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The write stuff: ten of the best astronaut memoirs

Very short excerpts from books about space by people who have been there

Book covers
Book coversCourtesy images

At the time of writing, 558 people have orbited the Earth. Approximately 10% of them have written books about the experience. Most of these books are not very good. The achievement does not redeem the writing, which is as formulaic as the checklists necessary for safe space travel. Awe is inspired, fears conquered, and dreams realized. But the best of these books explain with unmatched immediacy what it is to go to space and to safely return.

Michael Collins

  • On flying around the moon, alone

    Gemini 10, Apollo 11

“If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side. I feel this powerfully—not as fear or loneliness—but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation. I like the feeling. Outside my window I can see stars—and that is all. Where I know the moon to be, there is simply a black void; the moon’s presence is defined solely by the absence of stars.” 

Alexi Leonov

  • On watching his rivals beat him to the moon

    Voskhod 2, Soyuz 19

“Even in the military center where I stood, where military men were observing the achievements of our rival superpower, there was loud applause. Very soon this atmosphere of celebration was overtaken by professional talk. We cosmonauts began discussing how easy it appeared to walk on the surface of the Moon, how easy it was to jump. We would have to take this into account, we agreed, when we went there ourselves.”

Two Sides of the Moon (with David Scott and Christine Toomey)

Jim Lovell

  • On his damaged spacecraft

    Gemini 12, Apollo 8, Apollo 13

“Just as the mammoth silver cylinder caught an especially bright slash of sun, it rolled a few more degrees and revealed the spot where panel four was—or should have been. In its place was a wound, a raw, gaping wound running from one end of the service module to the other … that entire door was gone, ripped free and blasted away from the ship. Trailing from the gash left behind were sparking shreds of Mylar insulation, waving tangles of torn wires, tendrils of rubber liner.”

Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 (with Jeffrey Kluger)

Walter Cunningham

  • On Reaching Orbit

    Apollo 7

“Once the initial activity subsided, my first sensation of space was simply one of belonging. I had lived with the thought for five years, and watched the parade of new actors step onto the stage, dominate the scene, make incremental progress, take their curtain calls, and then scurry away with new notoriety, increased self-confidence and fame. A few months later another cast, the same sudden notoriety, the press conferences, and the questions. And now it was our turn on stage … it all went so smoothly, so uneventfully, that any preflight doubts seemed almost foolish.”

The All-American Boys

Buzz Aldrin

  • On returning to Earth

    Gemini 12, Apollo 11

“I had once been known as the 'best scientific mind in space', according to Life magazine … I could pretty much figure out rendezvous maneuvers in my head. But the ten years since my moonwalk were not filled with achievements, bold accomplishments, and grand acclamations. It had been my decade of personal hell.”

Magnificent Desolation (with Ken Abraham)

Alan Bean

  • On keeping track of your belongings in zero gravity

    Apollo 12, Skylab 3

“Lost our day 5 menu card today. Had to fake it at breakfast. I finally found it as I was looking in the toolbox for a Phillips head screw driver for the wardroom foot restraints. My green copy of Childhood's End floated by. If you wait long enough, everything lost will float by.”

Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story by David Hitt, Owen Garriott, and Joe Kerwin

Rhea Seddon

  • On improvising repairs in space

    Space shuttles Discovery, Columbia (2)

“Soon the ground came up with what had to be one of the strangest plans in the history of spaceflight … a rendezvous would indeed be performed to bring us within the arm's reach of the satellite, and then the crazy thing on the arm would be used to pull the switch into the ON position … This entire contraption was connected together and wrapped with gray duct tape … someone in the control room said I was a good seamstress, and Sally Ride reminded them that I was a good surgeon. I wish I’d been there to thank her for that.”

Go for Orbit

Jerry Linenger

  • On the fire that almost killed him

    Space shuttles Discovery and Atlantis (2), Mir

“Because the fire extinguisher acts almost as a thruster in space, I grabbed Korzun around the waist to stabilize him. I would also periodically shake him, he would shake back—a signal that we were both still conscious. The flame was five feet in front of my face, the smoke so dense that I could not count the fingers in front of my face, let alone see Korzun's face … after raging for fourteen uncontrollable minutes, the fire consumed itself and went out...the outlook still appeared bleak. Thick smoke was everywhere. The air was not breathable. We all realized that the oxygen respirators we were using had finite life spans—one to two hours at most. We immediately shifted gears. We went from a flurry of activity to deliberate inactivity.” 

Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir

Scott Parazynski

  • On fixing the International Space Station

    Space shuttles Atlantis (2), Discovery (2), Endeavor

"I can’t really toss and turn in my snug sleeping bag, but if I could, I would. An army of brilliant NASA rocket scientists is sending Wheels and me out tomorrow to suture the space station back together … It all seems like a made-for-TV movie. In a cold sweat, I try to wrap my mind around the new task. My entire career has led up to this one day. All my training, all my flight experiences, everything … We never anticipated this crazy scenario, so we certainly aren’t trained, in the traditional sense, to do this repair.” 

The Sky Below (with Susy Flory)

Brian O'Leary

  • On quitting the space program

    Apollo (did not fly)

“It suddenly occurred to me I wanted to quit the astronaut program at once. It was as clear to me as the sky over Grizzly Park. I no longer wanted any part of it, and it took a change of environments to catalyze the process. Pros and cons, pros and cons—how could I possibly sit in Houston for a decade in an environment of flat plains, murky air, unimaginativeness and nonscience?”

 — The Making of an Ex-Astronaut 

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