Aviation- and Space-nerd books please (fiction need not apply)
October 6, 2016 7:42 PM   Subscribe

Looking for awesome non-fiction recommendations for somebody who loves books about non-military planes and spaceflight .

This person is an engineer who doesn't enjoy fiction, and prefers "this is how things work/ed" as opposed to "this is how we felt when things worked". The last few books they have been excited about include How Apollo Flew to the Moon, and QF32 (although with this one they skipped the parts that weren't technical). They liked The Martian, but didn't love it because it was fictional.
posted by cholly to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

The Concorde Story by Orlebar is really excellent.
posted by nickggully at 8:34 PM on October 6, 2016

I just finished reading NASA's (very long) Challenge To Apollo: The Soviet Union and The Space Race, 1945-1974 and it was fascinating. But very long.
posted by MoTLD at 8:35 PM on October 6, 2016

"Flying the SR-71 Blackbird: In the Cockpit on a Secret Operational Mission" by Richard H. Graham was just recommended to me, and it sounds like it fits the bill. The more famous (and very rare in hardcopy) book "Sled Driver" by Brian Shul is an interesting read, but much less technical, by accounts. It's a military plane, but it's not a fighting plane, so I thought it might be in the scope.

Maybe you could track down a used copy of "The Space Shuttle Operator's Manual," a book which really blew my young mind when it was released in 1982. Technical but approachable, a kind of pop-reference manual.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:56 PM on October 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Right Stuff.

Granted, it's a little more "this is what it felt like to be an Apollo astronaut" than "this is how the spaceship worked", but it has quite a lot of technical detail as well.
posted by mekily at 9:09 PM on October 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, by John McPhee
posted by nicwolff at 9:26 PM on October 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Gene Kranz's autobiography Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond is a pretty great read. It might be a bit more on the "this is how we felt" side of the spectrum, but it's got a lot of detail about the organization and operational workings of mission control, as opposed to the more technical aspects.
posted by karayel at 9:56 PM on October 6, 2016

Also, if this person is interested in air disasters (and near-misses), Laurence Gonzales's Flight 232 and William Langewiesche's Fly By Wire (plus Langeweische's assorted essays in Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, etc).
posted by karayel at 9:59 PM on October 6, 2016

I haven’t read it, but Mary Roach has a great reputation for entertaining non-fiction, so maybe Packing for Mars?
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 1:12 AM on October 7, 2016

These all sound like excellent suggestions - I'll definitely check them all out. I just remembered a conversation we had after watching Sully about how he's fascinated by how human factors cause and shape disasters - so bonus point for stuff like this.
posted by cholly at 3:09 AM on October 7, 2016

Into the Black by Rowland White - a fascinating account of the first Space Shuttle mission and the preparation that went into it.

Apollo by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox. Yes, that Charles Murray, but I have never heard any complaints about the scholarship in this book, which has long been considered one of the definitive technical histories of the Apollo Project.

A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin. The basis for the series From the Earth to the Moon this is a superb account of Apollo. There is an expensive but beautiful three-volume fully illustrated edition.

Just about any book by David Shayler (the space author, not the former spy!)

Ignition! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants by John D Clark. If your friend doesn't mind a bit of technical discussion of chemistry then this is a fascinating and at frequently hilarious account of early work in rocket propellant development. It's at last available on Kindle as actual copies were rarer than rocking-horse poop. Worth the price for the anecdote about chlorine trifluoride alone...

Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System by Dennis R Jenkins. Out of print, desperately in need of a fourth edition (it was published shortly before the Columbia disaster) but incredibly encyclopaedic and comprehensive. If you want to know how the Shuttle worked or how we got to the design that was eventually flown, this book is a must.

Apollo 11 Owners' Workshop Manual by Haynes. When Haynes - publishers of car workshop manuals - started doing books outside their usual range I assumed it was a bit of a joke. But this book is actually a really detailed discussion of the Apollo CSM and LM, and even though I've been reading books about Apollo since I was a child I found new material in here (it's the first popular book I've read that gives a good account of the environment and life support systems, for instance.) The volume on Gemini is also good and the new Saturn V one is on my to-read list.
posted by Major Clanger at 4:24 AM on October 7, 2016

I really enjoyed Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane. It might go too far into memoir territory for your friend's tastes, but Mullane has a good, deep technical knowledge of the Shuttle program and has a lot of (fairly critical) things to say about the Shuttle safety program and the decision to eliminate the rapid evacuation system from the design.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:53 AM on October 7, 2016

A new book is "How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight" Hardcover – September 20, 2016 by Julian Guthrie

And an old book, whose reviews make me think it fits his criteria "The Complete Guide to Rutan Aircraft"
posted by Sophont at 7:40 AM on October 7, 2016

North Star Over My Shoulder is a fantastic book by Robert Buck about the early days of the airlines, celestial navigation, and other non-military aviation wonderment.

Fate Is The Hunter is a must-read for anyone involved in aviation, even at a hobbyist level. It has a special focus on how a chain of events can line up to kill you. Really excellent read.
posted by Thistledown at 11:42 AM on October 7, 2016

Just to note that the above recommended Ignition! is available for download (legally I think) here. It is an amazing thing to read.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 11:53 AM on October 7, 2016

"The Black Box: All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts Of In-flight Accidents" by Malcolm Macpherson consists of black box recorder transcripts from airline accidents, many but not all of which were fatal. Each transcript has some text describing the nature of the flight, the cause of the accident as now known after the fact, the consequences of the accident, and such. It's kinda riveting. The "all-new" book is from 1989, though, so don't expect to hear about United 93 (or other 9/11 flights), USAir ("Cactus") 1549, or Air France 447, to name some famous crashes since then.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:11 PM on October 7, 2016

Seconding Spacesuit, it's easily one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read (and beautifully printed, to boot). There are 21 chapters, one for each layer of the Apollo mission spacesuit, though not a 1-for-1 correspondence. Note that it has a reasonable but heavy element of mid-century 20th century fashion history involved, not just laser-focused on hard science - there's a chapter on Christian Dior, if I remember right (relevant I think because of how changes in fashion necessitated changing methods of designing/constructing bras, and much of the suit was manufactured by Playtex). It was at least a little discursive, but always in interesting ways.
posted by lousywiththespirit at 12:19 PM on October 8, 2016

Lots of astronauts have written books and I have yet to read a dull one. Along with the above-mentioned Riding Rockets, let me recommend Last Man On The Moon by Gene Cernan and Off The Planet by Jerry Linenger.

Plus, of course, The Right Stuff... and also, Michener's Space.
posted by Rash at 10:31 AM on October 9, 2016

All of these are super and will keep him occupied for a while! Bonus points to Major Clanger (and rhamphorhynchus) for Ignition. I left out that he's a dual major, with Chemistry. So combining rockets and chemistry is the best idea ever.
posted by cholly at 2:57 PM on October 9, 2016

I thought of something else that's a little out of left field. The NTSB publishes all of their accident reports on their website, and major accidents get full 100+ page write ups. Their technical writing is superb and because of their charter they're willing and able to place blame where they think it needs to be placed. The reports are surprisingly riveting reading, and they're all available for free to the general public.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:46 AM on October 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

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