Rising on twin pillars of white-hot fire, the U.S. space shuttle Phoenix curved up from its Cape Canaveral launch pad into a low-altitude orbit around earth. The crew’s mission: train and instruct three fledgling French astronauts in the secrets of space flight. But short hours after liftoff, Commander Ed Cochran knew he must scrub the mission for a far more perilous task—the rescue of three Russian cosmonauts suddenly trapped in orbit in a space-debris-damaged Soyuz space capsule, its heat shield gone, its fuel depleted, and its supply of life-giving oxygen rapidly running out.
Or so Cochran thought—until the Politburo abruptly declined Phoenix’s offer and the White House threatened that any rescue operation might set off the beginning of World War III. As the three Soviet cosmonauts televised their last good-byes to a waiting world below, Cochran suddenly realized that the differences between men who challenged the deadly hazards of the space frontier and those concerned with bureaucratic politics on the earth below much finally be resolved—even if it meant the risk of turning the world into a radioactive cinder to which there would be no return!