Booklist: Nonfiction Adventures in Space

There is always some exciting news being made in the areas of space exploration, astrophysics, and the International Space Station, but it is only occasionally that this news is able to make it on to mainstream headlines.

This has very much been the case recently with the announcement of the possible discovery of a ninth planet  in our solar system (sadly, not Pluto.) The last few weeks have also witnessed the blooming of one of the first flowers ever grown entirely in space,  and a rather fantastic crash landing of a SpaceX reusable rocket that is used to restock the International Space Station.

Whether you’re hoping to provide encouragement to a future astrophysicist or NASA engineer, or entertainment for a teen who just saw the amazing footage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 explosion and wants to know more, there are a great number of space related non-fiction resources out there that can compliment their specific interests.

Two great options for the visual learners and also those who are looking for a friendly introduction to topics in space exploration are Space:Information Graphics by Simon Rogers and Rocket Science for the Rest of Us by Ben Gilliland.
science but not as we know it  space information graphics

Space: Information Graphics can serve as a light and friendly introduction to the subject, especially for younger readers.  The infographics themselves, illustrated by Jennifer Daniel, are eye-popping. In glaring electric greens, oranges and pinks, each portion of Space: Information Graphics addresses a different topic, ranging from types of galaxies to the biographies of important personages in astronomy.

Students who have learned some of the topics discussed in school will be glad for the refresher (now that their interest has been captured outside of class), and for those who are new to the subject it will serve as a fun and unusual way to explore their budding interest.

Rocket Science for the Rest of Us: Cutting-edge Concepts Made Simple by Ben Gilliland, while still a hugely visual resource, goes into much greater depth than could be achieved in Space: Information GraphicsRocket Science offers very funny, light overviews of a number of heavy topics and is a great go-to resource to help readers gain a basic understanding of everything from black holes, to the search for alien life, to exploring Mars and much more. One of my favorite sections is the “bluffer’s guide” to the Higgs boson (an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics), which gives a reader just enough information to have some idea of why it is so important and, just maybe, to have a conversation with someone about it.

For readers who are ready to delve a little more deeply into the subject, Astronomy 101 by Carolyn Collins Petersen, and Physics: an Illustrated History of the Foundations of Science by Tom Jackson are worthwhile.

physics astronomy 101Astronomy 101 is a (nearly) pocket-sized reference tool for the burgeoning astronomer and begins with an introduction to general astronomy terms without assuming that the reader has any prior knowledge. Some of this information will be quite surprising even to those who have studied the subject before.

After all, the question “what is a planet” might seem easy to answer until you follow up with “Why isn’t Pluto considered a planet any more?” The book then continues on a tour through our solar system, the galaxy, and provides a little basic information on the history of astronomy.  Astronomy 101 is a handy reference tool to have on hand and can help you keep up with that Neil deGrasse Tyson video you’re watching on Youtube.

Physics: an Illustrated History of the Foundations of Science doesn’t focus as specifically on the subjects of astronomy and space exploration, but physics is key in making those studies possible. The book is composed of 100 important discoveries in physics that allow us to understand the world around us. Starting in the ancient world and proceeding to modern physics, Physics also includes a fold-out timeline that will give readers a better understanding of how far we have come and, perhaps, how much we still have to learn.

For many, it is the beauty of space and the fantastic idea of experiencing the life of an astronaut that will drive them to learn more. There are many resources that include beautiful color photographs taken by astronauts or the Hubble telescope, biographies and autobiographies of astronauts, and other works that can appeal to these readers. Just a few of my favorites include Deep Space by Govert Schilling, Packing for Mars by Mary Roach,  and Canadian Spacewalkers by Bob McDonald.

deep spaceDeep Space: Beyond the Solar System to the End of the Universe and the Beginning of Time is a beautiful look at our galaxy and beyond, filled to the brim with gorgeous space photographs courtesy, often, of the Hubble telescope. While many of these images may be available online ( has a fantastic collection of images that are free for public use) there is something very different about having them in a printed format that makes them much more enjoyable.

Deep Space is much more than a collection of beautiful images, though. It is a tour of the galaxy and beyond, starting with our closest neighbors and then moving ever outward through space. Additionally, it provides insight into science and technology and even includes a large star atlas to aid your stargazers.

packing for marsBook-Cover-Canadian-Spacewalkers_largeIn Packing for Mars Mary Roach has once again created an amazing piece of nonfiction that is an excellent read for anyone with even the slightest interest in space travel. Roach has made it a habit to ask questions as part of her research that we would all love to have the answers to, but were perhaps too afraid to ask.  The result is an eye-opening, bizarre, and fun tour through all the questions you never knew had to be answered before launching people in to space.  One of my favorite chapters is entitled “Houston, we have fungus.”

Canadian Spacewalkers: Hadfield, MacLean, and Williams Remember the Ultimate Adventure is a pretty unique collection of reminiscences on the parts of three Canadian astronauts on every aspect of what it takes to leave the relative safety of the space station and venture out into the expanse of open space. Everything from the training and physical requirements to the final experience are examined through their personal accounts. Vivid images add beautifully to the narration for a fantastic look at the extraordinary lives of astronauts. This resource may be of particular interest to teens who have seen some of Commander Chris Hadfield’s many Youtube videos about life in space and the goings on of the International Space Station. His most famous video is surely his recording of David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

In addition to the fantastic Youtube videos of Commander Hadfield there are any number of excellent online resources. The extremely prolific Neil deGrasse Tyson has a created a number of resources that are available online, and the various government space exploration agencies often post images, videos, and articles online to inform the public of their goings-on.

Dr Tyson’s The Inexplicable Universe is available on Netflix as well as Youtube, for example. And his radio show StarTalk  answers listener questions on topics ranging from the physics of superheroes to the possibilities of life existing on the distant moons of Jupiter.

On Youtube, NASA Johnson has a great collection of videos ranging from important nutritional information to really bizarre and unexpected recordings like NASA’s take on Gangnam style (remember that?). NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s facebook page generally includes several posts each day, predominantly of amazingly beautiful photographs from the space station. His page is just one of many that could help an interested teen stay up to date on the happenings in space.

Corresponding resources can easily be found for other countries and groups of countries such as the European Space Agency , the Canadian Space Agency,  and the Indian Space Research Organization.

Whether checking out a fantastic print resource or recommending one of these books at your library, enjoy your reading! And in the words of my favorite childhood TV astronomer, Jack Horkeimer, “Keep looking up!”

— Miriam Wallen, currently reading The Imposter Queen by Sarah Fine