 33 writings is paired with a full-page black-and-white image by some of aviation's greatest photographers. Many of these pieces first appeared in Flying magazine during the 1950s. Wilson was a pilot during World War I, an ordained pastor in the 1920s, a New Jersey state aviation official in the '30s, a newspaper correspondent in the '40s, and Flying magazine's publisher and editor in the '50s and '60s. He was a co-founder of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, an architect of the Civil Air Patrol, and a participant in the creation of World War II's Civilian Pilot Training Program. It is his gift of communicating that earns this unpretentious volume a place on your bookshelf.