Fact, Fiction, and Poetry About Exploring Outer Space

Zach Powers, author of "First Cosmic Velocity," recommends books about the cosmos

Astronaut in space
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Outer space inspires. It overwhelms. It confounds. We can’t look up without realizing the smallness of our place within the cosmos. Except we can’t fully realize it because the scale exceeds human comprehension. Even the most practical history of spaceflight comes up against this sense of wonder, the questions we must ask in the face of the infinite. There’s a reason cosmonauts and astronauts are heroes. Piercing the heavens is downright biblical. 

First Cosmic Velocity by Zach Powers
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While I was working on my novel First Cosmic Velocity, set in a fictionalized version of the Soviet space program, I fought against this sense of wonder. If I think too much about the depths of space, I can’t help but realize anything I say amounts to zero. When I feel this way, though, I turn to the people who look up and don’t flinch. The people who believe, maybe we can go there.

I want to revere these heroes, but I also want to have them humanized. I want to know the mysteries of the universe, but I also look for metaphors that examine these mysteries on a scale my puny human brain can understand. Space exploration is a subject for poets as much as historians, comic books as much astrophysics texts. And, of course, science fiction, which deals in all these genres at once.

Here are nine books that address space exploration in some way, but maybe not in the way a reader would expect.  

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Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

Jodi Foster said in Contact they should have sent a poet, but space makes poets of us all. Tracy K. Smith, a poet whose father who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, won the Pulitzer in part because she understands the point of looking up: “They live wondering / If they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know, / And the great black distance they—we—flicker in.”

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Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge by Asif A. Siddiqi

Siddiqi wrote this first comprehensive, English-language history of the Soviet space program after secret documents became available after the fall of the USSR. My copy of the book is full of tabs and highlights and notes, making this the most essential text I consulted when writing my novel. There are two broad takeaways: First, the Soviets were always as close to failure as they were success, and they only succeeded due to sheer hard-headedness. Second, launching something into space will always push humanity to the limits of our capabilities.

Spaceflight by Michael J. Neufeld

Part of The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series, Spaceflight condenses the whole history of its title subject down to a lithe 200 pages. Neufeld, a Senior Curator at the National Air and Space Museum, uses his considerable expertise to craft a concise narrative, importantly including practical satellite infrastructure often overlooked in favor of more famous accomplishments. This is the Cliff’s Notes version of everything we’ve tried to launch into space and our most notable failures and successes.

Laika’s Window by Kurt Caswell

I’ve often imagined Laika, the little space dog, inside Sputnik II, both sorrowful for her fate and envious of the view. I think it was cruel folly to launch her and the other space dogs (so many more were lost than most people know). The sacrifice was too great. But I also love Laika so deeply because of her role. I’d never have known her if she hadn’t flown. Caswell’s book is part chronicle and part reflection, and it insightfully captures the duality of the first living being to orbit the Earth, spaceflight’s first tragic hero.

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Laika by Nick Abadzis

Historical accounts depict Laika as a sweet, unbelievably patient dog. This comic book imagines her origin story and takes the reader behind the scenes of her training, blending fact with fiction. One true story that’s included in the book: before her launch, which the engineers, trainers, and technicians knew would be a one-way trip, Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to spend time with his family. I don’t know if I feel better or worse knowing that the people behind Laika’s launch were often as conflicted about it as I am now.

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Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

My own imaginary journey to space began with science fiction, and I still think that’s the best place to look for people thinking deeply and revolutionarily about our future. Okorafor’s novella (and two sequels) takes readers to a far-future where humans are but one of many spacefaring races, imagining where an Earth girl from a desert village might find a place among the stars. The speculative elements of the story allow Okorafor to examine familiar human (and alien) biases in a new light. My favorite sci-fi stories are the ones that distance me from myself, giving me perspective to reconsider everyday things I take for granted.

The Voyager Record: A Transmission by Anthony Michael Morena

Morena’s uncategorizable book consists of a series of vignettes about or inspired by the Voyager missions. Sometimes Morena presents the straight facts of the missions. Sometimes he reflects on his own life. Sometimes he imagines the different aliens that might discover Voyager’s golden record, and their almost universal inability to make anything of it at all. Throughout all these variations, Morena grapples with one key idea: we are specks that want so badly to be understood.

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T-Minus: The Race to the Moon by Jim Ottoviani, Zander Cannon, and Kevin Cannon

This comic book presents a slightly fictionalized account of both the Soviet and American space programs, counting down from the beginning of the Space Race to the Moon landing. The creators don’t try to be comprehensive, and they do a good job of picking the right moments to dive into the narrative, especially when they choose a scene that’s related to, but isn’t itself one of the big events.

Another Science Fiction by Megan Prelinger

Orelinger presents a study of print advertisements from the first five years of the space race, including an amazing collection of high-quality reproductions. The book shows how much the myth of space affected the American consciousness, and how pervasive visions of the future were, even a decade before NASA put a person on the Moon.

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