Out of Orbit: The Incredible True Story of Three Astronauts Who Were Hundreds of Miles Above Earth When They Lost Their Ride Home

Out of Orbit: The Incredible True Story of Three Astronauts Who Were Hundreds of Miles Above Earth When They Lost Their Ride Home

by Chris Jones

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Formerly Titled TOO FAR FROM HOME

On February 1, 2003, the nation was stunned to watch the shuttle Columbia disintegrate into a blue-green sky. Despite the numerous new reports surrounding the tragedy, the public remained largely unaware that three men, U.S. astronauts Donald Pettit and Kenneth Bowersox, and Russian flight engineer Nikolai Budarin,


Formerly Titled TOO FAR FROM HOME

On February 1, 2003, the nation was stunned to watch the shuttle Columbia disintegrate into a blue-green sky. Despite the numerous new reports surrounding the tragedy, the public remained largely unaware that three men, U.S. astronauts Donald Pettit and Kenneth Bowersox, and Russian flight engineer Nikolai Budarin, remained orbiting Earth. With the launch program suspended indefinitely, these astronauts, who were already near the end of a fourteen-week mission, had suddenly lost their ride home.

Out of Orbit is the harrowing behind-the-scenes chronicle of the efforts of beleagured Mission Controls in Houston and Moscow, who worked frantically against the clock to bring their men safely back to Earth, ultimately settling on a plan that felt, at best, like a long shot.

Given that no shuttle could come for them, the astronauts' only hope for a return flight became a Russian-built Soyuz TMA-1 capsule latched to the side of the space station—a piece of equipment roughly the equivalent of a "padded box attached to a parachute," with a troubled history (in 1971 a malfunction in the Soyuz 11 capsule left three Russian astronauts dead) and dated technology.

Gripping and fast-paced, Out of Orbit is an adventure in outer space that will keep you on the edge of your seat. In a day and age when space travel is poised to become available to the masses, Out of Orbit vividly captures both its hazardous realities and soaring majesty.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Combines gripping narrative and strongly defined characters . . . engrossing.”
Publishers Weekly
“Up close and personal . . . Jones, who obtained the cooperation of Bowersox and his crewmates, captures their feelings of separation from Earth and delivers space travel’s ever-present risk in a kinetic rendering of their harrowing return home.”

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt


For this one dream, men had turned chimpanzees into crash test dummies, gone through a thousand pink enema bags to make sure their own plumbing was ready to withstand the trip, and finally been launched like artillery shells—in corrugated–tin capsules held together by hardware–store screws—deep into the black. Not much later, they were balancing themselves on top of six million pounds of rocket fuel and lighting it on fire. Today the insanity physics continue. Astronauts blink down the risk that a rubber O–ring on one of the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters might give way, spraying a flame laced with powdered aluminum, ammonium perchlorate, and iron oxide onto the external fuel tank, igniting its cargo of liquid oxygen and hydrogen, and having their cockpit turn into a coffin.

All to cross the gap between home and away, to cross a distance that, on land, any old rust bucket could fart across in a couple of hours. But the gulf between earth and space is, and always will remain, a wider divide: it’s a chasm without walls, and plenty of men, as well as a couple of women, have died trying to string their way to the other side.


Captain Kenneth Bowersox had survived the trip four times, twice as a pilot in the space shuttle’s forward right seat, twice as commander in the forward left. Now he played the unaccustomed role of cargo, staring at rows of storage lockers instead of the beckoning sky. The pilot had become the passenger, one of three men crammed below decks like ballast, waiting to be shuttled on Endeavour to the International Space Station.

Despite having been shunted downstairs for launch, Bowersox had been looking forward to his fourteen–week–long mission the way the rest of us look forward to a much–needed vacation. Although he had visited space four times, none of his previous shuttle missions had lasted more than sixteen days, and he had never been to the International Space Station. He had always felt that he had been asked to come home too soon. This time, however, he would have time to linger. He and his colleagues would conduct a range of scientific experiments and busily maintain station—astronauts rarely bother to slip the in front of station, thinking of it as a place rather than a thing—but their principal assignment would be to make themselves and the men and women who would follow them content living in orbit. Even before launch, Bowersox was confident that, as far as finding happiness went, he would succeed. He might have been flying steerage, but space was still his island in the sun.

For all that Bowersox tried to focus on the destination, he couldn’t help wishing he was up above for the journey. He wished he was alongside the two men in the front–row seats—in his seats—able to take in the view and, more important, see the fifty control panels and nine monitors that flashed before Commander Jim Wetherbee and Paul Lockhart, the pilot. Against his life’s habit, Bowersox had ceded control, and now he shifted in his seat and fiddled with his straps. At least Wetherbee had been in space five times already, and like Bowersox, he was a Naval Academy man and okay by him; Lockhart, in contrast, was making just his second trip, and only five months after his first, back in June 2002.

Also, he came out of the air force.

Worse, Lockhart wasn’t meant to be flying today. Had everything gone to plan, Lockhart should have been in Houston, watching NASA TV, trying to get out from under the private jealousy that runs through every grounded astronaut forced to watch another man’s dreams come true.

The man stuck watching television this time around was Gus Loria of the marines, who had thrown out his back in August and been scratched from the mission, which would have been his first. Instead, Lockhart’s vacation plans had been canceled, and he was pressed into emergency service, jammed into the same seat on the same shuttle he’d occupied just that past summer. It was still set for his height, and he settled right in.

Loria was less comfortable on his perch back in Houston, and he wasn’t alone among the unhappy spectators. Joining him was Dr. Don Thomas, a four–trip veteran and the science officer who had been expected to join Bowersox and the Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin—a former engineer who had logged nearly a year in space on Mir, the International Space Station’s burned–up predecessor—for their stay. Over two years of training, at home and in Russia, in simulators and classrooms and T–38 jets, they had become Expedition Six.

Thomas had also undergone a more sinister indoctrination. Without the apron of earth’s atmosphere to protect them, astronauts are exposed to higher–than–usual amounts of solar radiation. Because little is known about exactly how much exposure will trigger cancer, and rather than risk its astronaut corps becoming lumpy with tumors, NASA has set an arbitrary radiation “red line.” If an astronaut approaches that ceiling, he’s grounded and stuck behind a desk until his cancer–free retirement (fingers crossed). Extensive medical investigation had revealed that Thomas, for whatever reason, had come unacceptably close to NASA’s red line. Another four months in space and he would have gone over it. He would have carried too much of the universe home with him.

The flight surgeons had passed on their findings to Mission Control and, in turn, to Bowersox. As the commander of Expedition Six, he had been left facing down three possible outcomes following the unsettling news: he could choose to ignore the evidence and fight to allow Thomas to fly; he could see Thomas scratched from the mission and replaced with his designated backup, a chemical–engineer–turned–rookie–astronaut named Don Pettit; or Bowersox could ground himself, Budarin, and Thomas, and order all three members of Expedition Six replaced by their reserves. He had taken the options to bed with him and been surprised by how much time he spent turning them over.

Through training and by nature, Bowersox had acquired a certain cool. He carried a sense of detachment with him almost always: a pilot’s life, if he wants to see the end of it, doesn’t hold a lot of room for romance, and Bowersox had mastered the hard art of bottling up his feelings. Confronted with a dilemma that would keep most men up at night, he’d hold it under the light like a clinician, pulling it apart without emotion. The walls he’d built carried clean through his eyes, which were the same hard, glacier blue that had become a trademark of the best pilots, like Chuck Yeager’s drawl or a strong chin. (Bowersox, who grew up in Indiana, owned the chin but not the accent.) Since Norman Mailer had pointed out that all but one of Apollo’s first class of sixteen astronauts boasted blue peepers, that genetic fluke had become a virtual requirement of the astronaut corps. It was as if the color of a man’s eyes revealed the tenor of his heart, cold and colder.

But here Bowersox struggled, even though the facts were plain. Thomas’s health presented a risk, and a trip into space was marbled with enough risk already. That should have been all there was to it. And yet, for one of the few times in his life, it was finally his turn to lie awake, allowing the data to be clouded by late–night sentiment. He had grown to like Thomas—a quiet, hardworking, serious–minded man, the sort whose hands never shook. Bowersox's affection for him, when viewed through the peculiar prism of space travel, was a particular kind of love: it meant that he was both comfortable in his company and confident in his abilities. They had developed an abiding faith in each other, and now Bowersox was confronted with a decision that, in an instant, might break what had taken years to build.

He didn’t want his friend killed with kindness, however, and he began casting his mind toward switching out the entire crew. It didn’t take him long to shake off that option like a shiver. The clean sweep would have crushed Budarin and brought Thomas no closer to space. And in the honesty of his private company, Bowersox had to admit that his own itching to fly bordered on a sickness. Through the semidarkness, he stared down the prospect of spiking what might be his last stab at it. He was forty–five years old, almost forty–six, growing long–toothed by astronaut standards; he’d lost his ginger hair a long time ago. Deep down, he knew his time was running out. He also knew there were dozens of astronauts lurking in the wings behind him, first–stringers their entire lives who'd found themselves in the unnatural position of waiting, sometimes for seven, eight, nine years, hoping that their phone would finally ring with the call that gave them the go–ahead. No part of Bowersox wanted to put a line through his own name in exchange for one of theirs; no blue–eyed pilot would ever volunteer to give up the stick.

All of which had left him with a single option: replacing Thomas with Pettit, exchanging one Don for another, and, in the process, learning how to think of a friend as though he was just another part of the machine.


At Star City, an hour north of downtown Moscow, down a road cut through a green forest, a contingent of exiled Americans had gathered in the small cottage occupied by Don Pettit. He had been in Russia for more than a year, mostly going through the motions. Although he took his training seriously, he knew that, as a reserve, his chances of getting called up to join Expedition Six were close to zero. Really, his agreeing to a semipermanent exile was part of a grander plan he had drawn up for himself. For a rookie astronaut, clocking in as a backup was viewed favorably by those few, untouchable men in Houston who put together crews. So long as Pettit performed well enough in training, and providing he didn’t do anything that might make the Russians wary of him, he would earn a better than average chance of one day making the trip to station. Until then, he would uncomplainingly do his chores, biding his time as though serving a prison sentence, pushed along by the hope that perhaps Expeditions Nine or Ten or Eleven might include him, front and center.

Pettit looked the part, at least, every inch the science guy—glasses hiding brown eyes (not blue), curly dark hair, an affinity for cargo pants held up by a belt full of tools. He was a chemical engineer, an inventor, a veteran explorer of molecules and optics rather than of space, a man who couldn’t help wondering how engines worked, why clouds formed, what lived in the hearts of volcanoes. In his endless quest to understand more about the inner workings of the universe, he had tried and failed to become an astronaut three times; the fourth time around, he was finally given the chance to dissect the stars.

To fill the hours until he made the jump from reserve to prime, he hosted loud parties in his cottage, especially when his wife, Micki, and their tiny twin boys made the flight over for a spell. She was a singer, and along with some of Pettit's astronaut colleagues—including Chris Hadfield, the amiable Canadian guitarist—had formed a band. Late one night in August 2002, they had taken seats wherever they could find them, on the floor and the couch, and they had played and sung and laughed until they were interrupted by the phone ringing, not long before midnight. The noise in the room stopped. Pettit answered, and after he had listened to the calm but serious voice on the other end of the line, he hung up the phone, shot Micki a look, and rushed out the door.

He had been told a few days earlier that there were “anomalies” in Don Thomas's medical evaluation, but nothing more specific. The news had been passed along as a courtesy more than anything else. Hiccups were not unusual, and Pettit had never thought, at least not for more than a moment, that this minor tremor might become an earthquake. But by the time he had returned to his cottage—by the time Micki had the chance to lay her eyes on him again—she knew what he knew: in three months, both of their hearts would thump through their chests, counting down the seconds to liftoff and a long time away.


Ken Bowersox’s decision was not clean in its consequences; one dilemma begot a dozen others. First, Thomas’s clothes and food had been shipped ahead to station. His set of embroidered blue golf shirts had the right first name stitched on their pockets, but the taller Pettit would need to pack along his own pants and sneakers. More troublesome from Pettit's perspective, Thomas—like Bowersox and Budarin—had forgone coffee in his food allowance, a handpicked menu served on an eight–day cycle. Pettit, who liked to kick–start his day with a jolt of caffeine, begged for permission to carry up some coffee. After threatening tears, he was allotted about one hundred bags of freeze–dried instant; because the cost of shipping cargo into space runs about $10,000 a pound, he was lucky to get that much. (A fan of spicy food, Pettit was also permitted a dozen cans of New Mexican green chiles to dress up Thomas’s humdrum choices.)

Pettit’s more immediate concern was Thomas’s emotional health. His grounding had left him gutted. Thomas had fought the findings as soon as they were announced; the scientist in him had always loathed the “red line” that ultimately did him in, railing against it as so much hokum theory. He believed in evidence, in hard arithmetic and indisputable sums, and now, in his mind, all of the time and hope that he had invested in this mission had been wiped away by calculations fraught with doubt. In the weeks that followed, after he had returned to Houston and sat alone with the lights out, his mood had continued to swing from anger to upset, the spaces in between occupied by a kind of disbelief, those sad moments when he tried to convince himself that he could change his fate and win his return to space.

Switch–outs for still–living crew are rare, much rarer than replacing the recently deceased—a grim reminder that pushing the limits of astronautics is usually an all–or–nothing proposition. Their scarcity had made them the ultimate bad omen, even in a profession routinely beset by metaphorical broken mirrors and black cats. Over the course of space travel’s voodoo history, the next man in line had replaced Elliot See, Charles Bassett, David Griggs, and Sonny Carter after each had been killed in an air crash before his scheduled launch. But before Thomas and Loria had lost their spots, bad news had been delivered to an astronaut rather than to his wife only twice. Deke Slayton’s irregular heartbeat bumped him from Mercury’s flight order in 1962. And more famously—thanks to the blockbuster film—Tom Mattingly was replaced by Jack Swigert after he had been exposed to the measles before the ill–fated flight of Apollo 13 in 1970. Bowersox had seen flashes of the movie in his head when he had dropped the bomb on Thomas. He marveled at how much harder real life played out than it did on film, all the while trying not to fixate on the fate of the last crew broken up so close to launch.

Swigert had joined Jim Lovell and Fred Haise, and they had been none too happy for his company. Unfortunately, he also happened to be the man who flicked the switch to stir the oxygen tanks in Apollo 13’s service module on its way to the moon. Because of an earlier, long–forgotten mishandling of the No. 2 tank—it had been dropped and replaced during Apollo 10's kitting out—exposed electrical wires shorted and lit the tank's Teflon insulation on fire. The oxygen was slow-boiled, the fire spread along the wires to an electrical conduit, and the tank blew up. The explosion damaged another oxygen tank and the inside of the service module, and it ejected the bay No. 4 cover into space: in terrible sum, it put a hole in the machine. Although the crew of Apollo 13 somehow managed to limp their way home on courage, they were destined to become part of astronaut lore for different, darker reasons. Their preflight drama, coupled with their mission number, meant that their lessons were the kind passed on in whispers. When it came to catapulting yourself into space, there was no such thing as superstition. There were only signs.

Meet the Author

CHRIS JONES joined Esquire as a contributing editor and sports columnist, and became a Writer at Large when he won the 2005 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing for the story that became the basis for this book. Previously he was a sportswriter at the National Post, where he won an award as Canada’s outstanding young journalist. His work has also appeared in The Best American Magazine Writing and The Best American Sports Writing anthologies. He lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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