movie still of astronaut outside on Mars
The Martian, 20th Century Studios

We asked Mark Shelhamer, former chief scientist for the NASA Human Research Program and author of our Spring issue’s article on the brain effects of space travel, for some of his favorite media on the topic.

Apollo 13 (1995) — “I still drop what I’m doing and watch this any time it comes on TV, even though I have it memorized. Great attention to historical and technical detail. Spaceflight is still a risky venture, and this film demonstrates not only the potential dangers but also the training and teamwork necessary to deal with the unexpected.”

The Martian (2015) — “Dealing with the unforeseen is what this book and movie are all about. Captures the need for autonomy, resilience, resourcefulness, and initiative—and the fact that the thing that will kill you is the one you haven’t thought of.”

Mars (National Geographic series) (2016-2018) — “Excellent dramatized depiction of a habitat on Mars and its crew. The fictional account is interspersed with interviews with the actual scientists and engineers who are working to make spaceflight to Mars a reality. The mix of fact and informed fiction is educational and entertaining.”

Europa Report (2013) — “Movie about an expedition to one of the moons of Jupiter to search for extraterrestrial life, which runs into technical problems. Details the consequences of lack of communication with Earth, and the attendant stressors. Gives a good sense of the psychological stresses that will face a small crew on long-duration missions far from Earth—a point that is often ignored.”

Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins (1974, reprinted 2009) — “Still the best book by an astronaut. Collins was the command module pilot on Apollo 11—he’s the one who did not land on the moon but stayed in lunar orbit. His experience is dated but his depictions of life as an astronaut, and of his colleagues, is wonderful. And the writing is superb—as much poetic as technical.”

Official NASA mission reports / Compiled and republished by Apogee Books — “Not exactly light reading, full of technical detail, but fascinating as an accurate picture of the early missions (up through the first shuttle flights). Formal debriefings reveal what astronauts thought about waste management on Apollo as well as how well they thought the spacecraft controls functioned; it’s all there.”

A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin (1994) — “Excellent comprehensive account drawn from extensive interviews with the Apollo astronauts. Does for Apollo what The Right Stuff did for Mercury, but with more technical detail on lunar excursions and more insight into the bigger picture of Apollo.”

From the Earth to the Moon (HBO series) (1998) — “Serial dramatized version of Chaikin’s book. A set of vignettes that trace the progress of the Apollo program from the perspectives of different people involved at the time. Greatly assisted by the fact that co-producer Tom Hanks is a true space aficionado.”

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979) — “The book, not the movie. Possibly the first book to burst the bubble on the squeaky-clean, boy-scout image of the early astronauts. A rousing read thanks to Wolfe’s style and background research. Makes the point that the early astronauts, as test pilots, were in high-risk occupations for a long time before becoming astronauts—their perspectives were much different from those of the public who saw spaceflight as uniquely dangerous.”

NASA official mission videos — “For real space-history geeks. Freely available online, the reports from the 1960s (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo) in particular provide a historical perspective not only on the technology of the time but also the cultural perspective on space (an admittedly skewed perspective, from NASA’s PR machine).”

This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of our Cerebrum magazine. Click the cover for the full e-magazine.