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Book review: “A Galaxy Of Her Own” by Libby Jackson


When I heard that Libby Jackson – known to many people I think it’s fair to say as “the public face of Tim Peake’s mission to the space station”, but known to many of us in ‘the space community’ as a tireless media commentator, out-reacher and communicator – was writing a book about women who have been into or helped other people get into space, a mental countdown began, the same kind of countdown that ticks and tocks away in my head like a metronome while I wait for a new Star Wars film to be released or a new series of Doctor Who to begin.


Well, I’ve been doing outreach myself (on a much smaller scale than Libby, I don’t kid myself! Haha!) for many years now, since I was knee high to R2D2 in fact, a lot of it in junior schools, and it’s always been something of a personal mission of mine to make sure that the girls in the classes and groups I talked to were left in no doubt that they had the same chance, and the same right, to go into space as the hair-tugging, teasing boys seated around them.  I’ve made a conscious effort to show female astronauts and astronomers whenever I could, and tried my very best to make sure that none of the girls at my talks went away with any of their questions unanswered. Through the years I’ve been inspired myself by such amazing people as Eileen Collins, Helen Sharman and, of course, “Teacher In Space” Christa McAuliffe. So this was a book that had my name written all over it from the start. And yesterday – a day early, thank you Waterstone’s Kendal – I got my hands on MY copy…

Frustratingly after getting it home I only had ten minutes to flick through it before I had to go out again, to work, but this afternoon I’ve had a chance to go through it properly. Was it worth the wait? Is it the book I’ve wanted to read for so long? Is it the book that deserved – no, needed – to be written to pay proper tribute to some amazing people?

Oh yes.

“A Galaxy Of Her Own” is a sumptuous book. Now, I know that’s a quaint, old-fashioned word in 2017 but it’s honestly the only one I can think of that will do. I fact, I could easily tap out a dozen cliches here that describe it – “richly illustrated”, “a loving tribute” etc – and they would all be true. But basically this is a beautifully produced book written by a great writer, by someone with a wonderful knowledge of and love of her subject. It is so crammed full of incredible stories that I was worried they would tip out and spill onto the floor if I didn’t shut the book properly.

Every double page spread of the book is essentially a profile of a woman who has, in some way, contributed to the exploration of space. As such it is a book to dip into, a big wine glass of words to sip from, rather than try and gulp down in one sitting, although having said that, opening it up is rather like popping a can of Pringles or opening a box of Maltesers: you tell yourself “I’ll just have one” but then you have another, and another, and another…

So who is in the book? Well, where other books might have focussed just on women who have flown into space, on the astronauts and cosmonauts who have actually gone up there, “Galaxy” casts its net a lot wider, and profiles not just space farers but the people who made – and still make – it possible for others to go into space. There are profiles of engineers, scientists, computer programmers, nurses, and many others too. This was a really pleasant surprise, and makes the book much more than a volume of astronaut biographies.

There’s a real sense of history to the book too – it opens with the story of Emilie de Chatalet, a brilliant French physicist from the early 1700s who translated Newton’s writings into French, and it goes on to tell the stories of woman alive today, still working in the field of space exploration.

So, dipping into the book you can read all about the lives and careers of woman from all backgrounds and periods of history. There are the stories of the ‘famous’ people you would expect to be in there,  the usual suspects like Valentina Tereschkova, Sally Ride and Ada Lovelace. There are people you might, like me, be less familiar with, such as Jerrie Cobb (who should have been a Mercury astronaut) and Dee O’Hara (a nurse who worked with astronauts right through from the first days of Mercury to the Skylab missions). Some of the book’s profiles are of people who I had hoped would be in there but didn’t really expect to be, such as British scientist Monica Grady (SO good to see her story in a book!).


I was delighted to find Helen Sharman in there too, but not surprised, as I remember how Libby worked so hard to have her treated with the respect she deserves during Tim Peake’s mission to the ISS. (Many reporters were either so swept up in Tim Fever, or too lazy to do some research into past missions, that they erased from history Helen Sharman’s mission to MIR, and insisted on calling Tim “the first British astronaut”, which was rubbish, obviously, and many of us called out the offending reporters for that at the time.)

Here and there a “wild card” appeared in the book as I flicked through it, someone who I hadn’t imagined for a second would be in it, but definitely deserves to be. Nichelle Nichols – Lt Uhura from the original Star Trek series and films – is in there (illustrated quite beautifully by LCC artist Ehigie Aigiomawu), as are “The ILC Seamstresses” who sewed together the spacesuits that kept the Apollo astronauts alive in their spacecraft and in the Moon. It was an absolute pleasure, and quite humbling, to read their stories.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its author. Libby’s writing style is snappy, confident and engaging. She writes without any fuss or unnecessary embroidery, but with the same infectious enthusiasm and joy she displays when she speaks about space exploration on the TV or on the radio. Like all the best science books, reading this one is like listening to a presentation by a really professional, really gifted public speaker. Each spread is effectively a short outreach presentation, given to the reader in the comfort and privacy of their own home, or train carriage, or classroom. Just like eating those aforementioned Maltesers, you dip your hand into the book meaning to just have one, but before you know it your mouth is full of chocolate, like that Easter egg-scoffing nun on Father Ted…

Design-wise, this book was, I’ll be honest, not what I was expecting – but I hasten to add that’s a good thing. I fully expected it to be a traditional “profiles” book, with a block or blocks of text accompanying one large, or several small, photographs of the individual concerned. After all, there are lots of books with that format, right? Not this one. This one has text, yes, but opposite that text is a piece of art, not a photograph. Each woman profiled in the book has been painted, sketched or drawn by one of the students from the London College of Communication. Clever, and this sets it aside from many other “profile” books on the shelves. However, I have to be honest and say – and I have to stress that this is just a personal thing, I’m not passing any judgement on quality or ‘worth’ – that some of the art styles appealed to me more than others. Some (the more realistic) really appealed to me, while other portraits, painted in more abstract styles, didn’t appeal to be as much, or at all. Some I thought looked distinctly…odd, disturbing, even, and I came away from those spreads with no actual idea of what that person looked or had looked like. But as I say, that’s more about me and my relationship with art than the book, and I can (and will) Google those people to see what they actually looked like, so it’s not a big deal. Other readers will, I’m sure, adore each and every one of the portraits. But there’s such a wide variety of styles in the book that flicking through it I felt a bit distracted now and again, like I was looking through an art gallery catalogue and not reading a science book.

But one of the best parts of the book, for me, appeared when the final story had been told. There, at the back of the book, was a section that is designed to be FILLED IN BY THE READER!!! Yes, this is a book that asks you to write in it, to make it your own, and that means it will be owned, and loved, and *kept* by its readers, and maybe looked at when they are grown up and have kids of their own. This section asks the reader to fill in their own details, like completing a survey, to help them become a space explorer. It’s a bit of a personal career guide, I suppose. In many other books that would have felt forced, but in this one it works. It personalises the book in a very clever and quite moving way. And when I was looking at this section I found myself imagining an astronaut on Mars around the year 2040, resting on their bunk in the Hab, relaxing after a hard day out in the rock fields… in their hands is a book which they brought with them to Mars as part of their personal allowance, a treasured, scuffed and creased book they were bought as a Christmas gift way back in 2017… and as they fall asleep, exhausted, the book falls to the floor, open at a page which they wrote on that long ago Christmas Day…

This book.

It’s a weary cliche now when a book, or a CD, or a DVD is hailed as “The perfect gift for Christmas”. But honestly, if you have a young ‘un – especially but not exclusively a girl – who is “into space”, who has a dream of going to the Moon or Mars one day, then this book really IS the perfect gift for them this Christmas. It’s in the shops now.


“A Galaxy Of Her Own” by Libby Jackson is published by Century Books. ISBN 978-1-780-89836-0 £16.99




3 Responses

  1. Thanks for the fascinating review! Amazon and Barnes and Noble in the USA note the book will be available in May 2018.

  2. Yep, loved your review. That was a breath of fresh air. Thanks Stu.

  3. What a heart-felt review of a fantastic book. I bought the book today to share with my trainee teachers as an example of a non fiction text which challenges orthodoxies about science. I briefly flicked through it in Waterstones but on deeper reading I agree that it is such an important book on so many counts. I particularly enjoyed the introduction in which Libby discusses finding a passion in life. It is totally inspirational and I’ll be sharing that too. I want to show them that children can be inspired by reading many kinds of texts and this hopefully will light a few fires ( figuratively of course! ) I enjoyed the illustrations- it’s great to give young illustrators new opportunities. Super book!

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