Vandenberg Air Force Base, California
Steve Gowdy sat in a comfortable chair on the top level of a darkened control room in the heart of Vandenberg Air Force Base. The setting resembled the NASA command centers in Houston and at Cape Canaveral, but was smaller and stocked with military personnel instead of civilians.
Gowdy was in his late forties. He wore a gray polo shirt and black slacks, his thin covering of sandy brown hair perfectly coiffed but too thin to conceal his scalp beneath. He looked like a golfer ready to play eighteen holes at the local country club, a visitor on a day tour or a bored middle manager stuck in another endless meeting. Only the tightly bunched wrinkles around his eyes and the unconscious drumming of his finger on the arm of the chair suggested he was paying close attention.
Gowdy hadn’t come to Vandenberg for a tour of the place, or to marvel at the technology, but to oversee the final stage of a mission so secret only forty people in the entire world knew of its existence.
The project was called Ruby Snow, which meant nothing, of course, but had a poetic ring to it that Gowdy appreciated. It involved an aircraft funded by the National Security Agency and operated by the Air Force and other members of the Defense Department.
Aircraft was the wrong word, he reminded himself. The Nighthawk was a hybrid vehicle, part aircraft, part spacecraft. The latest in a long line of platforms descended from the space shuttle. It was the most advanced machine ever flown and was finally returning to Earth after three long years in orbit.
A large storm brewing over the Pacific had caused the NSA to move the reentry up by a full week, but, other than that, everything had gone according to plan.
Watching the reentry live, Gowdy stared at the huge, high-definition screens that made up the front wall of the room. One showed a column of numbers and symbols that honestly meant nothing to him, except that all of them remained green.
A second display showed a chart with a line that dove sharply from the upper-left-hand corner before leveling out across the middle and then beginning to drop again on the right side. Labeled Nighthawk Descent Profile, the chart had something to do with the altitude, speed and distance of the aircraft. But he kept his attention glued to the central display, where a global satellite map showed the Pacific Ocean and the west coasts of North, South and Central America.
Icons representing the Nighthawk and lines tracing its path were drawn in bright colors. Because the Nighthawk flew in an unusual polar orbit, the reentry path originated over Antarctica, cutting across the globe at a diagonal angle. It had flown past New Zealand, passing to the east by less than a hundred miles, and from there it drew a line directly over the top of the Cook Islands and Tahiti. It passed south of Hawaii, and its projection continued toward Vandenberg and the high deserts of California. It still had several thousand miles to go, but traveling at over five thousand miles per hour meant less than forty minutes before touchdown.
An echoing call rang out over the loudspeaker system, known as the loop. “Vehicle has cleared Max Q,” an anonymous voice said. “Heat shield secure. Temperatures dropping.”
Max Q. That was a term Gowdy knew. A danger point—the point of maximum aerodynamic stress on the craft. A point where any weakness or damage would likely result in structural failure and loss of the craft.
Hearing that the Nighthawk had passed Max Q reduced Gowdy’s anxiety a bit. Many things could still go wrong, catastrophically wrong, but the largest hurdle had been cleared.
He glanced down to the middle tier of the amphitheater-style room. That level was the domain of the flight director. In this case, an Air Force Colonel named Frank Hansen. Hansen was a steely-eyed veteran of thirty years, a former fighter jock and test pilot who’d survived two ejections and a crash in his time and was now head of the 9th Space Operations Squadron.
Hansen turned, made eye contact and offered a nod. So far, so good.
Among all the controllers and system specialists and experts, Hansen was the only man in the room—aside from Gowdy himself—who understood just what a monumental risk they were taking. And if Gowdy measured him right, Hansen was just as nervous.
Hansen pressed his intercom switch. “Give me a status update,” his calm voice called out.
Down on the lowest level of the room, the individual systems controllers went into action. Each of them had one thing to worry about; guidance, telemetry, propulsion, etc. . . . Like the front row in a movie theater, their positions made watching the main screen a neck-craning exercise, but since every bit of information they needed was displayed on smaller monitors directly in front of them, they rarely looked up until their tasks were done.
Gowdy sat back and listened as the stream of replies poured in over the loop, his finger continuing to drum.
“Flight controls: Go.”
On it went, each man or woman reporting, confirming good news, until all the controllers had reported in but one.
An awkward pause ensued. Down below, Hansen waited and then pressed the button on his transmitter. “Guidance, what’s your status?”
There was no response.
The room went deathly quiet. Gowdy’s finger stopped its tapping. In all the simulations, he’d never heard a delay, not even a few seconds. He stood up, gazing down over the rail toward the bottom row, where the guidance controller sat.
A young airman with a crew cut was working furiously, typing and tapping things on his keyboard, switching screens.
“Guidance?” Hansen called out. “I need a response.”
“Guidance is go,” the airman finally replied, “but we’re seeing a delay in the repeat.”
Because the Nighthawk was a pilotless craft and controlled remotely from Vandenberg, the system had been designed to repeat every instruction back to control center before executing a maneuver, much in the way a pilot repeated the instructions to air traffic control to make sure everyone was on the same page.
Gowdy tapped his own intercom button, which went directly, and privately, to Hansen. “What’s happening? What does it mean?”
“A delay in the repeat could be anything,” Hansen replied. He spoke with a practiced indifference. “It could mean a problem processing the command, an error on our end, or even—”
Before anything else could be said, the Telemetry controller spoke up. “Telemetry is yellow. Signal intermittent.”
On the big screen with the numbers, two boxes had begun flashing yellow alarms; a third began to flash red.
“Course deviation detected,” the tracking controller said. “Two degrees south and turning . . . Five degrees and turning . . .”
Gowdy felt his throat clench up. He buzzed Hansen again. “What’s happening?”
Hansen was too busy to reply and Gowdy turned his gaze back to the screen. The Nighthawk’s projected line had begun to curve, angling to the right, away from California and toward Central America.
“Eleven degrees south and still turning,” the guidance controller said. “Speed dropping, descent arrested. Altitude maintaining nine-one thousand.”
Gowdy could hardly believe his eyes. Instead of descending as planned, the Nighthawk was leveling off at ninety-one thousand feet and losing speed because of it. Since the craft was a glider at this point, it was imperative that it maintain the proper descent profile; otherwise, it would bleed off so much speed that it would no longer be able to reach California.
Gowdy felt his legs shaking. He gripped the rail in front of him with one hand while the other went into his pocket, fumbling for a key.
“Reissue directional commands,” Hansen called out tersely.
“No effect,” the controller said.
“Reboot command program.”
“Reboot initiated . . . Stand by.”
Gowdy descended the stairs to Hansen’s level and held his position. He was sweating now, his hands trembling, his fingers on the key he hoped never to use.
How could it all be going wrong now? A decade of research and three years in space. How could the effort possibly be failing here at the end?
“Twenty-one degrees south,” the guidance controller said. “Altitude still nine-one thousand, speed dropping to four thousand.”
“What’s happening?” Gowdy shouted to Hansen, no longer bothering with the intercom or the pretense of calm.
“We’ve lost control.”
“I can see that,” Gowdy replied. “Why?”
“Impossible to tell,” Hansen said. “It seems to be a constant right turn. There may be damage to the wing or vertical stabilizer. But that wouldn’t explain the telemetry problems or the delay on the command repeat.”
Gowdy fumbled with the key in his pocket, turning it over and over in his hand. It was his responsibility to terminate the mission if it became too dangerous; his call. To act early before all hope was gone would be a mistake, but to act too late . . . could be disastrous.
He stepped forward, barging into Hansen’s personal space. “Get this damned thing back on track.”
Hansen pushed past him, all but shoving Gowdy into a seat. The two men had never liked each other. Hansen felt Gowdy didn’t know enough about physics and astronautics to be attached to the program, and Gowdy considered the Air Force Colonel to be arrogant and condescending to his authority. The higher-ups had ordered them to get along; it had worked for a while, but not now.
“Transponder data intermittent,” the telemetry controller said. “We’re losing the signal.”
“Reboot the transponder,” Hansen called out. “If the transponder goes out, we’ll lose track of the vehicle. It’s not in primary radar coverage.”
Gowdy sat, immobile. His body went numb and he listened to the desperate exchange as if in a trance. It wouldn’t matter if they were in radar coverage, the Nighthawk was designed with a complete stealth covering. Unlike other spacecraft, it was black in color, invisible to telescopes. It was covered with the most advanced radar-absorbent material ever developed.
He looked up. The vehicle was now streaking toward the coast of South America at thirty-five hundred miles per hour. Its turn was moderating, its speed continuing to drop. Its maximum glide path, marked by a shaded orange circle on the map, was shrinking with each second and moving south. It no longer reached the United States.
Gowdy knew what he had to do. There was no more reason to wait.
He pulled the red key out of his pocket and inserted it into a slot on the panel in front of him. A turn of the key opened a compartment just above it and a small pedestal rose up and locked in place. The pedestal was marked with yellow and black chevrons. In the center loomed a red button protected by raised metal bars that prevented it from being pressed by accident.
Gowdy looked up at the screen. They were now getting erroneous position data indicating the Nighthawk was in several different places at the same time. Returns blinked on and off, but the main line continued to head south, heading straight for the Galápagos Islands and the coast of Ecuador beyond.
“Guidance reboot completed,” the controller said.
“And?!” Hansen asked.
“That’s it,” Gowdy whispered. He turned the key to the right and the red button lit up.
“Self-destruct, armed,” a computer voice called out.
Letting go of the key, Gowdy reached for the button.
A firm hand intercepted him, grabbing his wrist and yanking it away.
Hansen had appeared at his side. “Are you insane?” the Air Force Colonel growled.
“It’s gone off course,” Gowdy said. “We can’t have it coming down in a populated area, the risk is too great that the worst will happen.”
Hansen continued to hold Gowdy’s arm back. “The worst has already happened. It happened the moment we brought the Nighthawk and its cargo back into the atmosphere. Destroying it now will only trigger the catastrophe.”
Gowdy blinked, confused. He felt a sense of vertigo. He truly didn’t understand. But then, this was what Hansen had complained about all along. The science was beyond him.
The Nighthawk suddenly vanished from the screen. The graph showing its descent profile went blank and all the numbers in the far screen froze and began to blink red.
“Telemetry is down,” another controller reported with little emotion. “Nighthawk contact lost.”
A murmur swept through the room. It sounded like fear. Gowdy stared at the screen, waiting and hoping the course line would reappear. He sat in silence as repeated attempts to reestablish the link between Vandenberg and the aircraft failed.
Eventually, a new number appeared on the screen and began rapidly counting toward zero.
“What’s that?” Gowdy asked.
“Surface interface time,” Hansen said with grim honesty. “The longest possible time the Nighthawk can remain aloft before reaching zero altitude.”
The number ticked down without mercy, going from minutes to seconds and then stopping implacably at 0:00:00.
“Now what?” Gowdy asked.
“Give me live satellite coverage,” Hansen ordered. “Wide-angle. South Pacific and western South America.”
The controllers did as ordered. No one asked why.
One by one, the satellite views came up. Gowdy stared at the peaceful scene. Clouds drifted over the Pacific. The west coast of South America ran hard against the blue waters of the ocean. The tropical disturbance in the Pacific swirled like a peaceful merry-go-round.
Everything appeared calm.
“What are you looking for?” Gowdy asked.
The stern Air Force Colonel turned to the NSA bureaucrat he’d put up with for so long and exhaled. It was more relief than frustration.
“Absent a command from the ground, the Nighthawk will enter an autonomous mode, thinking for itself. When it determines its own position and computes that it can’t reach Vandenberg, the craft will execute emergency descent procedures, slow to an appropriate speed and then land safely . . . by parachute.”
“How do you know it hasn’t broken up already?” Gowdy replied, trying to reassert his aura of authority. “How do you know the autoland system hasn’t failed like everything else?”
“Because,” Hansen said, “we’re still here.”
It took a moment, but Gowdy began to understand. He looked up at the live satellite view and all the normal things it displayed. “How long do we have?”
Hansen performed a quick mental calculation. “Seven days,” he said. “Less, if the fuel cells, solar panels or the battery packs were damaged.”
Gowdy turned back to the screen and the massive expanse of the South Pacific on display. Seven days to search all that ocean and find a needle in its watery haystack. Seven days to find and shut off a ticking bomb that could shake the very foundations of the Earth.