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Detachment Delta: Operation Cold Dawn
By Charles Sasser
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Charles Sasser
All right reserved.
". . . ballistic descent!"
Final static-garbled words erupting from the Russian Soyuz space capsule returning to earth from the International Space Station. Two full hours before scheduled reentry. Three spacemen aboard -- two American astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut. Houston Space Center had heard nothing since. NASA assumed this last message meant a malfunction in the guidance computer had switched the Soyuz from a normal to a premature ballistic descent. This was the first time in twenty-eight years that U.S. astronauts had returned to earth in a capsule, and their first time ever to land in a capsule on the ground.
It was going to land only God knew where. Certainly it would miss its targeted landing zone in Kazakhstan by hundreds of miles. Or it would break up and burn in the earth's atmosphere.
The first sixteen minutes of atmospheric reentry were the most brutal. Riding it was like being stuffed into the core of a bullet and shot at the earth from a giant pistol. Friction sparked flickering tongues of flame from the outer skin. The inner skin glowed.
Tremendous heat sucked sweat from the pores of the three riders aboard the Soyuz. Eight G's, twice the normal amount, molded them to their seats. Pressure made breathing laborious, even though the spacemen wore G-suits. Eyes bulged. Tongues slipped back in their heads and into their throats. Skulls felt like they might explode.
The only thing they could do was ride the ship in -- and pray that it held together.
By some miracle, it remained intact, earth's cushion of air finally slowing it enough to allow the main parachute to open normally. The capsule dangled below the huge multicolored parachute like a silver bullet in the high intense sunlight. Slowly it drifted downward into heavy cloud cover, into a monstrous blister of thunderstorms that gave the frightened spacemen a second wild ride, albeit comparatively tamer than the first.
"Vomit comet . . . !" someone gasped, already suffering from the motion sickness common to travelers returning from long space flights.
Blown about like a dandelion seed in wind, the Soyuz finally spurted from the clouds and swept at dizzying speeds above a soaked and dreary landscape so rugged a giant might have mauled it with his fingernails, a terrain so alien the capsule might be landing on a planet other than earth. It skimmed over a flood-swollen river and barely cleared a rocky promontory that clawed at it with one horny finger.
It hit hard on a mountainside meadow. The inflated parachute dragged it tumbling downhill for more than fifty feet. It finally came to rest among a field of boulders with one hatch lodged solidly against the ground, all its exterior antennas having been ripped off. The deflating parachute continued to whip and pop in the wind and driving rain.
The three spacemen, sick, weak, and shook up, remained buckled in their seats to recuperate from the rough reentry and even rougher landing. What was another hour or so after their having spent the last five months in the International Space Station? Communications were out and they had no idea where on the globe they might have landed. For the time being, all they could do was wait for someone to come.
Smoke from the pyrotechnic bolts that automatically opened the parachute oozed into the capsule and finally compelled the spacemen to pop the clear hatch. Although the rain had slackened, it still slashed through the opening and into their faces. No one minded. They smelled the rich earth odors of soil and grass for the first time in months. There had been a time when they thought they might never feel rain or sunshine or anything again.
The travelers solemnly shook hands all around. Then, curious about their surroundings, they pulled themselves out of the capsule. Their legs would not support their weight. Returning spacemen had to crawl around on hands and knees until their bodies made the transition back to gravity from prolonged weightlessness. They sought shelter from the rain where the nose of the ship rested against a boulder, forming a relatively protected hollow underneath.
Soon, a group of men came into sight, hurrying over a ridgeline and downhill across the meadow toward the boulder field and the space wreck. The parachute by this time had collapsed like a used condom. Expecting rescue, the spacemen waved and shouted.
They stopped waving and shouting. The ratty-looking men, armed with assault rifles and pistols, surrounded the capsule and stood in the rain, heads lowered, black beards and mustaches beaded with rainwater, eyes sharp and hostile. Their leader barked a command in Russian. He repeated the order, followed by an impatient jabbing gesture with his AK-47.
"He's telling us to get up," the cosmonaut interpreted. "We are their prisoners."
Excerpted from Detachment Delta: Operation Cold Dawn by Charles Sasser Copyright © 2005 by Charles Sasser. Excerpted by permission.
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