In an effort to get past the recent memory of multiple failed robotic explorers, I've chosen the five best books I have read about the U.S. space program.
The Heavens and the Earth by Walt McDougal
The definitive, surprising and highly readable history of the U.S. space program. Forget visionary rhetoric about humans' need to explore the next frontier: McDougal demonstrates how NASA's moon missions grew directly from Hitler's V-2 rocket project at Pennemunde and were all about the classic military necessity of controlling the high ground -- in this case the really high ground.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
This would also make my list of the five funniest books of the 20th century. Herein Wolfe unveils the uncensored cultural history of the original seven astronauts, a delicious slice of midcentury Americana and a wicked dissection of the military cult of the fighter-jock. It is inspired Wolfian prose before he sold out and went fictional, filled with hilarious anecdotes (i.e., Alan Shepard reluctantly peeing in his spacesuit atop his Redstone rocket while waiting out an excruciating launch delay) and a textbook example of how stories we think have been told to death (and nothing has been more widely covered and written about than the first seven astronauts) have not been told at all until a great reporter visits the scene.
Of a Fire on the Moon by Norman Mailer
If you can get past the first 100 pages of strut, a demonstration of writerly ego not for the faint of heart, this book blossoms into a brilliant account of Apollo 11's successful mission to the moon -- the most impressive stunt in human history -- and contains some of the finest writing ever about engineering. (Mailer was trained as an engineer.) The book captures the real daring and drama so scrupulously edited out by NASA's ever placid, "nominal" exterior, making it clear that landing men on the moon was never the safe, predictable outcome we were assured it was, and that Norman Mailer is at his best by far when he's writing about someone else.
Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin
This book tells the stories of all 12 men who walked on the moon. While the rest of America turned on, tuned in and dropped out, NASA was pulling off the most dazzling feats of exploration in history. Exhaustively reported and written with confidence and great clarity, Chaikin's book captures both the technological and the human dramas of these forgotten space flights. The Tom Hanks-produced movie series based on this book was pretty damn good, too. In its own way, the book documents a period of frightening disillusionment, when Americans seemed incapable of taking pride in achievements that will be remembered long after almost everything else about the 20th century has been forgotten.
Dragonfly by Bryan Burrough
A remarkable story about the near catastrophe aboard Mir, the Russian space station, which, compared with the craft built with NASA's compulsion for sterile perfection, orbits like some mad Cossack scientist's gimcrack treehouse. A scary, thrilling story of a disaster narrowly averted and wonderful portrait of the culture clash that resulted when bureaucrats got the warm and fuzzy notion of merging the U.S. and Russian space programs. Jerry Bruckheimer's blockbuster "Armageddon" owes an unacknowledged debt to Burrough in its depiction of the rumpled, chain-smoking cosmonaut who saves the day with his genius for homespun high-tech improvisation. Burrough's book captures the terrifying hostility of space, its crushing emptiness and unrelenting cold, and explains the current technological cul de sac (if not dead end) of NASA's excellent adventure.