Inspiring Nonfiction About Female Space Pioneers

20th Century Fox

The Academy Award-nominated film Hidden Figures has done a fantastic job of reminding us all that white men aren’t the only heroes of the space age. Over the decades, and even centuries, women have played a crucial role in many incredible celestial discoveries. From calculating distances in space to actually traveling them, the so-called “fairer sex” has left our mark on the final frontier, and there are myriad books to prove it.

Thanks to the many authors who have delved into the lives and experiences of female space pioneers, we can read about these women’s enthralling and often difficult journeys. While the tales that involve spaceflight may be the most visible and sound the most exciting, the ones that took place on solid ground are just as impressive. Each woman, no matter her job, overcame enormous challenges and helped shape history.

These women’s stories say a lot about our culture — and not all of it is good. Still, it is inspiring to see how they all managed to break barriers, little by little. In honor of Women’s History Month, check out the 10 books below to learn more about the contributions of women in the space age. Prepare to be impressed.


‘Hidden Figures’ by Margot Lee Shetterly

NASA’s African-American “human computers” get some overdue credit in Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. Like the acclaimed film, Margot Lee Shetterly’s book reveals the important role the women played in getting men into space. The stories don’t match exactly, so even if you already saw the movie, you’ll learn something new.

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‘The Glass Universe’ by Dava Sobel

Several decades before the Hidden Figures women helped launch John Glenn into space, 19th-century women were responsible for key advances in astronomy. Dava Sobel delves into their contributions in The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. Their accomplishments were nothing short of impressive — we’re talking figuring out what stars were made of, determining how to using starlight to measure distances across space, and more.

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‘Rise of the Rocket Girls’ by Natalia Holt

Talented “human computers” are also the focus of Natalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars. These particular ones worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and, like the others, did vital and amazing work. They provided the brains (and calculations) needed to design better rockets, launch satellites, and travel around the solar system.

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‘The Mercury 13’ by Martha Ackmann

Doing math wasn’t the only role of women in the space race, as we see in Martha Ackmann’s Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight. The book centers on the group of female pilots who went through — and passed — secret physiological testing in the early 1960s with the goal of becoming the first women in space. While they ultimately didn’t get to live out their dream (ugh, patriarchy), the Mercury 13 did lay the groundwork for American women to come.

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‘Right Stuff, Wrong Sex’ by Margaret A. Weitekamp

In spite of having a solid pool of candidates (see above), the United States didn’t launch its first woman into space until two decades after the Soviet Union did. Margaret Weitekamp looks at the reasons why in Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program. Not surprisingly, gender roles were a huge factor, and Weitekamp shows how the program’s success (or lack thereof) ties in with the history of the women’s movement.

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‘Almost Heaven’ by Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles

Women having to fight harder to prove what they can do is nothing new, and we see an example in Almost Heaven: Women on the Frontiers of Space. Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles tells the stories of 40 female astronauts and shows how misogyny has affected them and others over the years. It’s a fascinating look not just at NASA but our culture.

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‘Women in Space’ by Karen Bush Gibson

Karen Bush Gibson pays homage to female astronauts, cosmonauts, and mission specialists in Women in Space: 23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, and Gravity-Breaking Adventures. She profiles fascinating pioneers from around the world, including the first woman in space, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova; the first woman to command a space shuttle, Eileen Collins; and more. The book is geared toward young adults, so it is as accessible as it is informative.

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‘Sally Ride’ by Lynn Sherr

Lynn Sherr looks at the life and legacy of a boundary-breaking astronaut in Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space. The biography covers her career’s trajectory, both before and after her historic flight. There is also fascinating insight into her personal life, including her reluctance to come out as gay and her work encouraging girls to study science and engineering.

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‘From Where the Wind Goes’ by Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, tells her own story in From Where the Wind Goes: Moments From My Life. Although she writes for younger readers, all of us can appreciate her accomplishments. Beyond traveling to space, she had been an actress, doctor, teacher, and more. Why not just do it all, right?

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‘My Dream of Stars’ by Anousheh Ansari

Money may not buy happiness, but it did help self-made millionaire entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari become the first woman to travel on a commercial spaceflight. In My Dream of Stars: From Daughter of Iran to Space Pioneer, Ansari, with Homer Hickam, writes about the unique experience. It’s inspiring to see her go from her childhood in Iran to tech firm founder to space and back.

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