Scott Ourecky wanted to flyhe never dreamed he'd end up in a secret military space program.
The year is 1968: The Cold War is far from over, nuclear annihilation is always only a heartbeat away. America is racing the Soviet Union to land men on the Moon, a war is raging, and a pivotal presidential election looms on the horizon. A child of the early space age, Lieutenant Scott Ourecky joined the Air Force with aspirations of going to flight school. A brilliant engineer, he repeatedly fails the aptitude test to become a pilot but is selected to work on a highly classified military space programthe innocuously named Aerospace Support Projectin which Air Force astronauts are slated to fly missions to intercept and destroy suspect Soviet satellites.
When one of the astronauts in training abruptly falls out of the project, Ourecky is asked to fill in for the two-man simulated missions and survival training only, serving with a headstrong and abrasive test pilot, Major Drew Carson, until another astronaut can be assigned. By far the most proficient pilot assigned to the project, Carson has a dangerous propensity to engage in “pick-up” dog fighting sessions while on cross-country training flights. And although Ourecky was only a temporary “place holder,” not destined to fly in space, he soon finds himself much more involved than he ever anticipatedand in deepest peril.
Based on a real secret space program, Blue Gemini combines high-altitude action with edge-of-your-seat storytelling to create a modern Cold War thriller.
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About the Author
Mike Jenne is a licensed pilot, life-long aerospace aficionado and amateur space historian. As a child, he felt the ground shudder-often - as the Saturn V moon rockets were tested at nearby Marshall Space Flight Center. Trained as an Army Ranger and Military Freefall (“HALO”) Parachutist, he is a former Special Forces officer who has served across the globe, including deployments to Africa, Central America, Haiti, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Mike and his wife, Adele, make their home in Trussville, Alabama.
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By Mike Jenne
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2015 Mike Jenne
All rights reserved.
PROLOGUE ONE: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE BUZZ ALDRIN
Sixteen miles southwest of Lincoln, Nebraska 8:32 a.m., Monday, April 25, 1966
As ordered, Scott Ourecky planted his hands in his lap, away from the aircraft's controls, and clamped his eyes tightly closed. He felt perspiration beading on his forehead. Through his earphones, he heard the muted drone of the Cessna 150's Lycoming engine. Wary of what was to come, he recited emergency procedures in his mind.
Ourecky was an Air Force ROTC cadet at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Just a month away from graduation, he was undergoing the compulsory "pressure hop" — the flight training aptitude exam — to assess how effectively he might handle the stresses of pilot training. Assuming that he passed his pressure hop, and certainly he would, he would soon matriculate to primary flight training at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, shortly after he received his Air Force commission and pinned on his gold bars.
Administered by one of the ROTC instructors, a former fighter pilot named Major Dan Bell, the pressure hop was a subjective evaluation. Although it was certainly beneficial, previous flight training was not required; a few days prior to his hop, a prospective pilot was issued a study sheet with several emergency procedures to memorize. On the day of a student's hop, Bell would take him up, familiarize him with controlling the aircraft, and then run him through a few emergency drills. Bell apparently was far less concerned whether a would-be pilot might flub the details of an unfamiliar procedure, but much more focused on determining whether he might choke under pressure.
But the hop was still highly subjective. In his capacity as the de facto gatekeeper to the brotherhood of aviators, Major Bell was granted considerable discretion. As rumors had it, Bell was just as likely to grant an "up" ticket to a backslapping, boisterous frat boy — particularly if the cadet was a member of Alpha Tau Omega, his own fraternity — as he was to pass a serious and studious cadet like Ourecky. So, as in all of his academic pursuits, Ourecky had intently studied his advance sheet and everything else that he could glean concerning the Cessna 150 and piloting procedures in general, until he had the information absolutely down pat. Moreover, over the course of the past two years, he had quizzed other cadets concerning the details of their pressure hops. Although he had only flown three times in his life, he was theoretically as prepared to fly the Cessna as any man could possibly be.
From what other cadets had related, Bell typically took them through no more than two emergency drills before returning to land at Lincoln. After all, everyone was aware that the pressure hop was a cursory check intended to identify the panic-prone before the Air Force expended a lot of money training them to be pilots. But if the other cadets had only been subjected to two emergency drills — three at most — Ourecky was on the verge of executing his fourth drill of the morning. What gives here?
Ourecky sensed the little aircraft climbing sharply, and then heard the kazoo-like buzzing sound of the stall warning as the plane abruptly lost lift and started to backslide out of the sky. He almost succumbed to an urge to laugh out loud; Bell was obviously setting him up for a simple drill, a recovery from a power-on stall, a common malady of inexperienced pilots who tried to climb too quickly after takeoff.
"Open your eyes, cadet," said Bell curtly. "You have the controls."
"I have the controls," replied Ourecky, quickly grasping the control yoke. "Executing power-on stall recovery." He swiftly executed the drill and recovered from the stall. Tugging back gently on the yoke, he resumed the designated altitude and steered back onto the assigned heading. "Two-Seven-Zero degrees, five thousand feet altitude," he announced.
"Good recovery. Maintain heading."
Grinning, confident that he would ace the hop, Ourecky glanced at Bell. Briskly chewing a wad of gum, with his bloodshot eyes concealed behind the teardrop-shaped lenses of aviator sunglasses, the instructor wore a faded brown leather flight jacket festooned with colorful embroidered patches of fighter squadrons he had flown with. From all accounts, he was a very competent pilot, but had effectively destroyed his military career with excessive drinking, wanton behavior, and a corresponding string of disciplinary infractions. Although he had repeatedly applied for combat duty in Vietnam since arriving at Lincoln, he wasn't going anywhere. Absent a miracle, Bell would remain at the ROTC department, enduring a monotonous routine of shepherding cadets, fated to retire in his current rank.
While it was tragic that Bell's life had stalled, Ourecky was confident that he would ascend on a much longer and higher trajectory. He had grown up in the American heartland, less than a hundred miles from here, in the humble and tiny town of Wilber, Nebraska. Renowned as the "Czech Capital of the USA" because so many Czechs had settled there as a result of the Homestead Act of 1862, Wilber was home to just over a thousand souls.
Like so many others of his generation, Ourecky was infatuated with space exploration. As a teenager, he had haunted the small library at school, incessantly poring over Wernher von Braun's visionary articles on space exploration in Collier's magazine, along with books by Willy Ley, Fred Whipple, and other aerospace pioneers. He studied the details of paintings by Chesley Bonestell and Fred Freeman, picturing himself aboard their massive doughnut-shaped space stations and needle-prowed rockets.
He spent countless nights peering through a telescope at the moon, planets, and swirling galaxies. Startlingly brilliant in the Nebraska sky, the stars beckoned; his destiny was there in the heavens, piloting a rocket, not tending corn on the 160 acres of black earth that had once been his great-great-grandparents' homestead. But unlike countless other would-be star voyagers, he had focused his eagerness to concoct a plan that would ultimately place him behind the controls of a vessel bound for space.
It was a scheme of two key interlocking parts. First, since he was convinced that test pilots would be standing at the front of the line to become astronauts, flying lessons were absolutely essential. Second, he vowed to diligently apply himself to his academic studies. It seemed logical to Ourecky that an engineering background would be required for long duration space missions, since engineering skills would be crucial for repairing systems and solving complex problems on the way to the moon or Mars.
As he trudged through high school, it was apparent that his aviation training would have to wait, since no airfields near Wilber offered flight lessons. In his senior year, in a class comprising just eight students, Ourecky won an Air Force ROTC scholarship to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He still wanted to fly, but his academic course load — a double major in electrical engineering and mathematics — left little time for extracurricular activities. He made time for elective courses in astronomy, and also gained a working knowledge of orbital mechanics through independent studies with a sympathetic professor. His social life was virtually non-existent; while his classmates urged him to join them in the indulgent joys of collegiate life — keg parties, outrageous pranks, chasing coeds and the like — he committed almost every waking hour to his studies.
And now he was merely a few weeks away from flight school. After earning his wings, as soon as he gained adequate flying experience, he would apply for test pilot school. Ideally, with any luck, he would acquire an advanced engineering degree in the process. But despite his carefully laid plans, there was always the possibility for outcomes that he could not influence. As the United States was becoming progressively more entangled in the war in Southeast Asia, Ourecky was abundantly conscious that his path might entail a detour to Vietnam. If that was the case, he would certainly do his duty but would assume no undue risks.
It would certainly be a long journey, but Ourecky was sure that he was on the right path towards his objective. He had closely followed the astronauts from the very outset of the space program, when the seven test pilots had been chosen for Project Mercury in 1959. He admired all of them, but his personal hero was Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin. Although he joined NASA's astronaut corps relatively late — as a member of the third class of astronauts selected in 1963 — and had yet to fly into space, Aldrin stood out sharply from the pack. A genuine American hero, he had shot down two MIGs and won the Distinguished Flying Cross in the course of flying sixty-six combat missions over Korea. If that wasn't enough, Aldrin was also a brilliant theoretician who wrote a groundbreaking thesis on orbital rendezvous to earn his doctorate at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From what Ourecky had read, Aldrin was endowed with an irrepressible work ethic, constantly striving to improve the efficiency of spaceflight procedures. While Ourecky had immense respect for great thinkers, he had even more respect for men of action like Aldrin, who would soon fly into space and literally insert himself into his theoretical equations on the biggest blackboard that ever was. Ourecky was absolutely certain that his hero would be the first man to walk on the Moon.
Through the intercom, Bell's voice interrupted his thoughts: "I have the controls. Close your eyes."
A fifth drill? Ourecky obediently closed his eyes and tucked his hands over his lap belt.
"Open your eyes," said Bell curtly. "You have the controls. Your engine is on fire."
"I have the controls," replied Ourecky. He glanced sharply to his left and picked out a large wheat field. "Emergency descent. I've selected a landing site."
"Good," noted Bell. "Keep going."
"Fuel selector off." Ourecky reached down and switched off the control. "Primer in and locked. Throttle closed. Mixture to idle cut-off. Cabin heat off. Cabin air off. Overhead vents open." The propeller stopped turning as the engine shut off.
"Good job so far," observed Bell.
Gently pulling back the yoke to maintain as much altitude as he could, Ourecky aimed the plane at his selected landing site as he recited the procedures for an emergency landing. He concluded with: "We're going in for an emergency landing. Make sure your seatbelt is snug. When I tell you, just before we land, unlatch and crack open your door so it doesn't get jammed if we crash. In an actual emergency, I would come up on the radio and declare an emergency ..."
"That's good, cadet," said Bell. "That will do. Reset and restart, and then let's head for home."
Ourecky breathed a sigh of relief; he had been genuinely concerned that Bell would have actually allowed him to fly the Cessna all the way down to make an unpowered landing in some farmer's field. He smiled; it looked like he had nailed his pressure hop.
Ourecky switched the fuel selector lever from "Off" to "On" before resetting the other controls to their normal flight positions. He turned the ignition key to restart the engine, and it immediately came back to life. He brought the Cessna around and set a course for the airport at Lincoln.
Only a few minutes passed before Bell spoke: "One more thing. I have the controls. Close your eyes."
Another drill? Certainly this had to be a record. Trying hard to hide his aggravation, Ourecky placed his hands in his lap and shut his eyes.
Almost immediately, Bell said "Open your eyes. You have the controls."
As Ourecky opened his eyes and grasped the yoke, he watched Bell reach out to turn the ignition switch to "Off." The engine quickly stopped.
"Engine on fire?" asked Ourecky.
"Nope," answered Bell. "It just stopped."
As he had before, Ourecky adjusted the controls to maintain as much altitude as he could, and then looked for a place to set down the Cessna if the engine failed to restart. "Engine restart," he said. "Carb heat on. Mixture to full rich. Fuel selector to On. Master switch to On. Throttle set. Primer in and locked. Check magnetos. Ignition switch to Start." Ourecky turned the key and the engine restarted. Checking to see how far he might have deviated off heading, he looked up at the compass. Suddenly, the engine inexplicably sputtered out. The plane gradually nosed over, silently gliding over endless acres of corn and wheat.
"What are you going to do now, cadet?" asked Bell.
"Uh, I guess we're going in for an emergency landing," replied Ourecky.
"Good answer, but the underlying problem is that you failed to check the fuel selection lever during your restart procedure," observed Bell, using his pencil to gesture at the control. "You called it, which is admirable, but you didn't look at it or put your hand on it."
Ourecky looked at the fuel selection lever. Sure enough, it was set to "Off," so the engine wasn't drawing fuel from the tanks in the wings. Bell must have switched it off while his eyes were briefly closed. He swiveled it back to On, re-checked the other controls, and restarted the engine.
"But, sir, I just checked the fuel selection lever after I recovered from the engine fire," argued Ourecky. "I reset it to On before I restarted the engine." Even as the words left his lips, his stomach sank. Bell was right; if he followed the drill to the letter, he should have physically checked the control instead of assuming that it was On. But on the other hand, he had checked it, just mere moments before, so what was the likelihood that it could have suddenly slipped out of place? Could some nefarious gremlin have boarded the little plane to shut off the gas?
"Doesn't matter," replied Bell. "Procedures are procedures, Ourecky. We have them for a reason, and you're obligated to follow them."
Grimacing, Ourecky kept his tongue in check. He knew better than to debate with Bell. And besides, that was just one drill out of six. Bell had put him through the wringer and he had certainly aced the other five, so it still likely that he passed his hop. In any event, he wouldn't know the verdict for at least another week, when Bell's evaluation report was posted to his official records. He also knew that absolutely nothing could be gained by pestering Bell for his decision, or arguing about the last drill.
For the next several minutes, they flew on in silence. As they drew close to the airport at Lincoln, Bell assumed control of the Cessna and formed an approach for landing. Between radio calls, as he manipulated the controls, he asked: "So, cadet, Buzz Aldrin's your hero, huh?"
"Yes, sir. Very much so, sir," answered Ourecky, still hoping for a favorable outcome on the hop.
"And from what I hear from your fellow cadets, you have aspirations of going to test pilot school as soon as you possibly can, so you can go on to be an astronaut. Is that correct, Ourecky? You want to follow in Aldrin's footprints?"
"Uh, very much so, sir."
"Well, if you had done your homework, Ourecky, you would know that Buzz Aldrin had never been a test pilot. He might be an astronaut now, but Buzz was a fighter pilot, and a damned good one at that."CHAPTER 2
PROLOGUE TWO: THE EAVESDROPPERS
Karamürsel Air Station, Turkey 6:30 a.m., Sunday, November 20, 1966
Assigned to the elite United States Air Force Security Service, Technical Sergeant Vic Rybalka was a "Squirrel," a skilled Russian linguist with extensive training in Soviet military technology and operations. Officially classified as "voice intercept operators," he and his fellow Squirrels spent their working hours intently listening to military operations in the Soviet Union.
Although Karamürsel was somewhat isolated, he enjoyed the assignment. It was his second tour here. Like most of his fellow Squirrels, he considered Karamürsel as one of the pinnacle assignments for voice interceptors because the site was uniquely positioned to harvest intelligence from some of the most secretive Soviet activities.
While his work was certainly intriguing, it could also take its toll. It required intense concentration, much more than could be expected of the average man. It was rare that Rybalka left his shift without feeling entirely spent, but it was just as rare that he could lie down for a night's sleep without his head still spinning from the day's activities. He suffered from a chronic backache, a painful memento of sitting for hours in a stiff-backed chair, hunched over a bank of radio receivers. But the aspect that annoyed him most was that his labors were almost entirely passive. He sat, he listened, he made notes, and not much else. Like most men who volunteered for military service, Rybalka was drawn to action, but a Squirrel's life was not an existence for the active. Their bosses praised the interceptors as electronic sleuths, snatching vital secrets from the ether, but most often he felt like an eavesdropper, perpetually leaning against a locked door, vicariously listening to the illicit activities of strangers.
Excerpted from Blue Gemini by Mike Jenne. Copyright © 2015 Mike Jenne. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Loved it all; the characters, the story and especially all the technical aspects and details. If you love a good story *AND* enjoy realistic and accurate technical details, this book is for you.
I got my copy of Blue Gemini and read it over 3-1/2 days. As a child of the 60's I grew up following the US Manned Space Program (and still do to this day) and knew of the short existence of the Blue Gemini Program decades after it was cancelled along with the MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory) program. As soon as I started reading Mike Jenne's book I was hooked. This is not a book for the casual or "lazy" reader. There is enough technical detail in the book where I felt I had a good understanding how the various systems worked without the boring engineering talk. The development and transition of the main characters (Scott Ourecky, Major Drew Carson) was excellent as I felt I really knew these men and the supporting characters by the end of the book. It takes a special breed to be pilots, test pilots, astronauts, and to fly military aircraft and spacecraft. Mike Jenne captures the macho attitude of the military pilots of that era. Since Blue Gemini is the first volume of a trilogy, Mike Jenne did something that I've not experienced in other books (which I liked by the way), that being the development of secondary characters who played a minor role to the main plot but will obviously move to center stage in the two future volumes (Blue Darker Than Black, Pale Blue) in this series. You meet the minor characters in enough detail that you feel you know them and what their motivations are, now you're anxious to read the next two books to find out how they influence future events. What might appear to be loose ends or unresolved subplots in this book to some are actually glimpses into the future as the story continues. Stay tuned! The action is gritty, fast paced, along with several plot twists that will keep the reader turning the pages. I read two to three novels a month and Blue Gemini is one of the best novels I've read in a long time. I'm ready for Blue Darker Than Black.
Mike Jenne's "Blue Gemini" is a terrific techno-thriller that combines a cold war adventure of Tom Clancy and the space flight accuracy exceeding Martin Caidin's "Marooned". Set in the late 1960's, Jenne builds a credible and exciting world around an Air Force variant of NASA's Gemini (aka "Blue Gemini"). He brings us into this world through the eyes of Scott Ourecky, a young Air Force engineer, initially denied pilot training, but increasingly contributes to (and is consumed by) this "black" Air Force space project. Jenne painstakingly reconstructs the 1960's and invents a remarkable technically accurate program, and characters. He builds the best factually based fiction of spaceflight from NASA's Gemini and AF's MOL but then imaginatively develops his own vision of an orbital interceptor, its program and people. Mr. Jenne's imagination is so vivid and detailed I had to wonder DID he imagine it or was there significant truth to it? I also liked the historical depth of the project leadership versus the astronauts - The World War II generation with age and perspective versus the younger generations and pilots and engineers. This book had an incredible ring of authenticity for me. Being an engineer, space history buff, knowing military pilots, plus growing up near where most of the story occurs place provides a very odd feeling of nostalgia while at the same time telling a thrilling story of fiction. "Blue Gemini" has the ring of authenticity of military characters and situations. As much fun as I had with the book, there were a few minor nits. There were a couple of distracting side stories that don't seem particularly relevant for "Blue Gemini", but I bet will be significant to the follow on books. In sum, Blue Gemini was quite a ride and I look forward to Mike Jenne's upcoming books in the series!
The best novel I have read in years! Mike Jenne is truly a gifted and talented author. This novel is historical fiction with extreme realism! It makes you feel like you are in the Gemini Interceptor space capsule with the astronauts! In recent years, I have been disheartened by all the "trash" science fiction novels on the market that have no basis in reality. Blue Gemini is different, it is all based on real science and the author has done painstaking research to make it authentic. Although it is historical fiction, it also opens a window to what is possible in future space flight and space warfare. All of the characters in the novel are well developed and you begin to feel like you know the characters and can definitely relate to them. There is even some highly believable romance in the novel. Believable friendships and bonds are established between the characters. The author makes you feel like you are actually developing a bond along with the characters. When you put the novel down, you can not wait to pick it back up and read the next chapter! It is a real page turner! I will not provide any spoilers other to say that the story is exciting, believable, and realistic. Everything in the novel has a real air of plausibility. It is almost like reading an exciting account of a true story. I absolutely loved every page! This novel is a combination of Tom Clancy type novels (but with vastly superior character development), Stephen Coonts (Flight of the Intruder) and Anton Meyers (Once and Eagle). Absolutely first rate American literature! I can not wait to read the next novel by Mike Jenne, Blue Darker than Black!