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The Five Astronaut Autobiographies Everyone Should Read

Astronaut autobiographies can be a very mixed bag. On the one hand, that should be surprising given the harrowing, thrilling life-and-death stories which are inherent; on the other hand, the authors are generally not very good writers.

And even if they are working with ghost writers, the ability to eloquently and entertainingly describe what it's like to be shot like a bullet into the most harsh environment imaginable is not high on the skill list that can move someone up the astronaut ladder into a coveted flight spot.

Perhaps the epitome of this is First Man, not technically an autobiography but a completely authorized biography of Neil Armstrong. Putting aside the whole moon thing, Armstrong engaged in Korean War dogfights and flew some of the most dangerous experimental jets ever built. But this ultra-dry book dares you to read it with such arcana as seemingly listing every grade he got in flight school.

All is not hopeless, though. Here are five astronaut autobiographies everyone should read:

5. Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut by Mike Mullane Mary Roach's funny "Packing for Mars," a look at what happens to the mind and body in space, says if you read just one astronaut autobiography, it should be this one. We disagree, but Riding Rockets is definitely worth picking up. While it's a little too swaggering, Mullane writes bluntly about such things as every astronaut staring daggers at an eager-beaver John Denver, visiting NASA as a potential shuttle passenger. Denver expected to be greeted like a star, not realizing a flight by him would be one less seat available for the people he was meeting, and there's nothing those people hated more than losing a flight chance.

Mullane was widely rumored to have had an affair with colleague Judith Resnik. He denies it here, but the passionate and intimate way he writes about her won't exactly convince everyone.

4. Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir, by Jerry Linenger Bryan Burrough's Dragonfly terrifically describes life aboard the antiquated Russian space station Mir as it neared the end of its service life and became something close to a deathtrap. Astronaut Jerry Linenger doesn't have Burrough's narrative gifts, but he does have the advantage of having lived through one of the two most gripping Mir episodes, an onboard fire, and in Off the Planet he does a solid job of relating the tale.

Linenger doesn't stint in criticism of NASA and Mission Control, claiming higher-ups tried to cover up near-disasters and all but lied to the men on Mir.  

3. The Last Man on the Moon, by Eugene Cernan and Don Davis As the title states, Eugene Cernan is and likely will be for a long time the last human to set foot on the moon. His autobiography veers a little closer to the standard than the groundbreaking, but it's still an insightful look into the life of an Apollo astronaut.

Also, it's pretty darn unintentionally funny to see someone bragging so much about his friendship with Spiro Agnew.

2. Apollo 13, by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger When this was first issued as Lost Moon, it didn't make much of a ripple. One gripping box-office blockbuster and a title change later, it became a bestseller.

And deservedly so. Even before he gets to the famous ill-fated mission, Lovell gives an insider's view of his Gemini flights and his Apollo 8 mission, the notable Christmas one that produced the legendary "earthrise" photo.

He's perhaps the best at describing conditions in the ultra-cramped Gemini and Apollo vehicles -- like living in a combined phone booth and latrine -- and what it was like to spend weeks in space with the notoriously prickly Frank Borman.

1. Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys, by Michael Collins Even though it's old -- first published in 1974, with a foreword, amazingly enough, by Charles Lindbergh -- Carrying the Fire set a standard that hasn't been eclipsed by astronauts able to take advantage of the freer standards of candor and subject matter these days.

Collins is an erudite guy who offers a thoughtful look into the life of the three men who went on the most famous space mission of all time, and the immediate aftermath.

You don't get a lot of derring-do and the passive-aggressive he-man braggadocio that can show up in other books, but Collins's musings on his somewhat ambiguous feelings toward his place in history, his relationship with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, are fascinating.

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