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The war with Iraq is imminent, America’s wounds of 9/11 still weep, and former CNN science correspondent John Stangley is desperate to restart his life after losing Claire to cancer.
When Stangley receives a scoop from a source at NASA, the ten-month-long depressive fog lifts, and the spirit that once impassioned him, returns.
Stangley convinces CNN to let him do an exclusive live report from the Kennedy Space Center. During the seven o’clock newscast he tells his audience how Columbia’s international crew of seven may be in grave danger.
Mission management chair Julie Pollard watches the clock, as every minute it seems, Columbia’s problems grow in scale and complexity. First the media learns foam struck Columbia’s wing during launch, then shadowy, satellite images of Columbia prove inconclusive. Finally, a spacewalk confirms catastrophic wing damage. But Pollard has an idea. She wants to use Atlantis to rescue the crew of Columbia.
While engineers work to implement Pollard’s idea, NASA’s public relations department begins an ambitious program to rekindle America’s interest in the space program by granting the media unprecedented access. Stangley covers everything from rescue crew training, prayer vigils in towns across the country, public taste tests of astronaut food such as thermostabilized tortellini, and each milestone Atlantis reaches en route to the launch pad.
As Columbia’s seven astronauts wait to learn their fate, orbiting an impossible twenty-five days aboard a battered, powered-down spacecraft, one thought never leaves their minds. If the ground crews can’t ready Atlantis in time, a simple sensor fails at the launch pad, or a winter storm closes the launch window, they die in space.
Launch On Need, complete at 97,000 words, is a novelization of NASA’s rescue plan as detailed in the final report from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.