Astronauts have the unique opportunity to view the Earth from a distance with their own eyes, thanks to the windows of spacecraft and the most advanced space suit helmets. Lit by the sun, the Earth is majestically serene: national borders are invisible, and the view is dominated by blue water and white clouds. On closer inspection, you can see pinprints of the existence of humanity: the network of highways; muddy patches of air pollution hiding towns below; the sun was shimmering in the wake of the industrial ships.
As our orbit takes us to the dark side of Earth, a vast network of artificial lights from cities, towns and villages appear. Only then can humanity’s footprint on Earth truly reveal its volume and density. Eager to share, we astronauts take photo after photo, all of which end up in a solid archive of NASA images, a repository that reveals the state of the planet over time. It is an experience of expanding the mind that stays with you.
But you don’t have to be an astronaut to have the opportunity to expand your mind. The books that have marked me the most have something in common with a view of space: they have changed my view of the world, or have fostered a new discovery about myself and humanity. Below are a few highlights that really impacted me and helped shape my perspective as an astronaut, as a woman and as a human. Of course, the journey of experience continues, and so by definition, this list will never – and never should – be complete. There are always other great books to discover.
Little house in the meadow
Read during my childhood, this series by Laura Ingalls Wilder plunged me into a lifelong love for reading. Laura captured the essence of a trailblazer: an ordinary young person who gracefully handled the extraordinary circumstances placed upon her. Sometimes the most harmless and humble people are our most inspiring heroes.
Blown away by the wind
Yes, Scarlett O’Hara had many character flaws. But she was also a tenacious survivor, fiercely independent and really, really good at math. She was a fully realized character in Margaret Mitchell’s novel, who acted, spoke and thought in a way that I had never seen a female character do. Her struggle to maintain her own sense of self in a society of high expectations has been an inspiration.
This book is such a historic account of the risk-taking overachievers psyche that the phrase “good stuff” has become a popular phrase in our modern lexicon. After reading Tom Wolfe’s book, I began to understand the arrogance and pride of the military aviators around me and wanted to be a part of this world.
A few years later, the film adaptation (one of the best ever made) only intensified my desire to become a military test engineer. I found both the book and the film to be incredibly compelling because, despite the title, it describes the early astronauts as they really were: humans. And indeed, that is exactly what we are.
The third wave
Given by a friend just before launch, I slipped this book by Alvin Toffler into my personal kit and read it on my 163-day tour of the International Space Station in 2001.
He completely changed my outlook on the world, and offered me a framework and reasoning that explained a notable dissonance within our culture. Having not heard of the Information Age yet, I was late for the party. But it was mind-boggling to realize that the world was really in a state of deep societal transition.
I was even more blown away by the fact that the book was written in 1980 and that so much of what it said has become. Even today, our nation continues to grapple with so many of the issues Toffler predicted, such as cybersecurity. This prophetic work records our continuous and collective struggle to move from the industrial age to the information age.
The Passion of the Western Spirit: Understanding the Ideas That Shaped Our Worldview
I discovered this book by Richard Tarnas while chatting with friends over an intimate dinner party. It was a wonderful conversation about politics, philosophy and religion: how did we come to be who we are? What prompts us to think the way we do? Where is our destiny leading us?
Quite often the best way to find out about a great ledger is to hear about it from someone else. I found Tarnas’ work breathtaking in its scope, breadth and scholarship, and he reaffirmed an essential truth that is often overlooked: who we are is not determined by the destinations we choose, but by the destinations we choose. trips we take to get there.