Many of the books listed below are ones that I used in preparing my 2005 book Centauri Dreams: Imagining and Planning Interstellar Exploration. But in the time since, I’ve added a number of more recent titles. I’m hoping Heath Rezabek’s curation project will reveal other books that may be useful as we flesh out the list. As to the choices made, these are non-fiction science books, although several recent titles contain a mix of non-fiction and science fiction stories.
Feel free to suggest SF titles that specifically broaden our thinking about interstellar flight — we can either integrate them into the main list or develop a second list focused on fiction. The latter may be more practicable. Also, books on SETI and exoplanetology are under-represented in favor of books on spaceflight and propulsion. Given how often we discuss these matters on Centauri Dreams. I’d like to see recommendations for more titles in both these areas.
I also restricted the selection to books that have been through serious peer review from the publisher itself or qualified people chosen by its editors. Books that largely compile previously published papers that have been through rigorous peer review also make the list. While self-publishing is a growing phenomenon, if no peer review is evident, I cannot add such titles to the short list. Please note: The breakdown of the list into General Audience, College, Graduate and Professional was an attempt at sorting that I’ve grown uncomfortable with — many of these titles could go in more than one such category. The list is a growing thing and you can expect additions as well as changes in format as it evolves.
Adler, Charles (2014) Wizards, Aliens and Starships. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Caleb Scharf calls this “…a delightful, funny, and immensely interesting romp through science and fiction,” which precisely nails the spirit of the book. Adler looks at the wonders of science fiction from alien civilizations to teleportation and warp drive, framing the discussion against judiciously explained physics. It’s hugely entertaining and scientifically sound.
Berry, Adrian (2000) The Giant Leap: Mankind Heads for the Stars. New Yorks: Tor Books.
A look at the technologies that might one day lead to the nearest stars and beyond. Discusses the options for making such journeys, along with the political and philosophical imperatives that might drive such a mission. Interesting chapters on interstellar navigation and suspended animation.
Boyce, Christopher (1979) Extraterrestrial Encounter: A Personal Perspective. Secaucus, NJ: Chartwell Books.
Speculations on the nature of alien intelligence and the possibilities for understanding and communicating with it. The odds on SETI and the possible use of Bracewell or von Neumann robotic probes for studying other planets play a role in this lively discussion.
Burrows, William E. Exploring Space: Voyages in the Solar System and Beyond. New York: Random House, 1990.
One of the best histories of the space program ever written, this book gives full weight to automated probes rather than manned flight, and speculates on the technologies that will take us outside the Solar System. Burrows’ look at the politics behind programs like the Space Shuttle resonates today.
Calder, Nigel (1978) Spaceships of the Mind. New York: Viking Press.
Speculations on space technologies including many interstellar concepts. Numerous useful though dated illustrations. The driving factors pushing space colonization are carefully examined.
Forward, Robert L (1995) Indistinguishable from Magic. New York: Baen Books.
Perhaps the greatest interstellar theorist of them all, Robert Forward offered mission concepts galore in the course of his career, many of them entertainingly discussed in this collection of essays. The author’s wry humor often shows through in discussions that range from wormholes to antimatter engines.
Friedman, Louis (1988) Starsailing: Solar Sails and Interstellar Travel. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Friedman’s background working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on a once-considered solar sail mission to Halley’s Comet allows him to tap deep resources in explaining how solar sails will one day open up the Solar System, with potential for interstellar flight via particle or laser beam.
Kaku, Michio (2008) Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel. New York: Doubleday.
Kaku discusses three levels of ‘impossibility,’ ranging from things we may one day puzzle out to technologies that would strike us as indistinguishable from magic, to use Arthur Clarke’s fine phrase. This wide-ranging study includes a look at interstellar technologies now under active study.
Krauss, Lawrence (1995) The Physics of Star Trek. New York: Basic Books.
A theoretical physicist offers thoughts on the scientific wonders of the popular TV series, discussing such issues as teleportation, time travel, warp drive and black holes. Excellent at untangling the futuristic but possible from the hugely improbable, based on known physics.
Macvey, John W. (1977, 1991) Interstellar Travel: Past, Present and Future. New York: Stein and Day.
Revised in 1991, this book examines interstellar travel technologies ranging from space arks to wormholes, with a long discussion of the nature of extraterrestrial life and how it might communicate with humans. Wide-ranging and easy to read, this is a good choice for young readers.
Myrabo, Leik and Dean Ing (1985) The Future of Flight. New York: Baen Books.
Starship drives are only one of the topics covered by this survey of future flight technologies, but the interstellar chapter is strong, surveying concepts from the Bussard ramjet to the laser-driven lightsail and antimatter engines. A good though now backgrounder for those wanting a quick survey of these ideas.
Nicholson, Iain (1978) The Road to the Stars. New York: William Morrow & Co.
A well-illustrated and lively survey of future space technologies, with a useful discussion of SETI and the possibilities of communicating with extraterrestrial intelligence. The major ideas for upgrading today’s engines are presented, beginning with ion drives and carrying forward to the Bussard ramjet.
Sagan, Carl (1980) Cosmos. New York: Random House.
Carl Sagan’s classic offers some of the most captivating illustrations ever made available in a space book. While the book, like the TV series it parallels, offers perspective on the entire human experience of the heavens, it places the possibilities of interstellar flight in a readable, powerful context.
Wright, Jerome L. (1992) Space Sailing. New York: Taylor & Francis.
A history of the solar sail concept, one that uses momentum from the Sun’s own light to drive a space vehicle, without the need to carry heavy fuel. Well illustrated, this book examines all the ways solar sails may change our future in space, both in the near term and the far.
Adelman, Saul J. and Benjamin Adelman (1981). Bound for the Stars: Space Travel in our Solar System and Beyond. Inglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
The exploration of space from travel in the nearby Solar System to interstellar missions. The latter chapters discuss interstellar propulsion, navigation, the search for extrasolar planets and the first starship. Useful discussions as well about a plausible program for long-term interstellar planning.
Andreadis, Athena (1999) To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek. New York: Three Rivers Press. A professional biologist goes to work on life sciences as depicted in Star Trek, with thoughts on everything from telepathy and the genetic code to the cultural sameness of the societies the Enterprise’s crew encounters. Entertaining and instructive.
Benford, Gregory and James (2013) Starship Century. Lucky Bat Books.
Starship Century is an anthology by authors from both science and fiction writing backgrounds, illustrating some of the tech and ideology behind the illustrious goal of traveling to another star within the next century. Edited by Gregory Benford, New York Times bestselling science fiction author, and James Benford, leading expert on space propulsion, Starship Century includes science fiction by Neal Stephenson, David Brin, Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress, Stephen Baxter, Gregory Benford, John Cramer, Richard A. Lovett, and Allen Steele, as well as scientific articles by Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, Robert Zubrin, Peter Schwartz, Martin Rees, Ian Crawford, James Benford, Geoffrey Landis, Paul Davies and Adam Crowl.
Billings, Lee (2013) Five Billion Years of Solitude. New York: Current.
The exoplanet hunt as seen through Lee Billings’ eyes as he interviews the major players in the field, from Frank Drake to Jim Kasting, Sara Seager, Greg Laughlin, Geoff Marcy and more. Within their individual stories Billings weaves in the technological and science breakthroughs that have made current work possible, and points eloquently toward the next stages in the journey as we look for a genuine Earth. 2.0. There is no better examination of the basic techniques and issues surrounding exoplanet detection and the human impact of this work.
Carroll, Michael (2016) Earths of Distant Suns: How We Find Them, Communicate with Them, and Maybe Even Travel There. New York: Copernicus.
The explosion in exoplanet studies since the mid-1990s and the detection of the first planet around a main-sequence star is examined in this highly readable survey of the discovery process and the implications of what we find. The Fermi question (Where are they?) plays its role in the discussion. Also embedded within are chapters covering the prospects for interstellar travel and the challenge of communication between distant civilizations. The goal of finding a second ‘Earth’ is developed within a clear account of exoplanet detection technologies and the prospects for meaningful study of astrobiology using the spectral signatures of such distant targets.
Clarke, Arthur C. and David Brin, ed. (1990) Project Solar Sail. New York: Roc.
Useful essays from leading theorists examine the role of solar sails in future space missions, with attention to missions in the Solar System and beyond. The essays are interleaved with short fiction and even poetry that explores plausible scenarios for putting sails to work.
Dole, Stephen H. and Isaac Asimov (1964) Planets for Man. New York: Random House.
This is the popular version of a RAND Corporation study originally performed by Dole. The later version includes the thoughts of Isaac Asimov, and examines the factors necessary for planets to be habitable for humans, and our chances of finding them. Although dated, this book still offers useful information about the concept of a habitable zone and the factors that will one day make particular planets useful destinations for our probes.
Dyson, George (2002) Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
Freeman Dyson’s son tackles the great attempt to wed nuclear technology to deep space missions, Project Orion. Told with flair and access not only to key documents but the recollections of the major players, this history shows how one team of experts viewed journeys to the outer Solar System and beyond before the realities of the Test Ban Treaty put the concept beyond reach.
Forward, Robert L. and Joel Davis (1988) Mirror Matter: Pioneering Antimatter Physics. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Interstellar theorist Robert Forward offers a thorough background to the history of antimatter research. Propulsion concepts that could drive our first starships are examined, while the methods for creating and storing antimatter and using it here on Earth receive solid scrutiny. The chapter on antimatter in science fiction is particularly energetic.
Genta, Giancarlo (2007) Lonely Minds in the Universe. Berlin: Springer.
A valuable study of astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, unique in the extent to which it explores the philosophical and religious background of humanity’s awakening interest in the cosmos. The discussion of biology both on Earth and elsewhere offers insights into the possibilities of living organisms around other stars, while the author’s speculations about consciousness and intelligence remind us just how unique each alien ecosystem and its inhabitants may be. How we may interact with any intelligence we discover forms an insightful part of the narrative.
Gilster, Paul (2004) Centauri Dreams: Imagining and Planning Interstellar Exploration. New York: Copernicus Books.
Surveys methods for moving an interstellar probe to speeds that could reach nearby stars in a single human lifetime. These range from fusion to antimatter, beamed lightsails, magnetic sails, Bussard ramjets and other concepts. Also covers interstellar navigation and exoplanet detection.
Grinspoon, David (2003) Lonely Planets. New York: Ecco.
I found this a useful and deeply entertaining overview of current and historical thinking on extraterrestrial life, with interesting arguments against the hypothesis that the Earth is in any way unique when it comes to the ability to produce living organisms. What intelligent life might become both on Earth and elsewhere is considered with a leavening of personal anecdotes and humor, and a plea that we move beyond definitions of life too firmly attached to our own planet.
Impey, Chris and Holly Henry (2014) Dreams of Other Worlds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Read Impey and Henry for an overview of where we’re coming from in unmanned space exploration and robotics. The book lays out our explorations from Viking on Mars to Cassini, WMAP and Spitzer, chronicling the interplay of new technologies and emerging science. Manned missions invariably get more buzz, but until we ramp up our methods, the outer system belongs to increasingly sophisticated machines. This is where they come from.
Johnson, Les and Jack McDevitt, eds. (2012) Going Interstellar. New York: Baen.
A collection of tales by an all-star assortment of award winning authors including Ben Bova, Mike Resnick, Jack McDevitt, Michael Bishop, Sarah Hoyt and more together with essays on high technology by space scientists and engineers – all taking on new methods of star travel. The essays include reports on propulsion technologies including antimatter, solar sails and fusion. The science fiction speculations tackle the human consequences of travel to another star and how our descendants will master issues from species survival to alien contact.
Kaku, Michio (1995) Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps and the Tenth Dimension. Oxford University Press.
Understanding the possibilities of interstellar flight demands a look at the things that may warp space and time, including wormholes that could offer fast transit without exceeding the speed of light. Michio Kaku explains the options with a minimum of jargon and clear, readable prose.
Mallove, Eugene F., and Gregory L. Matloff (1989) The Starflight Handbook: A Pioneer’s Guide to Interstellar Travel. New York: John Wiley.& Sons.
A classic of interstellar studies, Matloff and Mallove’s book provides the necessary theory to understand the various propulsion methods proposed to reach the stars. All major concepts are considered by two authors who have been involved in interstellar concepts for decades.
Matloff, Gregory, Les Johnson and C. Bangs (2007) Living Off the Land in Space: Green Roads to the Cosmos. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Space travel as we do it today requires large amounts of fuel that take up a major part of the rockets we launch. How we can learn to use resources in space itself may determine how soon we push into the outer Solar System and beyond. The science behind space tethers, solar sails and other techniques for in-System voyaging are here explored, along with speculations about even more audacious concepts that could take us to the stars.
Matloff, Gregory, Les Johnson and Giovanni Vulpetti (2010) Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel. Berlin: Springer. A comprehensive survey of solar sail concepts ranging from near-term designs like the Solar Polar Imager to interstellar possibilities enabled by laser-driven lightsails, this book summarizes our sail knowledge at the beginning of the solar sail era, with numerous thoughts on sail design, construction, deployment and trajectories.
Michaud, Michael (2006) Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials. New York: Copernicus.
A thorough discussion of the consequences of our encounters with extraterrestrial civilizations, with background studies of the history of human speculation about extraterrestrial intelligence, our searches for life and for the signals of other cultures, and the various ways contact might play out. In an era when some are trying to extend the SETI (listening) paradigm to METI (broadcasting), this book offers sober analysis of how humanity should weigh these options, and opts for multidisciplinary negotiation and consensus before acting in ways that could impact the entire species.
Savage, Marshall T. (1994) The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps. New York: Little, Brown & Co.
An optimistic look at how mankind can spread into the cosmos, offering a program to transfer a large proportion of the world’s population into venues off-planet. Step by step improvements lead to terraforming Mars, using the resources of the outer system, and moving to the nearby stars.
Strong, James (1965) Flight to the Stars. New York: Hart Publishing Company.
An early classic of interstellar studies, Strong’s book offers a rationale for the human expansion to the stars, while considering a variety of propulsion concepts to get the job done. While dated in specifics, the scenarios considered here paint possible futures for a star-faring race with vigor and enthusiasm.
Thorne, Kip S. (1994) Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Thorne is a major player in the theory of wormholes, and thus the kind of distortions of spacetime that may one day make it possible to travel vast distances quickly without ever exceeding the speed of light. This book places his theories into the Einsteinian context in readable if challenging fashion.
Zubrin, Robert (1999) Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1999.
The case for becoming a spacefaring civilization is made with enthusiasm and panache. The action ranges from terraforming nearby Mars to exploiting the resources of the outer planets, with solid chapters on interstellar propulsion and contact with extraterrestrial civilizations.
Carroll, Michael (2011) Drifting on Alien Winds: Exploring the Skies and Weather of Other Worlds. New York: Springer.
From the Soviet Venus balloons to the advanced studies of blimps and airplanes for the atmospheres of Mars and Titan, Drifting on Alien Winds surveys the many creative and often wacky ideas for exploring alien skies. Through historical photographs and stunning original paintings by the author, readers also explore the weather on planets and moons, from the simmering acid-laden winds of Venus to liquid methane-soaked skies of Titan.
Czysz, Paul and Claudio Bruno (2009) Future Spacecraft Propulsion Systems: Enabling Technologies for Space Exploration. Berlin: Springer.
Space propulsion systems from near-Earth to the outer Solar System and beyond. Focus on applied engineering working within the known principles of physics, with emphasis on fusion rocket designs and the extension of today’s technologies to missions into deep space.
Doody, Dave (2009) Deep Space Craft: An Overview of Interplanetary Flight. Berlin: Springer.
Descriptions of interplanetary spacecraft with detailed looks at their instrumentation and the Earth-based operations needed to acquire and process their incoming data. Flight operations and the interactions between a mission’s science team and the light team are examined, with detailed appendices on the range of instruments that have so far flown, and those likely to be aboard spacecraft in the future.
Finney, Ben R. and Eric M. Jones (1985) Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press.
This is a compilation of papers from the Conference on Interstellar Migration held at Los Alamos in May of 1983, which examined not only the scientific possibilities, but also the social, ethical and even legal ramifications of our move into the cosmos. Its look at how humanity has coped with past challenges, such as the settlement of the Pacific islands, places interstellar migration in context.
Kondo,Yoji, ed. (2003) Interstellar Travel and Multi-Generational Space Ships. Apogee Books Space Series 34. Collector’s Guide Publishing Inc (June 1, 2003).
Papers from a symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2002, exploring propulsion concepts and the solutions needed for flight to the stars. The book also addresses the cultural and psychological issues related to long-term voyaging and ponders ‘generation ships,’ in which crew members spend their entire lives on voyages several centuries in duration.
Long, Kelvin (2011) Deep Space Propulsion. New York: Springer.
The technology of the next few decades could possibly allow us to explore with robotic probes the closest stars outside our Solar System, and maybe even observe some of the recently discovered planets circling these stars. This book looks at the reasons for exploring our stellar neighbors and at the technologies we are developing to build space probes that can traverse the enormous distances between the stars. All the propulsion concepts seriously considered for interstellar flight are examined here.
Maccone, Claudio (2009) Deep Space Flight and Communications: Exploiting the Sun as a Gravitational Lens. Berlin: Springer.
Maccone has long been the champion of a mission to the Sun’s gravitational lens at 550 AU and beyond. Here he lays out the results of his two decades of study of the concept, discussing possible probe designs, the best targets for investigation, and the underlying principles of lensing. Section 2 examines the challenge of communicating between an interstellar spacecraft and the Earth, focusing on the opportunities found in the Karhunen-Loève Transform (KLT) for optimal telecommunications.
Matloff, Gregory L. (2005) Deep Space Probes: To the Outer Solar System and Beyond. Berlin: Springer/Praxis Books.
Recently revised, Matloff’s look at deep space technologies offers abundant references in its examination of current theories of interstellar propulsion, including nanotechnology and ramscoops that draw their fuel from hydrogen between the stars. Also included are speculations on astrobiology and the development of self-reproducing von Neumann probes that could saturate the galaxy.
Mauldin, John H. (1992) Prospects for Interstellar Travel. American Astronautical Society Science and Technology Series, Vol. 80. San Diego, CA: Univelt.
A thorough study of interstellar flight possibilities that covers, in addition to the relevant propulsion concepts, every aspect of starship design, including the navigation problem and the difficulties posed by lengthy voyages with human crews. The overall engineering of space probes designed for such missions is discussed at length, with abundant references for follow-up reading.
McInnes, Colin R. (1999) Solar Sailing: Technology, Dynamics and Mission Applications. Chichester, UK: Praxis Publishing.
The most exhaustive study of solar sail technology available, offering a rich list of references for specialists. Applications for near-term missions are considered in detail, with the relevant equations for understanding the forces at work. A thorough examination of sail materials and design explains where we are now and how solar sails may change the economics of propulsion. Beamed lightsails for interstellar missions.
Millis, Marc and Eric Davis, eds. (2009). Frontiers of Propulsion Science. Reston, VA: AIAA.
A compilation of essays from specialists about the prospects for breakthroughs that could revolutionize spaceflight and enable interstellar flight. Five major sections are included in the book: Understanding the Problem lays the groundwork for the technical details to follow; Propulsion Without Rockets discusses space drives and gravity control, both in general terms and with specific examples; Faster-Than-Light Travel starts with a review of the known relativistic limits, followed by the faster-than-light implications from both general relativity and quantum physics; Energy Considerations deals with spacecraft power systems and summarizes the limits of technology based on accrued science; and, From This Point Forward offers suggestions for how to manage and conduct research on such visionary topics.
Seedhouse, Erik (2012) Interplanetary Outpost: The Human and Technological Challenges of Exploring the Outer Planets. New York: Springer/Praxis.
Interplanetary Outpost follows the mission architecture template of NASA’s plan for Human Outer Planet Exploration (HOPE), which envisions sending a crew to the moon Callisto to conduct exploration and sample return activities. To realize such a mission, the spacecraft will be the most complex interplanetary vehicle ever built, representing the best technical efforts of several nations. A wealth of new technologies will need to be developed, including new propulsion systems, hibernation strategies, and revolutionary radiation shielding materials. Step by step, the book will describe how the mission architecture will evolve, how crews will be selected and trained, and what the mission will entail from launch to landing.
Shuch, Paul (2011) Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Berlin: Springer.
A collection of essays from prominent SETI scientists as well as a sprinkling of science fiction writers covering the first 50 years of SETI, the science and technology in play, and the future direction of the discipline. Particularly valuable are the discussions of the assumptions behind interstellar communications and the consequences of a successful SETI reception.
Smith, Cameron (2012) Emigrating Beyond Earth: Human Adaptation and Space Colonization. New York: Springer.
Based on the most current understanding of our universe, human adaptation and evolution, the authors explain why space colonization must be planned as an adaptation to, rather than the conquest of, space. Emigrating Beyond Earth argues that space colonization is an insurance policy for our species, and that it isn’t about rockets and robots, it’s about humans doing what we’ve been doing for four million years: finding new places and new ways to live. Applying a unique anthropological approach, the authors outline a framework for continued human space exploration and offer a glimpse of a possible human future involving interstellar travel and settlement of worlds beyond our own.
Vakoch, Douglas and Albert Harrison, eds. (2013) Civilizations Beyond Earth: Extraterrestrial Life and Society. Berghahn Books.
This collection of essays takes in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and offers a sociological and philosophical entry into a field that is often dominated by the hard sciences. Vakoch, a sociologist, brings a useful new dimension to the question of how humanity would react to extraterrestrial contact, and the essays chosen for this volume form a discussion that meshes well with Michael Michaud’s work in Contact with Alien Civilizations. Harrison, a psychologist from the University of California, helps to ensure that SETI analysis will continue to deepen its multidisciplinary links as the field evolves.
Woodward, James (2012) Making Starships and Stargates: The Science of Interstellar Transport and Absurdly Benign Wormholes. New York: Springer/Praxis.
A study in three parts: The first deals with information about the theories of relativity needed to understand the predictions of the effects that make possible the “propulsion” techniques, and an explanation of those techniques. The second deals with experimental investigations into the feasibility of the predicted effects; that is, do the effects exist and can they be applied to propulsion? The third part of the book – the most speculative – examine the questions: what physics is needed if we are to make wormholes and warp drives? Is such physics plausible?