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A gripping thriller of murder and betrayal at NASA. When a veteran astronaut dies mysteriously during a routine training flight, Mark Koskinen, the rookie astronaut who survives the crash, finds himself caught in a web of suspicion, intrigue, and deception.
"TV writer Cassutt (who coauthored Deke!, the memoir of astronaut Deke Slayton) delivers a winner for lovers of aerospace, action or suspense fiction. " - Publishers Weekly
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
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About the Author
Michael Cassutt is noted for his writing about the space program -- not only articles in magazines such as Space World, but a massive biographical encyclopedia, Who's Who in Space. Cassutt is the author of two previous mystery thrillers set within the space program, Missing Man and Red Moon. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
Read an Excerpt
By Michael Cassutt
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1998 St. Croix Productions, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Twelve miles south of Galveston, strapped into the rear cockpit of NASA T-38 number 911, Mark Koskinen began to wonder if he really had the Right Stuff after all.
It wasn't an admission that came easily to him. He was thirty-three years old and had wanted to be an astronaut for at least twenty of those years. He had built Estes model rockets and dragged his parents to all the IMAX movies about the Space Shuttle. He had majored in aerospace engineering and spent seven years in the Air Force. He had worked hard to qualify for selection—not only getting the right training but keeping himself in good physical condition (the new astronauts were going to be doing a lot of space walks on the International Space Station) and broadening himself: he had learned to fly gliders and taken a Dale Carnegie course in public speaking.
With all that, NASA had still turned him down on his first application, selecting him only on his second try, after he'd finished his master's degree. He had persisted; he had earned his place.
On this bright October morning he had been an astronaut candidate—ASCAN—for six months. He had undergone a week of NASA orientation. He had attended college-level classes in astronomy, geology, and aerospace medicine. He had started to learn the systems and architecture of the Shuttle orbiter and the ISS. And, like all mission specialist astronaut candidates, Mark had attended Air Force flight school, to qualify as a backseater in the T-38. So far Mark had logged exactly 127 hours of time in the bird—a a meager amount for an operational air crew member but enough to make him feel at home in the aircraft. He had probably flown with twenty different pilots, ranging from the ones who flew slow and steady to the hot dogs who lived to make the guy in the backseat throw up.
None of this had prepared him for the Joe Buerhle experience.
Colonel Joseph Buerhle, USAF, a veteran test pilot and astronaut with over 4,500 flying hours and four Shuttle missions, was the guy in the front seat. And what a ride he had given Mark so far!
It started with the rotation at Ellington Field. The supersonic T-38 wasn't much more than a set of stubby wings mounted in front of two huge Pratt and Whitney engines. That and a pair of seats. Pilots called it the white rocket, and taking off left you with no illusions about its lift over drag ... when a T-38 rotated, you were going up, and straight up was where NASA 911 had gone, so straight that Mark was sure he felt the beginnings of a stall burble. It was hard to tell, flat on his back, pulling four Gs and staring at the blue sky in front of him.
Then the bird had whipped through a series of turns before leveling out for the streak toward the operating area over the Gulf of Mexico, fifty miles south.
All these gymnastics had taken place within a few miles of the runway, uncomfortably close to the houses, apartments (including Mark's own) and malls of Clear Lake, Seabrook and League City. Mark was sure he saw the sprawling campus of the Johnson Space Center during one of those turns. Had there been such a thing as an air traffic patrolman, he would have expected to hear sirens, too.
Mark was amazed that he, the plane and Buerhle had lived through the maneuvers. What was more miraculous was the apparent ease with which Buerhle had done things. The only words he had said to Mark after receiving clearance to take off were: "Ready to rumble?"
When he had wound up slotted to Buerhle's plane, luck of the draw after Steve Goslin, the Marine who was his original pilot, turned out to be a last-minute scratch, Mark had expected something out of the ordinary. Buerhle, after all, was the chief of the astronaut office. Mark had seen him presiding over the weekly pilots' meetings for six months. Buerhle was handsome, popular and charismatic.
But he had never struck Mark as a silk scarf guy, a kick-the-wheels, strap-on-the-bird, light-this-candle kind of flier. He was known to be quite the opposite, a tough, demanding, by-the-book pilot who was all too ready to land on those who broke the rules. (And there were several habitual offenders in the astronaut office.)
And here he was, hot-rodding all over south Texas, and now the Gulf of Mexico, like a teenager with his first license. Every maneuver was harsher than it really needed to be, and as Mark struggled to hold on to his breakfast, he felt a little like the man being ridden out of town on a rail: if not for the honor of the experience, he would just as soon have missed it.
Then Joe Buerhle suddenly said, "Hey, Mark, take the stick."
The response was automatic. When the pilot offered you control, you took it. "Got it."
Feet on the rudders, hands on the stick. Try to fly it straight, Mark told himself. Nice and easy does it. Here he was, flying Joe Buerhle's airplane—
"Okay, Mark, why don't you give me a two-minute turn to the right?"
Now, this was something new. Doing a two-minute turn meant putting the snub-nosed T-38 into a bank and taking it through a full circle. Joe Buerhle could do it with his eyes closed. So could any of the pilots and a few of the mission specialists in the astronaut office. Mark had done such turns in small planes—well, at least twice—and in gliders. He eased the stick to the right ... gently, gently ... and then waited maybe fifteen seconds before moving the stick back to neutral.
"Nice touch, for a scope dope," Buerhle said. The term was hardly a compliment coming from a pilot, but Mark was proud of his time as a satellite controller. It was one of the jobs that had gotten him hired by NASA, after all.
"Copy that." Give him a little scope dope lingo.
The Gulf of Mexico shone through the clouds above and around them. Whoosh, they punched through. There was a chance of rain—this time of year along the Gulf there was always a chance of rain—but the sun was bright and the sky was blue.
"Sorry about the bumps on the way up," Buerhle said. "I just started feeling a little light-headed. Remind me never to have a Le-Roy's special late at night again."
Le-Roy's was the Cajun restaurant right outside the main gate at Ellington Field. "I always thought Le-Roy overdid the jalapen os," Mark said. Buerhle laughed, and Mark began to relax. He was acutely aware that his every move was being performed under surveillance, but had no fear of screwing up. People who were insecure didn't get selected as astronauts. People who didn't get a little insecure after selection weren't paying attention, but Mark honored the ASCAN Commandments, especially the third one, about keeping your weaknesses to yourself. And he knew how to keep a T-38 straight and level.
Joe Buerhle was still laughing. Mark knew he could be funny from time to time, but not that funny. Something wasn't right here.
For an instant Mark felt a sickening chill. Suppose this was a bizarre initiation rite? Break in the new ASCAN. Or worse yet, a test! Would he be too intimidated by his commander's reputation to do his job? It didn't matter anymore—
"Colonel, I think we ought to turn back."
"Not yet." He heard Buerhle laugh. "I don't want them to know it was us falling all over the sky back there. I don't need my ticket yanked."
"Well, then, let's give it a few minutes. I'm feeling better." Before Mark could say anything, the stick smacked against his right knee, and Buerhle announced, "I've got it now."
And then Mark was lying on his back with nothing but the sky in front of him. He watched the altimeter numbers going up, then suddenly felt thrown to his left as Buerhle put the plane into a turn.
"That seem like a guy in trouble, Mark?"
Well, yes, actually, it did.
"Have it your way, Colonel ... I'm not feeling good." There, he'd said it. If this was some screwy test, he had just flunked it.
But Buerhle ignored him. The T-38 was snapped into a quick roll. Then a second. A third.
That third roll made Mark's stomach a lot more queasy. He was suddenly aware of his own breath hissing in the face mask. "Colonel Buerhle?"
There was no answer. Buerhle put the bird in a steep climb, then nosed over into a flat spin. Mark knew that this was the kind of thing that your ordinary pilot never wanted to see ... wouldn't know how to avert. But he also knew that Joe Buerhle had taught spin recovery at Edwards.
The real Joe Buerhle, that is. Not this impostor in the front seat.
The bird was well south in the bay now, with Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula far behind them. "Now, listen, Mark, this is worse than anything you'll encounter on an ascent or entry. If you can hack this, you can hack anything." Mark appreciated the sentiment, but Buerhle sounded strange, manic.
They rolled right again and nosed down. Mark waited for the crushing six-G pullout at the bottom. Concentrate on the instruments. Think about the fact that Joe Buerhle just thought of you on a Shuttle crew—
At fifty-four hundred feet Mark saw the engine warning light. He looked at it with a surprising sense of detachment, even though he knew they were in a pretty steep dive to be messing with an engine out. "Warning light," Mark said, waiting for Buerhle to deal with it.
Sure enough, they began to level out ... and Mark found that he had been holding his breath. Buerhle tried starting the engine. Bang. Nothing. Bang again ... still nothing. Mark tried to remember how well a T-38 would fly on one engine—
Suddenly they were in clouds, and Mark wasn't sure he'd heard Buerhle's words. "Colonel?"
"You know what?" Buerhle's voice was suddenly calm. "I can't see." The bird stayed in an ungodly bank. It started to buffet. Mark could hear Buerhle's labored breathing in the helmet phone.
"Let me take it!" Without waiting for confirmation, Mark grabbed at the stick just as the plane broke free of the clouds. Now Mark saw that they were nose down, rolled to the left, and getting very goddamn close to the water. And, oh God, the bird wasn't responding! They were stalled!
Those weeks of training paid off. Without thinking, Mark forced himself back into his seat and squeezed the handles.
There was a bang and a puff of smoke as the canopy blew off, then a wrenching jolt as the rockets beneath the seat fired. He felt a blast of wind on his chest and face. Before he could even orient himself, the seat fell away and his parachute jerked open.
He looked around wildly for another chute—nothing. Then he heard a muffled smash. Wrenching himself around, he saw a plume of black smoke on the water. The plane had gone in.
Still no sign of Joe Buerhle.
Mark Koskinen braced himself as the waters of the Gulf rose all too quickly to meet him.CHAPTER 2
For an astronaut, the first four or six weeks after a space flight were usually a time of misery. Forget about the parades and speeches to the hometown folks. That sort of acclaim was reserved for the heroes of Mercury or Apollo, not to the latest run-of-the-mill Shuttle crew. The postflight experience for an astronaut in the 1990s consisted of endless debriefs with the folks in the Mission Operations Directorate (MOD).
What made it worse was the fact that almost every astronaut went through this tedious round of second-guessing and memo writing feeling listless, grouchy, easily bored, satisfied by nothing. There was even a name for the syndrome: postorbital remorse (POR).
Knowing what it was didn't make it any easier to endure. Expecting POR, to Kelly Gessner's surprise, only seemed to have made it worse, like premenstrual unpleasantness, doubled. Otherwise there was no explanation for the violent way she had squealed her Volvo out of the parking lot at Ellington and headed straight for Joe Buerhle's house in Clear Lake. She hadn't intended to make that trip; she had planned to head for the astronaut office after dropping Joe off at ops. She had yet to look at her desk after returning from sixteen days in space and was afraid of the stack of messages she would find.
But they had had an argument. Make that an out-and-out fight, with raised voices on both sides. It was thirty minutes in the past, and already she'd forgotten how it had started. Some innocent remark of hers, probably, that Joe, being especially sensitive, had taken as criticism.
It wasn't as though they had been living together, though Kelly had spent many nights at Joe's place. It wasn't as though they had even slept together in something like six weeks. But whatever it was, their relationship had somehow come to a definite end.
Maybe it was the sight of Joe's T-38 roaring off the runway at Ellington that caused Kelly to wave off, as Joe liked to say, and head for his house. He was in the air, where he belonged. He would simply land and hope to find the whole Kelly business settled, without having to have one of those conversations.
Kelly realized she had not visited his house in a month, and even that had been in the company of the STS-93 flight crew, for the chief astronaut's traditional barbecue. The house was a relatively tiny, one-story place with a yard that had not, in Kelly's time with Joe, been touched by a mower or a gardener. He was a believer in the natural look. "People drive themselves nuts trying to make a swamp look like Iowa," he had told her once. "It's south Texas ... let it grow wild." Growing wild wasn't actually an option: the front yard consisted of a gravel driveway and a sidewalk. The backyard was mostly bare earth, though some years past Joe had acquired a small storage bin. Inside it were spare pieces of the homebuilt airplane he kept over at Houston Gulf Airport. One weekend Kelly had brought a couple of rosebushes around and stuck them in the back, but Joe failed to water them, and they had died.
Kelly let herself in with the key and immediately began looking for her belongings.
Unlike the houses of the other men in Kelly's life, this one looked lived in. Maybe too lived in. It wasn't sloppy—the matter of the yard aside. Joe had been single for ten years when Kelly met him, and had acquired some of the habits of a perpetual bachelor. He really did know a Randall's Supermarket over in League City that had the best prices on steaks. He had a wonderful CD player and big-screen TV with blessedly undersized speakers. There were even some expensive silk sheets for the bed. And there was always food in the refrigerator. (Never beer; Joe drank vodka when he drank at all.) It might have been your basic meat, salad and potatoes, but it was, in fact, more food than Kelly had ever managed to lodge in her own refrigerator at any point in her unmarried life.
But even as chief astronaut Joe traveled a lot. Clothes piled up. Paperwork got scattered. And in the last year Joe had started upgrading his home computer system, so there were diskettes, magazines and Internet guides piled on all available surfaces as well as the floor. A couple of dust bunnies in the corner.
The sweep didn't take long. Kelly had one nice dress—worn exactly once with Joe—in the closet, along with a couple of shirts. Some underwear and jeans in the drawer. That would all fit under one arm.
She found a cardboard box in the closet, went into the bathroom and scooped up her backup toothbrush, her spare diaphragm, and a whole array of conditioners, shampoos and makeup. Good God, she had more of this stuff at Joe's place than she did at her own! Of course, Joe liked his women to look like women. That didn't necessarily mean vamp it up like a runway model; the dress code for women around JSC was strictly soccer mom. But he liked her to wear lipstick and mascara from time to time. Even high heels.
Their relationship had never been about love or commitment, just companionship. Play. Honesty. But Joe had simply dropped her. Stopped wanting her. Maybe it was because she was in training—flying the Shuttle—and he was behind a desk. Whatever ... she really wished he was standing here so she could tell him what an asshole he was.
Maybe she was just disgusted with the whole business. Here she was, thirty-four years old, sneaking her belongings out of an ex-boyfriend's place. Her best friend from high school had a great husband and two children now. Kelly? Well, gee, Kelly had flown in space twice. Like three hundred and eighty other people. It wasn't a very exclusive club anymore. And was she having fun? The longer mission had been less fun than the first. All she faced in the future were longer missions aboard the International Space Station. Or a series of dreary technical assignments, like being chief of the computer support branch.
Maybe it was time to look around for a new job, too.
Kelly had the clothes under one arm and the box under the other as she went back to the living room for one last look. Where she wound up was at Joe's look-at-me wall, the one with all the pictures of Joe's airplanes ... Joe's Shuttle missions.
Their Shuttle mission, STS-76. There was a picture of the two of them floating on the mid-deck ... Oh my God, that inscription: "To Joe, the best stick a girl astronaut could find!" She must have been drunk when she wrote that. She took it off the wall and stuck it in the box, too.
The sky had clouded over when she reached the car. It seemed colder.
She closed the trunk and looked up to see one of the neighbor kids. "Hi." Greg, that was his name. Maybe twelve years old, a slim boy wearing glasses. "Shouldn't you be in school today?"
Excerpted from Missing Man by Michael Cassutt. Copyright © 1998 St. Croix Productions, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART I - THE COMMANDMENTS,
PART II - MEETING AT OPS,
PART III - CB,
PART IV - THE MOD,
PART V - GOING UPHILL,