August 17, 2014

Space travel

If you are interested in the psychological experience and impact of space travel, a great place to start is Moondust, Andrew Smith’s collective biography of the twelve men who stood on the Moon. When he wrote the book, nine were still alive and Smith set out to speak to them all. Readable and poignant, there is so much in this book that psychologists (as well as lay readers) will find fascinating and provocative.

In an interview after publication of Moondust, Smith commented that “one of the things you notice when you go and meet these people who’ve had this extraordinary experience, and they are extraordinary men in lots of ways, but in other ways they’re very, very ordinary people just like you and me. And they’re having to deal with our expectations and our hopes of them.” These themes are explored in more depth in astronaut autobiographies, many of which we drew on for Extreme.

Buzz Aldrin famously battled depression and alcoholism after returning to earth, and his journey through and out of these depths is told in his autobiography Magnificent Desolation. Gene Cernan’s account of his life and work as an astronaut – including the toll on him and his family – is frank, entertaining, exciting, often troubling, and sometimes breathtaking.

Ed Mitchell’s journey through the material and mystical worlds explains how space travel profoundly changed the course of his life. “What I experienced during that three-day trip home was nothing short of an overwhelming sense of universal connectedness” which eventually prompted him to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences, dedicated to the study of the mind and how beliefs and intentions affect the physical world.

We were fortunate that Chris Hadfield’s autobiography An astronaut’s guide to life on earth came out before we finished Extreme as his story provides many exemplars of the themes we covered. I particularly valued his emphasis on knowhow, practice, and solid preparation – his book really brings to life how important sheer hard work is when surviving and thriving in extremes. (Meeting Chris Hadfield is something I’ll remember and treasure for a long time, along with my signed copy of the Astronaut’s Guide.)

For a general overview of the Apollo programme, Andrew Chaikin’s hefty account still remains the classic history of the early days of space travel. Tom Wolfe’s account of how the US selected The Right Stuff for these missions remains a classic, and rightly so. A more academic study from NASA psych Pat Santy provides the science behind Choosing the Right Stuff.

Bryan Burrough’s detailed examination of the Shuttle-Mir space missions in the 1990s is a readable mix of politics, history, engineering, and psychology, with some great anecdotes, as well as a detailed account of the crisis itself, when a terrifying fire aboard Mir threatened the lives of all on board.


  • Aldrin, B. (2009). Magnificent Desolation. London: Bloomsbury Publishing plc
  • Burroughs, B. (1999). Dragonfly and the crisis aboard Mir. London: Fourth Estate Ltd.
  • Cernan, E. & Davis, D. A. (1999). The last man on the Moon. New York: St Martins
  • Chaikin, A. (1994). A man on the Moon: The triumphant story of the Apollo space program. New York: Viking.
  •  Hadfield, C. (2013). An Astronaut’s guide to life on earth. London: Macmillan.
  • Mitchell, D. E. (2008). The way of the explorer: An Apollo astronaut’s journey through the material and mystical worlds. Franklin Lakes: The Career Press
  • Santy P.A . (1994). Choosing the right stuff. The psychological selection of astronauts and cosmonauts. Westport, CT : Praeger
  • Smith, A. (2005). Moondust: In search of the men who fell to Earth. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Wolfe, T. (1990). The right stuff. London: Picador.

You can buy all these books via the Extreme Bookshelf Amazon store. We are part of the Amazon Affiliates programme, meaning that we receive a small commission if you visit Amazon via links in this blog. This commission goes towards the hosting fees for this website.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: