(Kennedy Space Center, Florida)
"Nighthawk, Mission Control. You're coming in hot and low."
"Copy that," Holly said. "Altitude: Fifty thousand. Ground speed: Eight ten."
Aaron gazed out over the moonlit Atlantic. "We couldn't have picked a prettier night or better conditions. She'll come around as soon as I take the stick. Probably just the cold, dry air."
When flying covert missions as Nighthawk, the space shuttle carried only two astronauts and a smaller main engine package, making her lighter and more maneuverable. The Air Force had secretly funded the modifications, soon after 9/11, to enable the rapid deployment of disposable, low-orbit satellites configured to monitor specific terrorist cells and individuals.
"Nighthawk, Mission Control. Recommend glide path correction...stat. Hot and low."
"Copy, Mission Control," Holly said. "Ground speed: Six twenty-five. Altitude: Thirty-eight thousand. We're subsonic but way off the mark."
"Switching to manual," Aaron said.
The short mission of STS-29N had been flawless. Holly and Aaron deployed their classified payload, the Extremely Low Orbit Reconnaissance Satellite, less than four hours after launch and would be back on Runway 33 at Kennedy Space Center well before dawn.
"Let's get right with the glide path before Max blows a gasket." Aaron pulled gently back on the joystick to bring up the nose. "I got nothing. The stick's dead. Faulty GPC."
"That's a negative," Holly said. "Green lights on all five."
"It's a bad GPC," Aaron said. "I saw this same failure mode in the simulator yesterday."
The five General Purpose Computers aboard the space shuttle worked as a team in hyper-redundant mode during reentry. They provided the only link the pilot had with the fly-by-wire aerodynamic flight surfaces.
"Dear God," Holly said. "Why the hell didn't they scrub the launch?"
"I didn't report it."
"Because it can't happen. The odds of all five computers failing-- It just can't happen."
"Nighthawk, Mission Control. Check your meatball, Aaron. You're glide path is critical."
The graphic display indicated Nighthawk, at its present rate and angle of descent, would land approximately twenty feet below the runway. "We'll still make the Cape," Aaron said, "but it won't be much of a landing."
"Blow the hatch?" Holly asked.
"Nylon's not an option," he said. "We'll be dead before we can strap on the chutes." He glanced over at Holly. "We need a quick fix. Trust me?"
"Hell no, not anymore...but do something."
"One of them has to be jamming the others," Aaron said. "We got four chances to find the bad guy. Killing GPC five." He flipped up the safety guard and tripped the power circuit. The mission was over for that unit. Even if it was not defective, the shuttle would be on the ground before the computer rebooted. "I still got nothing."
"Nighthawk, Mission Control. Be advised you've lost GPC five."
"And four," Aaron said, powering it down. "Come on baby. Bring your big fat nose up." The controls didn't respond. "Damn it! Two more chances."
"Let me," Holly said. She held her gloved hand above the three remaining switches.
"Do it," Aaron said. "Come on, Holly. Pick one!"
She closed her eyes. "Please...bless me with enough time to bring at least one baby into the world." Holly opened her eyes and powered down GPC one.
"Son of a bitch," Aaron said as the nose began to rise. "We got stick."
"Nighthawk, Mission Control. Abort to Indian River. Divers standing by."
"To recover our bodies," Aaron said. "Unless we stay in one piece, we'll drown before they even find us." He pulled the nose higher.
"I don't see an option," Holly said. "We're way too hot."
"Not drowning is an option. Drop the landing gear."
"Gear down and locked," Holly said as an alarm sounded. "We're going to stall!"
"Just a little more." Aaron pulled the nose higher.
Holly yelled, "Zero lift."
Nighthawk bucked and chattered as it plunged tail first toward the runway.
"Arm the drag chute." Seeing only stars beyond the nose, Aaron glanced at the altimeter. We're still too high.
"Armed and standing by."
As the indicator scrolled past one thousand feet, he said, "Now!"
The small pilot chute, which extracted the main, had no effect on the nose-up attitude of Nighthawk. Full deployment of the main chute would take five seconds.
Aaron turned his head and locked eyes with Holly. We should have at least two babies, one of each. Their safety harnesses dug into their shoulders as the main chute snapped open. The nose of the shuttle pitched forward and down. Stars blurred across the windscreen, a distant tree line, the river, and then concrete--which lingered.
"Shit," Aaron said.
Holly screamed, "No."
Although she remained airborne, Nighthawk was no longer flying. Aaron had already visualized how the nose might crumple back into the cockpit, when the river again filled the windscreen. The chute had worked. "Yes," Aaron screamed as Nighthawk touched down.
The landing gear fully compressed on impact, exploding the tires. The main gear rebounded, but the nose gear sheared from its mount. The fuselage pivoted forward, driving the nose into the concrete, which devoured the thermal tiles and the aluminum shell beneath. Driven by the weight of the main engines, the cargo bay and tail rose, hinging over at a fold in the fuselage just aft of the crew compartment.
Dazed, Aaron stared beyond the windscreen at the runway speeding beneath the bellowing hull. Our daughter would have been beautiful, just like her mother. The vertical stabilizer disintegrated as it crashed down onto the concrete ahead of the shuttle, and as the weight of the cargo bay settled over the crew compartment, the cabin collapsed.