Astronaut Figurines Walking Towards Rocket
Astronaut Figurines Walking Towards Rocket

An Exaltation of Larks

by Dr. Jeff Sell

It would be as spontaneous as anything timed to the minute could be. Four days, twenty two hours, twenty eight minutes and thirty seven point four seconds mission elapsed time. Over four days and a million miles ago they had begun a systematic alternation of work schedules, red relieving blue and blue relieving red every twelve hours with a thirty minute overlap. The red team had assumed the final shift fifty eight minutes ago. Aboard Space Lab nestled snuggly in the cargo bay of the Endeavor, the fifth and newest orbiter, three individuals calmly danced the ballet mechanically named "configure for deorbit."

Flight 921-Foxtrot marked the middle of the scheduled voyages for 1992, and by the book, its original flight plan appeared mundane. Previously selected experiments from twelve nations made up the bulk of the work. The usual operational testing kept one ever mindful of previous complacencies, and select IR photography accompanied by two SDI laser tags completed the official manifest on this, the forty third shuttle trip. There would be one record set on this mission, but it would not be recorded with the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, nor would it bring a call from the president. It would, however, endear 921-F to all those who call themselves star travelers.

I.

Lieutenant Commander Brian "Jock" Edwards was the commander of 921-F, and the blue team leader. He had been an All Ivy offensive guard at Yale, and had quested the quark while pursuing a degree in physics, but had deserted the academic world, and joined the Navy to fulfill his lifelong dreams. His natural flying skills had earned the muscular aviator the running name "Jock", having no relation to his football days. He had danced the skies in the best machinery the Navy offered, and had over four thousand hours and six hundred traps in his log. He was no stranger to the third wire. He had toyed with Migs, and shadowed bears, but found the greatest challenge at PAX river, the Navy test pilot program. This was his stepping stone to the astronaut candidate class of 1987. He was one of five pilots, and she was one of seven mission specialists.

They had actually first met during his PAX river days. She came as a NASA physiologist to study high G respiratory function in test pilots. He had volunteered the moment he saw the smiling blue eyes. Fifteen times he had felt the centrifuge push his life's blood farther and farther from his consciousness while tubes and wires carried the answers from his body to her. Although he had lost some hair since those days, it was this supreme sacrifice that deepened his disappointment in her lack of recognition when they were first reunited.

Pamela Christensen was the youngest daughter of a wealthy investment analyst and Danish anesthesiologist. An undergraduate degree in zoology from the University of Maryland had preceded a Ph.D. in physiology at Harvard. The journals were sprinkled with her delineations in the field of circulation and perfusion, but her true love was riding horses. She often teased that she had come to Houston because Texas was where all true cowgirls belonged. Hours of precision in the jumping ring eased the tensions and livened the boredom of what she even now barely believed had become her job.

Jock was not the eye catcher who women would immediately seek to leave with upon evaluating the selection at the myriad of parties he attended. He had a sharp wit and a keen mind, and more often than not, left alone. At thirty seven, and still single, he had flirted with marriage several times, but the fine thread on which he hung his life as a Naval aviator made his half of the commitment seem unfair to all who might share themselves. But at last there was someone throwing the same dice to play the game with him.

She could turn the heads of everyone from the hottest jet jockeys to the lowest of the tile pasters. He had watched as one by one the chiseled young studs had made their tries. An occasional victory or close call war story had brought cheers in the room where they pulled on their speed jeans one leg at a time. The horse rider was a bronco that none could break. His average looks, receding hairline, and hulking frame were, for him, as good a reason as any that they spoke little till fate brought them together on the crew of 921-F.

Nine months separated selection and liftoff. Edwards would ride front left, commander (CDR). Andy Burke joined Pamela and Jock on the Blue team. Andy was a pilot, engineer, and computer whiz. He had surprised all with his NASAoid acronym "Microgravity Adapted Conjugation of Human Organisms." Bill Flanigan and Tad Parnell were the two mission specialists on the red team. Bill was a physician and carried the physiology packages for his shift. Tad was trained in both geology and oceanography, and had come to the astronaut corps after heading the design team for the Earth Resources Budget Satellite (ERBS). The red team captain would be the right seat pilot. Capt. David Shields brought his skills as an air force pilot, and his training in electrical engineering to fill this spot. Jock's first true friend in the Astronaut corps, it was after a dinner party for the crew at "Davey's" house that Jock had first found himself alone with Pamela.

He had wanted only to ask her if she felt the simulator time they had scheduled to coordinate the manipulator arm and orbiter maneuvers would be adequate. He placed his hands on the driver's side door of her two seat sports coupe. Two magnificent blue eyes looked deep inside his soul.
"Know how to ride, flyboy" was all she said.
"Do I get a saddle with a handle?" He could ride if he had to.
"Follow me."

It was a struggle for his old compact to keep up with the purring sports car, especially as the paved roads gave way to back roads, and eventually to a rutted dirt road. Orion was high in the winter sky as she led the two horses from the barn. He grabbed the "saddle handle" and valiantly climbed aboard. Jock wished more than anything the small horn in front of him would steer his course like the sticks he used to push million dollar machines around the sky. Slowly and quietly they set off along a moonlit trail. At the first meadow she broke into a trot and coaxed him to follow. Her silhouette against the sky made the pain of his inexperienced ride lessen. She stopped at a clearing beside a glassy lake, and slid smoothly to the ground. He easily managed not to fall.

Aldebaran shone above her like a crown jewel. The steam of their breath mingled on the cool winter breeze. He felt the air around him as keenly as if he were crossing the flight line to a waiting cockpit. The dark seas of the almost full moon seemed to have a thousand secrets to tell. When she broke the silence, he did not find her voice intrusive on the beauty of the night.

"What do you think about when you fly alone?" she asked. She had 45 hours of flying in the backseat. Although that was fun enough, it often seemed like work, handling the radio, checking for traffic, and monitoring the instruments. She wondered what it was like to be alone in the sky with the power and excitement.
"Sometimes, I think about how, for a brief moment, I'm so much in control of what is happening to me. Sometimes I think about how few people ever get to do what I do every day. Sometimes I think about how beautiful it is up there. The best part, is that I can leave everything else behind. When I fly, I'm alone, but never lonely. When I'm flying, it's the only time I never think about wanting to be anywhere else. Once in a while, I think about how different it is to finally be a hundred miles up. Sometimes I'm so scared, like at night landing at sea, that I think I see, feel and hear everything. Most of the time, I have so much fun that I can't stand the thought that it could ever end. Its all such a lark"
"An exaltation of larks," she whispered.
"Again?" He said.
"You know" she surprised herself with minutia from her zoology background. "A pride of lions, a covey of quail, and an exaltation of larks."

They laughed and their hands touched. She was startled by the gentleness of the touch of his strong hands. For three months her affection for him had grown silently. She could seduce any man she wanted, and yet something about this cerebral flyer had captured her. The past few weeks she had found herself hoping his voice would be there when she answered the phone. Occasionally, she had detoured past his condo on the way home from the stable. But most of all she had come to love watching him cross the tarmac to his waiting jet in his sky blue flight suit, the dark pensive eyes alternately studying the sky and his aircraft. She couldn't believe the pounding of her heart each time the canopy would close around him, and she would watch in silence as he would leap skyward and turn toward the sun. He must, she thought, be able to love more and deeper than any man she had ever met. She wished more than anything, that she could hold him up like an egg to a candle, and see the treasure beneath the outer shell.
"You still don't remember, do you?" he asked. It had come to be their private joke.
"I remembered you were a pilot from PAX, I just didn't remember your name." The usual reply suddenly seemed very embarrassing. "I knew I liked you." It was a feeble recovery, but she did know that she liked him now. She looked over to him and suddenly realized that he had been looking at her all along.

She knew at once that this was the kind of moment of which an entire lifetime would hold but a few. The kind that would be recalled in the last waking moments of a lonely night to soften the chill. The kind that would reflect in the ripples of a glass of wine on a quiet Sunday afternoon. The kind that could fill pages in a diary. And yet, the kind that were so tightly clutched that they seemed to squeeze more quickly free, and be gone.

He gazed up at Aldebaran and unbeknownst to her, he made a silent wish. When his eyes came to rest again upon her, she kissed him. He felt warm and strong, and suddenly she felt safe in his arms. The short ride back to the barn was an eternity. It was well past midnight when they had the horses bedded down. He followed her home and built a fire while she poured some champagne, selecting a bottle that had been waiting almost two years for a deserving occasion. They made love for the first time in the warm glow of the fire. As she lay there beside him she knew immediately, he was different. She cared more deeply for this man, with whom she would share life and death moments, than for any man who had come before. She felt a sudden sense of relief and calm sweep over her. The man she had searched the ranks of the young and handsome for, the man she had dreamed of in her loneliest moments, the man she thought she would never, could never find, was kissing her softly and whispering her name.

The top secrets of highly classified payloads were much easier to keep than the secret of their romance. Jock often thanked his lucky stars that he could not be tried for treason for the smile that would creep across his face every time he saw her. They both felt strongly that their work would be easier if few people knew, and in fact, they kept it a better secret than either of them thought. But as the days lengthened into spring, their lives together sweetened like the grasses in the fields that they rode.

Routine aircraft proficiency time was part of every flight crew's training. On this particular day in mid march, neither Pamela or Jock found it routine. For the first time, she would be his back seater. As the canopy closed around them, what her mind measured in inches, her heart saw as a hundred miles. She wanted to be next to him, to ride in his arms, to feel the pounding of his heart against her. She narrowed her mind to the chores of flying in an attempt to push all else out, but deep inside swelled the enormous pride she felt to finally share his steed. As the plane left the earth behind, she could no longer hold her emotions in check, and whispered into the microphone, "Jock, I love you."

For just short of an hour they played tag with the other jets, and darted among the clouds. As Jock pulled into a turn he pointed below and to his right. She gazed for several seconds before the top of the familiar barn, and the quiet pond became recognizable images. The memory of the cool winter night swept over her, and she smiled as he rolled a victory salute, and turned to head for home. She knew as the wheels touched the ground that the flying would deepen the passion they would share that night. She wanted to throw her arms around him as he climbed down the ladder from his "Sky saddle," but they walked quietly side by side from the flight line, keeping the secret that was bursting inside them.

II.

The early morning sun glittered on the waves as Jock and Davey spent a quiet Saturday walking along Cocoa Beach. They had spent two days of landing rehearsal in the Gulfstream aircraft used to simulate orbiter approaches on the Kennedy runway. The remainder of the crew, including Jock's beloved Pamela remained in Houston, since the chores at the Cape required only the commander and pilot. They had been talking mostly shop, approach speeds, crosswind components, and the like which was why Davey's words took Jock somewhat by surprise.
"You really love her, don't you," Davey said with more than his usual amount of subtlety.
"Who?" Jock tread carefully.
"Gee, I don't know, let's guess." Jock should have known better than to even try being sly with Davey.
"She fits into my life like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle" It was the best analogy Jock could produce.
"I have an idea we should discuss," Davey said. "I know the crew will support it, but its up to you and Pamela. I've been over the flight plan a dozen times, and I'm sure it could work." As the morning air began to thicken with the heat, Jock and Davey carefully charted the course of history.

The weather had been perfect for the return flight to Houston. Jock and Davey had rolled and played as the Gulf coast darted below them. Jock looked forward to a candlelight dinner that night. It had been a long four days away.
"NASA two niner papa tango, twenty five out descending through eight thousand with the numbers" It was like backing into a parking place he had done this so many times.
"Roger niner papa tango, cleared for visual two two, wind two eight zero at five, altimeter two niner niner five."
The last words were obscured by the thump. Before his eyes had the answer, his ears told him there was a problem. The starboard engine temperatures rose as the rpm's varied wildly. At least there's no fire light, he thought, preparing to shut the engine down. Almost immediately his gleaming white steed began to vibrate terribly and the responsiveness of the massive jet began to slip away. He knew instantaneously that the hydraulic pressure which translated his motions into those of his airplane's, was slowly ebbing.
"MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY" He was sure it was his voice saying the words he had only spoken in his worst nightmares. How ironic, he thought, that he would have to come this close to death to feel this much alive.
Davey closed the distance between them, and circled to inspect the damage. He had seen the smoke from the engine, and now the streaks of red tinted hydraulic fluid wrote their grim epitaph across the pristine white underbelly of Jocks plane.
"Looks like you threw a turbine blade, but now you got a bad hydraulic leak, partner" Davey put all of the calmness he could muster into his words. He knew his friend was at the edge, and there was little he could do.

"I'm gonna point her out to the Gulf and if things don't settle down, I can punch out there." Things were gyrating badly. The torque from the off center single engine thrust made control almost impossible under the best of conditions. Gradually the nose swung around to the south. His right wing remained low as the last drops of precious hydraulic fluid disappeared into the Texas sky. He kicked back his heels, and pulled the D ring. He felt the sudden pain as he accelerated away from the crippled craft, and gave away the next few moments of his life forever. When he came to, the azure waters of the Mexican Gulf were coming up to meet him, but the orange and white canopy draped above him, gave him the luxury to think he would see her again.

The news came gradually, and in hopelessly inadequate, and in often inaccurate portions. They knew early on that there was a plane in trouble. Some said there might be a fire, some an explosion, some said it was already missing. Some quick figuring put only Jock and Davey in the air at the time. Some said there was a chute, maybe two, maybe a collision.

She had been around when pilots died, she had even known who some of them were, but it had never been one held so dear to her heart. First she was angry, then scared. When both Andy and Tad came to be with her, she knew immediately that it was his plane. Why, she wondered, was she given the chance to be with him, only to have him needlessly ripped away. It was Andy who finally got the reliable word that Davey had followed the chute, and that a Coast Guard helicopter had picked Jock up moments after he hit the water, and that except for some bumps and bruises he was none the worse for the wear.

He would quit, she thought. They would both quit. The thought of losing him had been too real, and she could still taste it. He could get used to it. There were several jobs at the Manned Spaceflight Center for which he was easily qualified. At least they would be safe together. Suddenly she realized she was no longer angry, and she wasn't afraid. The real reason she wanted him to quit was that she was jealous. He had almost died in the arms of his mistress, of his true love. She could never know if she was as important to him as his love for flying. She did know one thing. If she was to stay a part of his life, these feelings would have to be put away and buried deep, and never be brought out around him.

III.

Jock had scheduled his meeting at the Pentagon to coincide with the end of her three days of meetings at NASA's Washington offices, and the beginning of a long, April weekend. He had managed to tolerate the commercial ride into D.C.'s National Airport, and had concluded his classified briefings shortly after noon. He checked in at the George Washington Hotel, and headed for the Mall and their agreed meeting.

Pamela crossed Independence Avenue just before three o'clock. She entered the Air & Space museum from this side because it was closer to the NASA offices, but especially because she had hoped to see him before he saw her. She spotted him immediately. He stood next to the Apollo 11 command module, the chariot of the first moonwalkers, and was looking up at the Spirit of St. Louis. A strange feeling crept over her. Even though she was about to "ride the stack" herself, she felt like an intruder, as if this were his world, and these were his friends, and she did not belong. The broad smile that came to him when he saw her standing there immediately reassured her that she was every bit as much a part of his life as the multitude of strange and wonderful flying machines which surrounded them. He took her hand, and kissed her, and in pleasant anonymity they strolled among the relics of astronauts who had gone before.
Jock had not yet told her of his conversation with Davey on Cocoa beach. The right moment had yet to come along in the short weeks he had spent recovering from his misadventure on the trip home. He knew they would have ample time to talk in the days to come. As they walked and read the names of his childhood heroes, he found it increasingly difficult to believe that he shared the experience of their common dreams.

It was a warm day, and the cherry blossoms were at their peak. Jock and Pamela decided to walk the several blocks back to the hotel. The Capitol building gleamed brightly in the late afternoon sun, as dozens of joggers crisscrossed the Mall. The flags encircling the Washington Monument flapped loudly in the warm breeze as Jock and Pamela turned north and left the Mall behind. Pamela had selected a small restaurant in Georgetown for a casual dinner. Afterwards, they walked to a small jazz club by the canal where he drank beer and she sipped white wine as they talked and laughed over some of their favorite music. A half bottle of champagne from room service marked the end of a perfect day, and after sharing themselves intimately, they fell asleep in each other's arms.

After sleeping late, they ordered continental breakfast and packed lazily. They loaded their rented car, and enjoyed an early afternoon lunch under the gas lights of the Old Ebbetts Grill. They searched the weekend crowd for famous or familiar faces, and entertained themselves by taking turns hazarding guesses as to the intriguing background of nameless unknowing seated around them. He loved hearing her laugh as he made up a story of sexual scandal involving a perfectly innocent man in a blue suit waiting for a table, and the secretaries of several congressmen. When they emerged from the quaint and historic surroundings, the afternoon was nearing an end, and as the museum visitors headed for home, those looking for the nightlife began to arrive. The jets lumbered overhead and down the Potomac as Jock and Pamela crossed the Key bridge, and headed south to the mountains of western Virginia.

The crystal clear of the cool, mountain sky was pierced by the beacon of Venus, the evening star, as the road twisted the last few miles to the peak. By eight thirty they had arrived and unpacked, and had journeyed to a beautiful, old inn for dinner. She had rabbit, while he feasted on venison in the best wine sauce he could ever recall having graced his palate. Surprisingly they talked more about the technical aspects of the upcoming flight, than about themselves. She was amazed how completely he understood every aspect of flying and operating the orbiter. He was fascinated by the experiments she had developed to answer several simple but as yet incompletely understood physiologic problems of spaceflight. They so much loved what they were involved in, that such mundane conversation in no way detracted from the evening.
They stopped on the way home at a mountain overlook. The lights twinkled below them, and they gave the illusion of sandwiching them among the stars. Above them, 1991A single handedly brightened the night sky. The first major supernova in over three hundred years had appeared over a year before, and would occupy much of their attention during their all to brief sojourn in space. But tonight, its soft light on her face would make Jock want nothing else than to be with her.
The snow had begun falling when they returned to the condo where they were staying. As the woods around them filled with a silent white sheet of satin, Jock lit a fire and poured two glasses of wine. While they sat and sipped the wine, Jock related the plans he and Davey had plotted almost a month before. It was after midnight when he finished and turned to her for her thoughts.
"I don't know," she smiled, "sounds pretty tricky." She leaned over and kissed him. "You'll have to convince me."
For the rest of the night the flickering fire illuminated the dancing flakes through the French doors as he argued with his kisses, cajoled her with his embraces, and tortured her with his passion, until, as the sun slipped over the far ridge, and they looked out over the snow filled valley below, she finally gave in.

IV.

Almost half way around the world, events were occurring which would involve Jock and Pamela beyond their wildest imagination. The launching of Kosmos 3421 had, as was becoming more and more the case, been pre announced. The weather satellite was a fairly routine part of a launch schedule that had been drastically reduced since the back to back Soviet accidents of a year before. The complete story had never been told, but Soviet press and intelligence data allowed a fairly accurate picture to be painted. First, there was the collision of the refueling drone with the MIR space station, destroying both, and killing the four cosmonauts on board. This was followed by the violent explosion of a hurriedly launched Proton heavy booster at the Biaknor Cosmodrome. Intelligence experts were only now realizing how severe the damage was to ground structures, and there had been only two launches there in the last three months.
Kosmos 3421 left the Tyuratam Cosmodrome on schedule, and under the watchful eye of a KH-14, keyhole eye in the sky, and the watchful ear of a new Garnet-Teal Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) satellite. Within moments, it had been registered at NORAD deep in Cheyenne Mountain as Space Object 1992-114C. The first two days of its flight were routine, but as Jock and Pamela shared a hot tub in the cool mountain air, something went radically wrong ten thousand miles away. Initial analysis would indicate a thruster error during boost to geosynch, followed by a loss of communication. This left the satellite in a useless and eccentric orbit, but one that, as the huge Cray computer using the latest in parallel processing would show, passed dangerously close to the planned trajectory of the Endeavor. As Jock and Pamela spent their final night together at their romantic mountain retreat, NASA planners, intelligence officers, and military analysts began to assess the situation and explore the options. At seven thirty a.m. the next morning, a courier from the Russian embassy arrived at the White House with a secret proposal whose ramifications shook the very undercurrents of US Soviet relations.

Jock heard the phone when he opened the door to his condo, and after a brief conversation, called Pamela to find out if she had any more clue to the nature of the sudden unscheduled and top security meeting called for seven the next morning. She had no guess, and they were equally surprised by the presence of eight high ranking Air Force officers, and two Russian colonels when they entered the briefing room the next morning. Jock did not like the options presented to him, and as the flight commander, felt responsible for the mission and the safety of his crew. To add a satellite rescue to the flight plan at this stage would overtax the already full training schedule. Add to this in flight repair, and make it a Soviet satellite, and the number of bad permutations and combinations became overwhelming. Unfortunately, his job was not mission planning, but execution, and he set about absorbing the maximum of information in order to increases the chances of this addition melding smoothly into the already full flight plan.

V.

As it crept out into the morning fog, the first warm rays of mid May sun glinted off the white exterior, and Endeavor began the first leg of its voyage. Liftoff for 921-F was less than three weeks away. The entire flight crew was at the cape to watch a breath taking ritual known simply as "roll out to hard down." Four and a half million pounds of vehicle would be carried five and a quarter miles to pad 39B. It was a journey that had started some of the greatest adventures in the history of man. Jock gazed up at the eighteen story stack and the stark reality of the upcoming flight drove through him. Over a hundred men and women had made the ride before and although this would be his forth flight, the excitement had not waned. The ride into space remained, for Jock, truly the last great thrill. As the fog lifted, and the shuttle rolled starkly along in the morning sun, Pamela, Andy and Dave walked over to Jock.
"Let's go for a ride" Davey smiled.

Pamela glanced over at Davey and Andy. They were no more than forty feet away. The altimeter read 1500 feet as they sped south along the Florida coast at four hundred knots. It stood like a lonely cactus in the desert, and quickly swept underneath them. A half Cuban eight brought them around for another pass. Pamela took several pictures, and laughed as Jock compared it to photographing the family car before leaving on vacation. Before the wheels touched the Kennedy runway, Jock and Pamela had already planned their evenings foray. The next day was an open day, so they would not be missed if they failed to return till mid morning. It was time for some childish fun.

The fireworks over the enchanted castle did not mark the end of the evening, or even as Jock would later say, the end of the fireworks. They had watched pirates loot, goblins spook, seen Albert Schweitzer falls, and ridden a rocket in a mountain. As their warm bodies touched that night they were both full of the realization that this was nothing compared to the ride they would soon share.
"I know I'm not supposed to ask this," she began sheepishly, "But it would make me feel special if you could talk to me about it. Are you scared?"
"I'm scared that I might screw up" was his quiet reply. "I'm scared that I might fail the crew, or my friends, or, "he turned and looked deeply into her eyes. She knew immediately that he had never said this to anyone else before, and that everything he was and did was carefully and completely insulated from these feelings.
"Or, my lover." he finished.
She kissed his fingers one by one. She had trusted her life and her body to their delicate touch. Tonight he would make her feel as though he were carrying her across the sky. Why was she so captivated by him, why was her life so different with him around? Maybe, she thought, it was because he had lived so much that he wasn't afraid to die. And maybe it was because he loved her that she felt her fears quietly disappearing.

They ate a late breakfast and returned to Kennedy for the afternoon preparation. The following day's full scale countdown simulation with the crew on board went flawlessly, and they returned to Houston for the final preparations for the mission. The ensuing two weeks passed quickly. In two days they would return to Kennedy. Jock and Pamela planned to spend the last night together before they left, but Jock wanted to spend the night before that one alone. He called his roommate and best friend from college, Steve Castle, who was now a surgeon in Virginia. They laughed about their football days, and rugby days. Steve wished Jock the best. Jock knew how envious Steve was, and how much Steve would have liked to do what Jock had done. They admired each other for the opportunities they had had, and the goals they had achieved. Jock wished Steve could share the flight with him, and had called to make him feel a part of everything. He told Steve about Pamela for the first time. They ended by making plans to get together the next time Jock returned to D.C. "Don't forget the ring" Steve reminded just before saying good-bye.

Jock sat down at his desk and opened the final version of the flight plan which he had been studying intently. For what seemed like the thousandth time he went over every detail and contingency in his mind. He lingered for almost half an hour over the section involving the maneuvers for rendezvous and repair of the Kosmos 3421 satellite. He studied several pictures which had been provided by the Soviets, and compared them to classified intelligence pictures which he had asked the higher ups to obtain for him. The apparent malfunction was the entanglement of the main S-band antenna preventing it from aligning. It had not moved, according to the Russian officers, since just after separation of the protective shroud, thus blocking any attempts at reprogramming. They had been able to receive minimal telemetry to confirm this malfunction. The plan was to bring the orbiter in close after rendezvousing at the satellites current perigee, or low orbit point. Because of the eccentricity of the orbit they would have only about fifteen minutes to cut the antenna free, or else they would have to grapple the satellite and bring it into the same orbit as the Endeavor. All of this while the satellite was still attached to a nearly fully fueled inertial upper stage. The risks of explosion let alone the lethal toxicity of the hydrazine fuel made Jock wince. As the orbiter flew in close formation, Andy, who would already be in the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) on the remote manipulating arm, would fly over as a human satellite and cut the antenna free. The Soviets would pay thirteen million dollars for the services of the Endeavor and its crew.

The bedside clock said two a.m., but Jock was suddenly wide awake. A picture of the Kosmos lay on the bed beside him, and the reading light was still on. A strange feeling crept over him and he recognized it at once. He had been trained as a combat pilot, and this was the same feeling he had felt whenever he sensed the presence of the enemy, either real or imagined. This mission may be a major step in international relations, a peaceful coexistence with teamwork in space, but from now on, Jock would view it as a clever and devious trap. He lay awake for almost an hour, until he was satisfied in his own mind, that these contingencies were as adequately considered as possible. He thought of Pamela as his eyes closed. He pictured her stunning blue eyes, her flowing hair, and her springing step. He remembered that first night by the lake, and the weekend in the mountains of Virginia, and he slept deeply the remainder of the night.

Jock spent the last few minutes before Pamela arrived preparing his personal effects kit that he would carry on board for the flight. He selected three cassettes he had recorded for personal music. He was also bringing some mementos for his family. He brought a small Yale pennant that he would return to the University for its Archives, and he brought his college class ring, and his friend Steve's class ring as well. He opened a small box which contained the last item he had planned to bring. The diamond sparkled with yellow reflections of the late afternoon sunlight. The two carat stone had been purchased by Jock after 2 hours of dickering on his first cruise. The price had been unbelievable, and the stone was flawless. It had been one of Jock's most treasured possessions, but he knew happily that time had come to give it away.

Tomorrow, they would be professionals doing a job.
"Think of it as a business trip," Jock had said.
Tonight, though, they were lovers. And a small part of them, well hidden by the wine and the happiness of the moment, knew that it could be their last embrace. They had saved one piece of business for this last night in Houston. Jock had suggested that they make one tape together to take on the flight with them. It would include their favorite songs, selected from the memories over the years, to mark the most memorable event of their lives together. Pamela arrived with a handful of albums and a bottle of cabernet. Although almost a full six inches shorter than Jock, her athletic build and slim waist made Jock think of her as taller than she was. He kissed her tenderly, and as the western sky became amber and violet, they shared dinner and watched the sunset.

One by one they swapped the music and memories. They talked of their times together, and times before they met. They talked of what it meant to be madly in love, and tried to decide if they were. He tried to savor her beauty as completely as he could, to burn it indelibly in his mind for all eternity. It was her eyes that always enraptured him. The blue of the sky he loved so much, and the gleam of the stars he loved to chase. He saw his whole life gazing back at him. He knew he was madly in love.

She could never know him completely, and maybe that was why she kept trying. His gentle touch belied the strength and power he held. He had a smooth way of going that was an extension of the winds on which he soared. She loved him, and she loved to be loved by him. As the final song began to play, she pulled him close and kissed him. He lifted her easily and carried her to the bedroom.

The first morning sunlight wakened Jock. His first thought was that if this was to be the last night of his life, he would have no regrets. He looked beside him as the sunlight began to play across her perfect body. The blue eyes opened, and she saw him staring quietly at her. She kissed him, and he knew immediately she felt the same way as he did. Jock dressed quickly, placed the tape in his bag, and they stopped by Pamela's on the way to the airport. Less than six hours later, the runway at Kennedy stretched ahead of the three T-38's, as the crew of 921-F arrived.

V.

The next two days were filled with preparation for the launch. All of the crew members participated in systems checks, prelaunch briefings, and a final press conference. When one of the reporters asked the crew what it was like to have such an attractive female member along, Jock let Davey answer, and hoped that his Cheshire grin would be interpreted as a reaction to a rather inane question, rather than a response to his thoughts about the flight ahead. Davey explained that they were all professionals there to do a job, and avoided catching Jocks eye as he added that she was just another member of the crew. Davey knew he would pay for that one later. They dined the last night before the flight with the launch director and members of the team. After dinner, Jock had made sure that they could spend some time together as a crew, without any outsiders, to discuss the final and personal concerns. Jock had never felt closer to five other people in his life, and his trust in them was complete. After a brief discussion of the heaviness of the workload on orbit, Jock shared his concerns over the Soviet satellite. He had not been the only one concerned, and they all knew that even the utmost of caution might not be enough. As Jock was about to call an end to the meeting, Andy leaned over and nudged Davey, and passed him a small card. Davey smiled and handed it to Jock, and motioned to Pamela to help open it. On the front were the letters J & P. Inside was a xerox of a portion of the final day's flight plan, the blue team's version.
At four days, twenty-two hours, the official plan indicated the beginning of a six hour sleep period. Next to it was a red heart, and the signatures of the other four crew members.

Liftoff was scheduled for eleven a.m., eastern daylight time. Jock slept very little. He tried to recreate in his mind exactly what the first few minutes of the flight were be like. He choreographed every switch toggle, computer entry, and sensor readings he would make. He thought of the physical sensations he would feel, the vibrations, the acceleration, the g forces. He slipped in and out of several dreams, and he thought about Pamela. Five miles away, bathed in white search lights, the Endeavor began to come alive.

Sleep came no more easily to Pamela. She practiced the movements of the remote manipulator in her head until she was satisfied that it was an extension of her own arm. She recalled all of the descriptions given to her by flight crews who had gone before. The challenge ahead would be to perform tasks which had become to her routine, while all of her senses become saturated with unimaginably new sensations. But despite the excitement and anticipation, the most important part of all of this for her was that she would share it with Jock. As the hot, Florida sun began to burn away the morning sea fog, the crew of 921-F gathered for breakfast.

It was Jock's usual sense of humor which relaxed the morning and eased the prelaunch jitters. Pamela laughed out loud when Jock leaned over to her and, while reaching in his pockets, confessed that he may have locked the keys in the Shuttle after the practice countdown two days ago, and suggested that she bring a coat hanger so they could break in. After breakfast, Jock and Davey got a complete weather briefing, including the emergency landing sites, and the entire crew was outfitted with the standard array of medical sensing devices. At eight fifteen they boarded the van amidst applause from a small handful of reporters and ground crew, and began the five mile trip to launch complex 39B.

As he stepped from the van, the Shuttle still seemed a massive, miracle of machinery. A conglomeration of electronics, plumbing, and materials assembled to carry men and women to and from space. As he stepped from the elevator and began to cross the access arm, twenty stories in the air, he suddenly sensed that this was not a machine, but a living, breathing beast, on whose back he would ride among the stars. The vapors escaping were like the breath from a horses nostrils on a crisp winter day. The metal creaking from the rapid changes in temperature was like heavy oaks bending in a stiff breeze. As he stopped to take his last breaths of fresh air before putting on his helmet and boarding the spacecraft, he looked over at Pamela and smiled. She leaned over and squeezed his hand.
"Happy trails, flyboy," was all she said. Within twenty minutes, the six crew members were aboard, and the hatch sealed. The count had resumed after a built in hold, and everything was progressing flawlessly, and relentlessly toward launch.

Jock had been accustomed to trusting his life to machinery, but he still felt the same subtle twinge at T -31 seconds. The remainder of the countdown would be conducted by the redundant set launch sequencer, RSLS. This group of computers, like the five general purpose computers on board the orbiter, would vote in a complex ballot box known as a multiplexer-demultiplexer. On this electronic democracy would rest the fate of six brave Americans. Today there would be no nays.

At T-7 seconds, as millions of gallons of water rushed below them to absorb the noise, hydrogen and oxygen filled the chambers of the three main engines, and within three seconds they had come completely to life. The shuttle rocked forward and slowly settled back. They had all been prepared for this motion, the so called "twang," but the noise and vibration of solid rocket ignition exceeded the wildest expectations of those who hadn't yet flown. Before they could even ponder these newest sensations, they felt themselves leap from the ground, and begin a gentle rightward roll. As they were pressed firmly against the seats there could be no doubt in anyone's mind that the adventure of their lives had begun.

"Houston, roll" Davey's voice.
"Roger Endeavor, roll" capcom Rick France in Houston.

They were now head down, climbing out over the blue-green Gulf stream. The three screens before him told Jock that everything was, as they said, nominal. The trip was only thirty seconds old, but they were approaching the speed of sound, and just before that, something called max Q. At that point, the stresses at speeds only slightly subsonic produced the maximum effects on the launch vehicle. To counteract the increases stresses, the computers decreased the acceleration by diminishing the thrust from the main engines. Jock watched as the main engine thrust dropped to 65%, exactly as programmed. Davey gave a quick scan of the status lights, and radioed
"Houston, Endeavor. Throttle back complete, max Q"

"Roger endeavor, max Q. We show you right on the flight path."

They were now supersonic. The main engines returned to full power under Jocks watchful gaze. Jock reached forward and checked the abort panel, and glanced at the APU power levels. He tried to close his mind to what had become a dreaded moment of every shuttle flight for the preceding six years.
"Houston, Endeavor. Go at throttle-up" Davey spoke the tainted words.
"Roger, Endeavor. Booster performance nominal."

From her center seat, Pam strained against the mounting G forces to help monitor the flight systems. Andy sat slightly behind her, and to her left. Pam wished she could see Jocks face, hold his hand. It was happening so fast, and the thrill would soon be over. She watched as the middle CRT indicated through the usual complex array of numbers and diagrams that the solid rocket boosters (SRB's) had run their course.

"Houston, Endeavor. We have SRB shutdown. . . SRB sep complete"

From months of simulation, Jock looked for the indicator to confirm SRB separation, but his senses gave him the immediate answer. A bright flash appeared in the window, and the boosters moved out and away, slipping slowly behind like an ocean wake.
"Endeavor, Houston. You are negative return"
The simple NASA way of telling the crew of Endeavor that they had reached a point where in the event of problems, emergency landing back at Kennedy would be impossible.
"Well, " Jock said "at least we're going somewhere."
Jock reached forward and changed the abort mode from RTLS (Return to launch site) to TAA (Trans Atlantic Abort). In his mind he quickly ran through the TAA procedures. For the first time he turned and looked back at Pam, almost as if to prove to himself that she was really with him. He had been nearly too busy to really enjoy the ascent, but as Endeavor began a gentle dive to maximize acceleration and allow fuel weight to dissipate, Jock began to feel himself pressed increasingly into the seat, and the reality of the adventure began to sink in. For a brief moment, he closed his eyes and kissed Pamela in his mind.
Seven minutes into the flight, the main engine began decreasing its thrust to limit the acceleration as the spacecraft lightened with fuel consumption.

"Endeavor, Houston. Single engine press to MECO." They could make orbit on one engine. As Jock changed the abort mode to ATO (Abort to Orbit) he allowed himself to feel the excitement. He would soon be in orbit. Eight and one half minutes after leaving earth behind, the three red lights appeared indicating the main engines had shut down as planned.
"Endeavor, Houston. MECO as scheduled, go for ET sep"
The large orange external tank was blown clear, and Jock maneuvered the orbiter out and away. The OMS thrusters soon completed their burn and fell silent. The vibration stopped, and the cockpit contained only the sounds of the electronic systems.

They were, at last, weightless. It was a sensation they had all experienced many times before, either while flying, or from training runs on the "Vomit Comet," a cargo plane flown especially to provide brief training periods of weightlessness. It was the moment Jock loved about space flight. It had been part of his childhood dreams, and not surprisingly part of his childhood nightmares, for he was now in an endless fall.

For Pamela, the ride to orbit was only exceeded by the unexpected sensations of being there. The dark sky only heightened the contrast of the deep blues below. The discomforts of weightlessness were minimized in light of the freedom it afforded.

The five hours that followed included two burns of the OMS (Orbital Maneuvering System), opening of the cargo bay doors, leveling the navigation platforms, powering up the payloads, readying the spacelab, and stowing the seats and gear from the ascent configuration. From time to time Jock and Pamela would bump up against one another, half on purpose, just to continue to prove to themselves that they were both really in this together. As Jock positioned the Orbiter for its final OMS burn to put it on an interception course for the Russian Kosmos, Pamela stared intently. She marveled as the gentle hands caressed the stick, and programmed the autopilot with swift precision. She glanced back through the aft windows at the gleaming white space lab body in the cargo bay, then returned her gaze the to the man she loved. It would be a great five days.

VI.

The center CRT displayed the tracking radar, and confirmed the rendezvous would occur as planned. The Kosmos was closing at a high rate of speed, and precision would be a necessity to allow capture without collision or injury. Andy, in his EVA suit and the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) on his back, was being held forward on the manipulator arm. Pam had positioned him perfectly, and he released the footholds and began to slowly move away under his own power. Jock and Davey were in their flight positions, feeding the maneuvers into the digital autopilot, adjusting the attitude, and preprogramming the onboard computers.

"Endeavor, Houston. twenty seconds to LOS (Loss of signal)" In twenty seconds they would be out of radio contact, waiting for a Russian satellite over the Soviet Union. Jock found it difficult to think of a way to be more alone. He turned to take one last look at Pamela. She was busily working the manipulator arm from the aft flight deck station. Her back was to Jock. Her long golden hair was pulled in compactly, and floated gently over her shoulders. Around her neck was a golden necklace that Jock had given her. It did not hang, but floated like one of Saturn's rings around her soft, beautiful neck. The shorts she had changed into shortly after they had reached orbit, showed off her strong, perfectly curved thighs. Jock turned, and shook his mind back to the problems at hand.

"That's it, we'll hear from them in ten minutes if we're lucky," offered Davey in his usual optimistic tone.

"Thirty kilometers," Jock muttered "we should soon have a visual."
Jock switched the display to a more graphic depiction of the relative positions of the three satellites, for technically Andy was now a satellite no different than the other two. His orbit conformed closely to that of Endeavors, but he was on his own.
Jock watched intently as Andy came in view of the forward windows. As they had discussed, Pam positioned the arm to be able to retrieve Andy as quickly as possible.

An eerie feeling swept over Jock. He suddenly felt in danger. A quick scan of the instruments uncovered no anomalies. Then, the flash caught his eye.
"Davey." Jock's voice was terse, but Davey had obviously seen it too. The second flash of the Kosmos' rendezvous light was quick in coming.

"Binoculars" Jock said, not moving his gaze from the path delineated by the two flashes. Pamela floated the binoculars across the flight deck to Davey, and Davey placed them in Jock's hand. It took less than a heartbeat. The third flash pinpointed the satellite, and Jock centered it in the magnified field and quickly focused the lenses at infinity. It was just like the pictures. He counted the solar arrays. There were six, just as they had been told. He looked for the camera mounts, counting the requisite four. His fear was beginning to subside. He turned his attention to assessing the entangled antennae. The satellite was rotating slowly, and the S-band antenna had not yet moved into view. This antenna had not changed position since launch, and he expected to see it completely entangled in shroud wiring, and severely damaged. He fully expected repair to be impossible, and anticipated bringing the satellite home nestled in the cargo bay just behind the Spacelab. "Like a hand grenade on a cotton ball," he had said. He scanned the sky surrounding the satellite for traces of fuel or vapor leaks, but saw none. As the Urals passed below them, the S-band antenna slowly eased into view, and caught the sun. And then, it moved.
"Andy, back in, now!" Jock was now doing four things at once. Davey knew immediately something was wrong, and anticipated the worst. The only hope, Jock knew, if the satellite was about to detonate, was to interpose the most protected portion of the orbiter to the blast. That would be the heavily tiled underbelly. This would also obstruct the view of the satellite. Jock grew increasingly impatient as the intermittent whumps of the attitude control thrusters slowly urged the orbiter over on its side, and into a slow rotation. Andy disappeared below the nose. Pamela would have to find him with the camera on the end of the remote arm if he couldn't get back on his own. He was closing the forty meters he had put between himself and the arm quickly, but no one knew how much time they had. With a combination of piloting skill, video gamesmanship, luck, and pure guesswork, Jock position the orbiter perfectly, and Davey reprogrammed the general purpose computers to maintain a belly toward relationship with the satellite.
"He can move faster than the arm," Pamela spoke her thoughts "I'm going to pull the arm to safety, and capture him just on a pure z translation from the bay." Pamela was already retracting the arm, positioning it directly above the payload bay. Jock breathed a sigh of relief as Andy appeared over the left wing. Less than five kilometers separated the orbiter and the Kosmos. They would pass within 1.5 kilometers at the closest approach.

"Andy's inboard" Tad called from the aft station where he was helping Pamela. Jock magnified the picture on the screen beside him. Suddenly he remembered the underside antennas.
"Pull up the S-bands and C-bands" Jock gestured to Davey. Davey reached over and threw the switches.
"Fifteen seconds to close approach" Davey read the right hand screen, "and forty five seconds to AOS." They would remain out of communication for another forty five seconds. By then the satellite would have passed them.
"That's it" Davey sighed" close approach passed, its moving away."

Jock did not share Davey's relief. He glanced at the graphic display and did some quick calculations. They would just now be attempting to slow the satellite. Had the procedure gone according to plan, close approach would have occurred later. The accuracy of Jocks calculation was quickly confirmed. A bright flash reflected of the vertical stabilizer and OMS pods, and debris began to fly by the flight deck windows. They all felt the shudder, and heard the thuds of debris striking the orbiter. It was over as quickly as it began. Jock immediately checked the fire suppression panel to his left. It indicated no onboard fires. He then scanned the panel in front of him while Davey initiated a complete status check by the computers. One by one the status screens appeared.

Andy was floating motionless in the cargo bay. The locater lights on the MMU flickered dimly. Tad brought up the lights in the cargo bay while Pam moved the manipulator arm toward him. Just outside the airlock, Bill, the second EVA astronaut, saw Andy aft in the bay. He was already dreading what lay ahead.

Bill moved into the cargo bay and attached his safety line. The sound of his own breathing was deafening. He could feel his hands shaking in the loose fitting gloves. He fixed himself in a foothold as Pam moved the bulky figure toward him with the arm. The suit appeared intact, except for a black mark on the left front of the helmet. Before Bill could reach out, the white clad figure before him began to move.
"What brings you out here." It was unmistakably Andy's voice. "Did you bring some aspirin. I have a bit of a hangover."
Bill grabbed Andy, and the two stowed the MMU with some difficulty. Bill helped Andy into the airlock, then followed him in. Once pressurized, they entered the middeck and carefully removed the suits. They would definitely have further use for them.

Tad poked his head down through the access opening.
"Jock wants you guys on the flight deck as soon as you check Andy over." Bill gave Andy a thorough going over, but found only a bump on the head, with a resultant mild concussion. The two removed their thermal suits, pulled on tee-shirts and shorts and moved up to the flight deck.

"Roger Houston, we'll discuss it and get back to you in ten." Davey wore the headset and was talking with Eddie Maynard, the capcom for the current shift. Jock held the hard copy of the latest computer printout and appeared in deep concentration. Pamela and Tad were completing procedures at the afterdeck panel.
Jock looked up as Bill and Andy floated up through the hatchway. "You OK Andy." Jock was clearly distressed at how close he had come to loosing a member of his crew, but his obvious joy at seeing his good friend still alive could not be hidden.
"I'll hold skipper, what's up?"

"Well," Jock began "we have apparently survived an attempt on our lives by a suicide satellite. As I look things over, we have sustained minimal damage. Communications gear is all functional, the environmental systems remain nominal, Davey just completed a test of all of the propulsion systems and APU's including hydraulic systems and backups, and it all checks out. The only unanswered questions are the status of the underbelly tiles, and the overall structural soundness for reentry. My main concern is the forward portions of the cargo bay doors ahead of the wings. These relatively poorly protected areas could have sustained significant damage. Houston has advised us that Atlantis is out at harddown and could be on orbit for recovery in four days. My recommendation is that we continue the mission and try to complete as much of the work as we can. In addition we will perform an EVA to inspect the underside of the craft, and we will close and open the doors to check the latches. If everything seems OK, we will rendezvous with Atlantis, and transfer the data and all nonessential crew over to them. Davey and I will then attempt to bring this crippled bird home if we think its reentry worthy."

The five pairs of eyes that had been fixed on Jock began to look at one another. It was the best, most logical, and well thought out solution. Nobody liked it. They would all make it work, it was their job. Pamela felt a deep and haunting pain. She had been so happy to ride up with Jock, but now they wouldn't get to share the ride home. There were four good days ahead, and she would fill them completely. Andy was the first to speak.

"Let's get to work, we're already behind."
Jock looked at Pam. He needed her support, he needed her now more than ever. The brilliant blue eyes met his, and she smiled. More than anything, Jock wanted her to hold him. He closed his eyes for a second, folded the computer printout, and looked up at his crew.
"Red team can commence Spacelab power up immediately. Andy, get some rest. Pam and I will finish up the work on the flight deck. Next change of shift at eighteen hundred hours. One last thing." Jock looked down, not used to expressing his emotions. "Thanks."

Deep in the bowels of the Kremlin, a handful of special service KGB officers worked with several members of the diplomatic corps. They put the finishing touches on a letter to the President of the United States praising the courage of the crew of the Endeavor, and expressing relief that no serious injuries had occurred. Under the stack of papers lay the original letter, expressing sympathy on the death of six brave astronauts. It had been composed months before. Thanks to Jock and his lucky stars it would never be sent.

VII.

There was no wasted motion. Jock and Pamela soon found themselves alone on the flight deck. They drifted close, and embraced. Pamela searched the dark eyes for a hint of fear, but found none. She was safe in his arms. He touched her cheek gently and they kissed. It was a momentary solace. There remained much to do, and without a word, they parted and set about the several checklists that would have to be completed before they could get some much needed sleep. As Pamela powered down the manipulator arm, the reality of the day's events began to sink in, and a shiver crept up her back. She was a professional, and she would not allow her feelings to interfere with the tasks ahead. She paused for a moment, and looked out the overhead window, pondering the events to come. She recognized the constellation Hercules immediately. The stars of a strongman, she thought. It was her turn to make a wish.

For two days, all had gone smoothly. Except for very minor equipment malfunctions, Endeavor had performed flawlessly. The data accumulating in the skylab was better than anticipated, and a feeling of confidence had permeated throughout the crew, and had filled the cast of scientists, engineers, technicians, and operators who made the mission possible. Ground planning and simulation for the vital mid mission evaluation of the orbiter integrity was complete. The plan was transmitted to Endeavor's onboard computers, and the crew studied the readout. It was decided to inspect the underside before closing the doors incase they could not be reopened. Bill and Tad suited up in the middeck with the help of Andy and Pamela. Davey and Jock were busy on the flight deck aligning the orbiter, and entering the autopilot program. At two days, sixteen hours and forty seven minutes, mission elapsed time, two minutes behind schedule, Tad and Bill exited the airlock, and moved into the cargo bay. Pamela positioned the arm, and Tad fixed himself in position on the foot restraint. Bill began a check of the MMU incase he would have to fly under to inspect any areas Tad could not see from his perch at the end of the arm. From the afterdeck, Andy crossed his fingers as Pamela lowered Tad below the wing. The view through the camera on the arm was excellent, and Tad confirmed after a slow, painstaking scan, what they had hoped. There had been extensive debris impact, but minimal tile damage. Tad counted seven missing and two loose tiles. He tapped the surface several times to assure himself that the tiles were still firmly attached. He knew deep in the back of his mind that two of his crewmates' lives depended on his evaluation, and repeated his survey with the same painstaking precision to leave no doubts. After taking several dozen pictures, he told Pam to position him by each cargo door. The left hand door appeared in excellent shape. Inspection of the right hand side would tell why. The right side had apparently absorbed more of the impact, and showed more damage. The tile surface and latching mechanism appeared intact. He dislodged a piece of Kosmos solar array from the Right side radiator.
"This one's a tough call, Jock" Tad radioed. "We'll know more when we close the doors, but it could go either way."
Jock looked over at Davey. It was never easy. He used to joke saying these were the decisions that earned him the big bucks.
"Get on in, and we can give it a try." Jock scanned the TV monitor for a clear answer or clue. In twenty five minutes Tad and Bill were squirming out of the EVA suits in the middeck while on the flight deck Davey and Jock were closing the cargo bay doors. The green lights indicated closed and locked. The floodlights illuminating the cargo bay showed no evidence of misalignment. Davey looked at Jock and grinned.
"Looks like we fly it, skipper," Davey said. "Houston, Endeavor. Our assessment of vehicle integrity is affirmative for deorbit. We will expect rendezvous with Atlantis as planned. We will reconfigure for Edwards lakebed return." With these words Jock and Davey silently accepted the risks that lay ahead. It was, after all, their job.

VIII.

In just over four hours, Atlantis would move into view. Its launch had been flawless, and Commander Tim Barton and Pilot Marty Springfield were progressing through a series of complex maneuvers to complete a picture perfect rendezvous between the two orbiters. The Blue team completed its final shift in the lab, and had been ahead of schedule, so they had completed packing most of the data for transfer. The red team smiled as they entered the lab to begin to prepare the lab for reentry. Andy had slipped back to the crew quarters for a moment, but soon emerged grinning ear to ear. In almost a rehearsed voice he turned to the other members of the Blue team, that being only Jock and Pamela.
"You kids go on ahead. I have some work to help with here. Call me if you need me." Pamela preceded Jock down the tunnel to the crew quarters. A childish feeling of naughtiness added to the playfulness that had been building since they had left the earth behind. Jock stopped at his locker and removed two items. One he zipped in the pocket of his shorts. The other, a cassette tape, he handed to Pamela. He pretended to carry her through the access hatch to the flight deck like a bride across the threshold. She happily played along.

The night lights of Australia passed below the forward windows as Jock dimmed the flight deck lights, a trick he had carefully practiced once in the simulator when no one had been around. As he drifted back, a small red package caught his eye. It contained an airline bottle of nonalcoholic champagne and a small note. "Best wishes, the Red Team." Jock opened the bottle as Pam started the tape. As they had hoped, the four stars of the Southern Cross were framed in the overhead window as the group on the tape began to sing of seeing it for the first time. Jock removed his shirt and glanced over at Pam.
She floated gently in the cabin. The soft lights on her cheeks, accompanied by the light of the full moon made an alluring image. It was a vision Jock would always remember. With a soft push he moved quickly to her side. Slowly they removed each others cloths and placed them in a velcroed bag on the wall. As they again embraced, a sweet soprano voice filled the cabin. "When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are . . ." She was so warm and smooth. Jock gently ran his fingers through Pamela's hair as she kissed him on the ear. Pamela pressed her soft breasts against his firm muscular chest, as Jock pulled her more tightly against him. "I love you," he whispered and kissed her softly. "Earth angel, earth angel, won't you be mine. . ." Jocks pick. He saw the almost full moon through the cargo bay window.

Jock knew at that moment he was the luckiest man alive. He had survived many close calls in his life, flown the best flying machines man had ever made, and fulfilled his wildest dreams of space flight. But what made him the luckiest man was to be madly in love, and to be madly loved, and even more, to be able now, on the greatest adventure of his life, to satisfy the passion that this love caused to burn inside him, and to satisfy her as well.

Pamela floated herself more tightly against him, not an easy task in zero G. She pressed her lips against his strong neck. The gentleness of his hands never ceased to astound her, as he placed his long fingers gently across the small of her back. Her long muscles, firm from holding a riding crouch relaxed easily under his caress. She smiled and kissed his ear again. "For the glory of love . . ." were the words she had chosen. Slowly, they made their bodies one.

"The first time ever I kissed your lips . . ." Roberta Flack sang softly as their bodies erupted, then settled quietly in a tight embrace, their lips sealed tightly together. "And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave, to the dark and the endless night, my love."

He opened his eyes and looked at her. The blue eyes held him as tightly as her arms. He felt warm and relaxed, but there was one last thing to attend to. He floated over and reached into his pocket. ". . . no I won't be afraid, just as long as you stand, stand by me." He reached out and pulled her toward him. He hadn't realized how difficult it was to get on one knee while weightless, but the romantic in him made him try.

"Pamela," he started, and when he looked up, the blue eyes answered the question he had yet to ask. "will you marry me?"

She had begun to think she would never hear this question, at least not from someone she had hoped would ask it. Even then, she had always fully expected to say no, but he was the one. She leaned forward as her eyes filled with tears, kissed him, and whispered quietly in his ear, "I will ".

"For so long, for this night I prayed, that a star would guide you my way . . ." It was Jocks pick, and the last song on the tape. As they embraced for the last time, out the front windows of the orbiter they could see the sun, rising over the California coast. The long blue arms of the astral sunrise arched across the curved horizon. ". . . there'll be a ribbon in the sky for our love." They dressed quietly and kissed one last time, then moved down to the middeck for some much needed rest. A busy day lay ahead. When Jock opened his sleep restraint he was greeted by a small card in Andy's hand writing with the simple message "Welcome to the hundred mile high club." Jock laughed quietly and handed it to Pam, and they both laughed.

IX.

As it inched slowly closer, the white exterior of the Atlantis blazed in the sunlight. Commander Barton slowly positioned the massive orbiter within several feet of the Endeavor as Captain Springfield used the manipulator arm to maneuver the emergency crew transfer compartment over to the endeavor airlock docking ring. The small compartment could be used to haul two crew members at a time between two orbiters like passenger tenders to an ocean liner. They would make three trips, Andy and Tad going first, followed by the data and personal effects, followed by Bill and Pamela. Jock and Tim Barton would keep the two craft in perfect formation. In forty five minutes, half an orbit, the transfer was almost complete. Pam and Bill boarded the transfer vehicle for the final trip.
"One more thing, "Jock called to Pamela from the flight deck, just as the door was about to be closed. He floated down from the flight deck with the tape in his hand. "Take good care of this, " he said, and took her hand, and kissed her fingers, pausing at the one newly adorned with the ring. "and take good care of your self." He hugged her, and gave her a final kiss, and the door between them closed.
"Nice flying Tim." Jock radioed as he watched the transfer compartment come to rest for the final time on the Atlantis' airlock.
"I didn't spend two years with the Blues for nothing." Tim replied. Jock laughed, and the two craft began to separate, slowly at first, then more quickly, until the flashing lights finally disappeared. Endeavor would deorbit first. In the event that it was unable, Atlantis might still be able to return and retrieve the two remaining crew members onboard Endeavor. Also, Endeavor would be landing at Edwards in California, while Atlantis would return to Kennedy. For Jock and Pamela it meant that they would finish the trip of their lives three thousand miles apart.

Jock turned to Davey. "Lets get the doors closed, and go to work." Jock and Davey powered up the bay doors, and watched as one by one the two huge doors swung slowly closed, and the latches engaged. The panel indicated the doors to be closed and locked. After drinking a little over a quart of water each, Jock and Davey positioned themselves in the seats on the forward flight deck that they had occupied the day Endeavor slipped into space.

After completing the OMS cross feed check, and APU's restart, Jock reached to his right to the computer keyboard. OPS 3 0 2 PRO. Like a diver with his toes on the board, and his back to the water, Endeavor was poised to jump.
"Endeavor, Houston. Go for deorbit burn. ADI to inertial, DAP to auto."
"Copy that Houston, ADI inertial, DAP auto, burn in twenty seconds. . . eighteen . . twelve . . five,four,three,two,one, ignition."
The lights appeared as the computer clock cycled. Jock and Davey were riding head down. As the thrust rose, they felt themselves pressed into the seats. In two minutes and forty three point two seconds, the burn was complete.
"Houston, Endeavor. Deorbit burn complete, assuming entry attitude, entry checklist complete."
"Roger, Endeavor. We show OMS performance nominal, you're right on the entry slope."
Jock tapped the computer keyboard. OPS 3 0 3 PRO. The nose of the orbiter swung over to a twenty eight degree angle. This placed the heavily protected underside forward for the descent. As the hot, ionized gasses built up around the outside, they would soon loose radio contact. Pam and the others listened from Atlantis.
"Houston, Endeavor. Entry interface, ready LOS expect recontact three minutes past the hour."
"Roger, Endeavor. Catch you on the flip flop."
The silence was deafening. The corners of the windows began to glow first orange then white. Several pieces of debris burned away in bright flashes. It was a spectacular show. Jock glanced back at the cargo bay, then turned to Davey. "Is it me, or is it hot in here?" Jock closed his eyes and pictured the shimmering moonlight on the elegant curves of Pamela's perfect body.

"Endeavor, Houston." No response. "Endeavor, Houston, do you copy, over." Silence. Please let him answer, Pamela begged silently. Rick France, the capcom turned to the flight director. "Nineteen minutes since LOS, no response, that's three minutes overdue."
Flight director Tom Stearman was a veteran of over two dozen shuttle flights. He was as cool as they came, and probably the most innovative when it came to trouble shooting.
"Range, give me the trajectory." As fast as Stearman requested it, the entry track of Endeavor was displayed next to the computer generated ideal. "Tracking, any sign of break up, split or multiple bogeys?" "Negative, flight. All tracking data reports one vehicle, expected size on the glide slope, but even if the crew didn't make it, the autopilot could fly the orbiter almost to touchdown without any human input."
"Keep trying to raise them. How soon will we have chase contact?" Tom was getting worried. "We have three 38's airborne now, and they should have a visual within four and close-ups within ten." the range safety office replied.
"Endeavor, Houston. Endeavor, Houston. Comm check."

No response. That's it, Pamela thought, they've had it. The mistress she had fought so carefully, and had been about to defeat, would strike one final, cruel blow, and take the victory, and her beloved Jock. She should have made him let her stay. At least they would have been together. She closed her eyes to try to stop the tears, but it was too late. She pictured him as she had seen him only five hours before, the powerful arms, the bull neck she loved to kiss, the dark haunting eyes, and the long, tender hands.

"Endeavor, Houston. Endeavor, Houston." Still no reply. The orbiter began a series of steep turns to effect appropriate entry attitude for terminal area energy management. They had a lot of speed to burn off still.

"Negative downlink, flight. We have no communications, and no telemetry. The vehicle is silent." The chief telemetry officer summarized what they all knew was true, with implications then they all tried to bury deeper in their minds.

X.

Yuri Petrovitch was the best of the best. He did for the people of Russia what Jock, and Davey, and so many like them did for the United States. What he was about to attempt, had never been done before. He was at 90,000 feet in a cleverly constructed piece of graphite known only as MiG 37. Its concept, design, construction, and testing had been the best kept secret of the Soviet Union. At least, Yuri was staking his life and the future of mankind on that assumption. His mission was simple. Intercept the shuttle at high altitude, close range, and fire an anti-radiation missile designed to home on the shuttle's telemetry frequency, then escape undetected. All of this before the orbiter entered U.S. territorial air space. He had rehearsed the mission several times. He had refused to allow himself to think of the men on board, he would do his duty for Mother Russia.

Tracking information on the orbiter path was fed to his aircraft from two trawlers off the coast of California. As Endeavor entered radio blackout, everything was positioned perfectly. Yuri's plane, true to its design, had not appeared on any of the radar tracking the shuttle. As the display in the small fighter cockpit slowly painted the reentry, Yuri completed his last weapons check, and armed the missiles. In addition to the two anti-radiation missiles, Yuri carried two heat seekers, just in case. He felt the sweat soaking his flight suit, even though the outside temperature at his altitude was well below freezing. He turned northbound and prepared for missile lock. His onboard computer slashed the tense moment of silence with a master alarm. The loud whine and flashing red emblem indicated that the targeting program had not received a telemetry signal in time for a favorable missile lock, that no solution was currently available, and that the window of opportunity had closed.

Yuri had ten seconds to make a decision. His highest priority was to avoid detection. Suddenly he saw it. The black, streaked underbelly closed from above. Reflexively, Yuri turned toward the orbiter. He had one chance, and his palms soaked the fir lined gloves as he armed the heat seeking missiles. He had not anticipated, or even imagined what happened next. The orbiter, still warm from reentry presented a massive infrared source. The missiles attempted to lock on, but the size of the target overwhelmed the targeting program, and the missiles would not lock. He could fire it and hope for the best, Yuri thought, but if it fails to intercept, it could be detected, and his position tracked. Besides, it suddenly occurred to him. There were no transmissions from the orbiter. It was already a crippled bird, and its crew was presumably dead or incapacitated. The expedient answer, it seemed to Yuri, was to let the dysfunctional vehicle destroy itself attempting to land. Besides, he thought, the MiG 37 had proven its radar invisibility, and would assure Soviet supremacy for years to come in spite of the American "Star Wars", and the back on track shuttle program. "Jock Edwards," Yuri breathed through clenched teeth," We will meet again." He pulled the small stick sideways slightly, and turned for home. It was his only mistake.

"Nine o'clock " Jock's voice grabbed Davey as he pointed. The small, black, saucer shape darted quickly from view as the orbiter rolled into its second roll reversal. "I saw it" Davey replied. "I hope he was just by for a look." "Lets stay quiet till we pick up chase." Jock recommended, and Davey silently agreed. In moments they were over the California coast, and two T-38's closed toward them.
"Lets go live." Jock said as he switched on all of the transmitting circuits one by one starting with the radar transponder.

"We appear to have a ground link." the tracking officer notified the flight director. "Damn thing just suddenly appeared, and same goes for other channels, could be a quirk, or an abnormally large plasma cloud which just cleared. No voice, and no telemetry from the flight crew."

Pamela felt a small lump of hope, as word of the new transmission from Endeavor reached Atlantis. She wanted to hear his voice. She closed her eyes and pictured their moments together. She wanted to hear his voice in her mind. She listened for his laugh and pictured the change it would always bring to his pensive dark eyes. She envisioned the strong, tender hands that had held her only hours before. Her eyes filled with tears as she pulled on a small headset and slipped the tape she had been clutching into the player.

"Houston, Endeavor." It was Davey's voice. "Runway in sight, on the glide slope." Pamela began to breath quickly. Please, she thought, say something Jock.

If he had said anything, it would have been lost in the wild cheers, and whoops of elation in the mission control center. The nine lives crew was coming home.

"Twenty . . . ten . . three . . one . . touchdown." Davey counted the altitudes as the orbiter settled onto the dry lake bed runway. Within ten seconds Jock eased the nose wheel onto the runway, and the orbiter drifted to a halt thirty seconds later. Jock turned to Davey, but neither spoke. Davey silently opened the final checklist, and like two machines performing assembly line tasks, they powered down their flying machine, and waited as the ground support cleared the toxic fumes and made the exterior safe for egress. Davey pulled himself from the right seat and headed for the middeck.
"You coming, Jock?" It was more a wake-up call than a question.
"Few minutes." Jocks usual brief reply.

Jock closed his eyes. It was over. He would probably go again someday, it was his job, but the stakes were suddenly higher. He should be elated, proud, somehow at ease. His dreams of a lifetime were fulfilled in a few short days. His thoughts, however, turned to Pamela. Had he been too quick to put his duty ahead of her. What if she had been the one to take the risk, and he had stayed behind? What if she doesn't make it back now?

Jock climbed from his seat, and turned to take one last look. He wanted to remember everything, to relive again and again the adventures of the last few days. Then, as he allowed the tiredness to take hold of him, he eased himself down to the middeck, and stepped out into the California sunshine, and took his first breath of fresh air in ten days. He met Davey at the bottom of the stairway, and the two of them walked slowly around the shuttle. It was immediately obvious to even the casual observer that more than the usual amount of damage had been incurred by Endeavor. Jock and Davey placed their fingers into large gouges in the external tiles, and ran their hands across stubbles of melted metal that were tangible reminders of the risks they had just taken. As they stood in the shadow of the heavily damaged right wing, Jock looked at Davey. When Davey returned Jock's gaze, they both smiled simultaneously, as they both silently shared the feeling that they had once more beaten the odds; that they truly were invincible.

XI.

Jock and Davey listened intently to the communications between Houston and Atlantis. They were undergoing their post flight physicals, but arrangements had been made for them to have complete communications access in addition to a TV for the network coverage. Jock had watched many times while friends and acquaintances had been through tricky situations. More than once he had crossed his fingers while a friend of his brought home a broken bird to a dead stick landing. His mind had always protected him with the reassurance that his friends were good pilots. The worst part for Jock now was not the risks, or his fears, but the complete feeling of lack of control. As a single seat fighter pilot he was used to the ultimate in control. His fate rested with his own skill as a pilot, and his oneness with the airplane. Now the most important part of his life was out of his control. The flight surgeon took his blood pressure four different times before giving up and deciding to wait till Atlantis was on the ground. Lunch was brought in, and Jock and Davey were left alone to follow the events at hand.

"Advise configure LOS, reacquire 13 minutes past the hour." Capcom Dave Weston closed communications with the crew of Atlantis until the ionized plasma of reentry had cleared enough for radio signals to penetrate. The next sixteen minutes were the longest of Jock's life. He closed his eyes and tried to relive every moment of his life with Pamela, from the first time he had seen her blue eyes, to the first moonlight ride, to their weekend in the mountains, to the events of that very morning. He could remember every moment he had spent with her, and he cherished all of them. He knew that whatever might happen in the next few moments, he would have these memories forever.

"Houston, Atlantis." Marty Springfield broke the silence. Davey looked over at Jock, but Jock was looking at his hands. He had never seen his own hands trembling before. He squeezed them tightly and looked up. In a few minutes a faint white dot appeared on the TV screen, and slowly grew. The TV speakers caught the double sonic boom, and Jock and Davey watched spellbound as Atlantis slipped gracefully and gently to earth. Jock and Davey hugged each other as the proud orbiter drifted slowly to a halt.

Jock knew Pamela would be flying back that afternoon to Houston, but he had some work to complete at Edwards before departing. He was scheduled to return in two days, but had arranged to fly himself back the following night. It took two or three tries, but Jock finally got a phone connection with Pamela. They talked for almost an hour. Not knowing who else might be on the line, they carefully limited their conversation, but no casual listener could have mistaken the affection in their voices. Her only slipup was to promise to wait up for him the following night. He laughed and said goodbye. He had wanted to tell her he loved her.

XII.

Ever since he was a boy, Jock had loved the night. He would always remember how much he enjoyed seeing the last flames of daylight disappear from the sky. He felt protection for his innermost self when the darkness surrounded him. He loved the stars, and their pictures he had learned camping under them as a boy. He loved the coolness of the night air, and the sounds that seemed covered by the light of day. He loved the boyhood games he played at night when he could move as if invisible, and hide from the keenest eyes. He loved the secrets of the night, and the way the lights on the hills far away would invitingly twinkle. He loved the way the darkness brought his other senses to their edge. And because he most loved to fly, it was not surprising that night flying was so special to him.

The sky gave only a few fleeting clues as to the daylight it had long left behind as Jock brought the canopy down around him. The soft red glow of the instruments before him would not detract from his cat vision. "What a wonderful way to return to her arms," he thought. His heart sped as the wheels left the ground. He was as purely happy as a man could be.

Jock rolled gently and looked below him. The now full moon glistened off of every small lake and pond in the darkness of the country side below like pearls on black velvet. The stars draped over him like a shimmering cape. He thought of Pamela. The words of Byron came back to him from his High School days.

She walks in beauty like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies.
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect, and her eyes.
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

Those eyes were calling him home. For the first time since he had taken the stick of an airplane, Jock found himself looking forward to the end of a flight. He could never tell her, he thought, for she would never understand how much this meant to him. He felt warm and content as the runway lights flashed ahead of him, and he eased his stallion to a perfect landing. As he dropped from the ladder to the tarmac, he realized for the first time how fighter pilots almost always dismount from the left side of an airplane like riders from their steed.

The gentle knocking at the door brought Pamela quickly awake. Ella Fitzgerald was singing a Gershwin melody in the background as Pamela sat up. A sudden twinge of fear swept over her. Suppose it was over. Suppose that after the events of the days before their relationship had run its course, that there was nowhere left for it to wind its intricate tale. How could she hope to keep the attention of a man whose life was otherwise complete. The thought of the deep brown eyes and gentle hands on the other side of the door pushed these fears from her mind, and she turned the knob.

Jock waited impatiently for the door to open. Those blue, blue eyes drew him immediately to her and he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her as close as he could. She was soft and ever so smooth. Her hair cascaded silently over his arms. Her cheek pressed tightly against his firm chest, then she reached up and kissed him, a long, slow, passionate kiss. Then, she withdrew gently, and took his hands. "Welcome home, Flyboy."

Maybe for the first time in his life, he really was home. He knew then that it wasn't the riding, or the flying, or the happenings a hundred miles up; it wasn't the moments that made him love her, it was loving her that made the moments. And that, he thought as he gazed into her blue eyes, was why he would simply love her forever.

Afterward

The searchlights gleamed as Endeavor came to rest atop a 747 to begin a short journey to Palmdale California for complete overhaul. Three thousand miles away, Atlantis, now in the orbiter processing facility, had begun turn around preparations for its next flight. Brian Edwards and Pamela Christiansen were already returned to flight status, and had been assigned to separate missions within the next fifteen months. With 921-F completed, the not quite routine business of men and women entering and leaving space would move ahead. The complexity of the missions would increase, and the politics would be much more delicate and involved. The game would certainly have some new rules. But for those who would ride the stack in the years to come, it would no longer remain a trip of sterile science and cold technology. All of the earth bound dreams of these star voyagers could now travel along, and maybe it was because one of them, one cool night by a glassy pond, made a wish upon a star.

Born in Pittsburgh, PA, Jeff Sell grew up with an avid interest in science and space exploration. After graduating from Yale, he went on to the Harvard/MIT Medical School program, then completed a residency in cardiac surgery at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Since 1989, Jeff has worked as a heart surgeon doing pediatric and adult heart surgery, including transplants in infants. He currently resides in Baltimore. Still an avid fan of aviation, Jeff is a private pilot. "An Exaltation Of Larks" was written "a page every couple nights over 2 months" in the mid nineteen-eighties while he was a resident. He can be reached at jeffsell01@earthlink.net

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