Many Americans shared a sentimental moment on July 8 as the countdown clock hit zero in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Space Shuttle Atlantis rocketed into flight. Although it marked the end of an epoch, the final shuttle launch has rekindled an interest in space. For enthusiasts who want to get to know some of the colorful characters involved in humankind’s most audacious enterprise, here are three books on space travel.
1. Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin , by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony (Walker; paperback, $16). Beyond his role as the first man launched into space, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin has been something of a mystery man in the West. This book provides the definitive account of the farmboy’s rise from a showboat who could waterski on one leg to a totally in-control jet pilot picked out of 2,200 candidates to rocket off the Earth. His was a daring mission, and he received international acclaim before he died in a mysterious plane crash years later.
2. Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey , by Al Worden with Francis French (Smithsonian, $29.95). Al Worden is a straight-talkin’, lived-to-tell-about-it test pilot who became part of the universe’s most elite fraternity — one of 24 humans to have journeyed to the moon. Like Gagarin, he was a farmboy. But unlike Gagarin, Warden saw his reputation diminished when he took part in a scheme to make money off the lunar trip. This is his candid portrayal of the story that unceremoniously ended his career.
3. Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History , by Ben Mezrich (Doubleday, $26.95.) Mezrich, the author of the insider account of Facebook’s creation, “The Accidental Billionaires,” rips through the tale of Thad Roberts, the man who stole the moon. Parts of it actually. Roberts’s plan involved removing a moon-rock safe from a security-camera-lined NASA laboratory. He got away with it at first and celebrated by sprinkling moondust first collected by Neil Armstrong underneath the bedsheets he was sharing with his girlfriend and boldly going where no man had gone before.