Synopsis: Minutes after a perfect launch south from Vandenberg military base, the Space Shuttle Atlantis' main engines prematurely shutdown. On board are commander and pilot Frank King, copilot Lew Clay, mission specialist Jackie Hart and payload specialist Hap Hazard. The only possible landing site is the Mataveri strip on Easter Island, 2,000 miles from anywhere. Frank makes a good landing just 200 hundred feet from the end of the runway and that's where the trouble begins. There are many emergency landing sites in the world but Isle de Pascua isn't one of them. The island is run by the Chilean government whose ties to the United States are not very friendly right now.
With the astronauts safe on Rapa Nui, NASA launches a massive recovery operation to retrieve the shuttle. There are many logistical and technical problems. The operation requires about 75 people (plus 25 reporters) but the island can't serve so many. NASA with the Navy's help must ship in all facilities. To bring in the necessary equipment, a C5 Galaxy transport is required but it can't turn around on the narrow runway. To solve this problem, two turnarounds must be built at each end of the runway. Another problem is fuel. The NASA 905 Boeing 747 can not fly two thousand miles with the shuttle piggy backed on top. Some sort of in flight refueling has to be jury rigged.
There are many political problems too. As well as NASA and the press, the State department becomes involved in the mission. The Russians are claiming that the Atlantis is carrying weapons into space. This is an outright lie; the shuttle was carrying a Landsat XIII satellite to be placed in polar orbit. The Soviet Union demands a U.N. investigation and to placate them, the Chilean government puts together a high ranking three man investigating committee. The committee arrives at the Island and is shown the shuttle and her cargo. After a few days they hold a press conference to verify to the world that the satellite was what it was advertised to be. Two of them board a plane for home which explodes after just take off.
Shocked, the mission planners realize that more dangers are on the way. Two soviet ships are sailing for Easter Island but are delayed by a storm. At the time they would have arrived, a group of terrorists in an unidentified plane lands on the island and try to destroy the shuttle. The small island government is well prepared and the terrorists are defeated with minimal damage to the shuttle. Finally the shuttle is loaded on to the 747 and heads for home.
Review: If Steven Brust and Poul Anderson write fantasies and Robert Forward and James Hogan write hard science fictions, then Lee Corey writes engineering fiction. His stories are about people trying to solve technical problems such as running a space hospital ("Space Doctor") or retrieving a shuttle. They are not stories about doing basic research. His stories therefore may not be terribly exciting but they are fast paced and I do appreciate the difference from the more standard science fiction. "Shuttle Down" has a lot going for itself. It doesn't drag and there are a great many major characters (about 30) so we see the story develop from different angles. The one big problem "Shuttle Down" has is its ending. After going through four fifths of the book encountering and solving technical problems, the Soviet backed attack comes too much out of the blue. There are a lot of problems in the world but I don't believe that could have happened. Then again, without this plot element, the book might have been considered boring.