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Switch-outs for still-living crew are rare, much rarer than replacing the recently deceased—a grim reminder that pushing the limits of astronautics is usually an all-or-nothing proposition. Their scarcity had made them the ultimate bad omen, even in a profession routinely beset by metaphorical broken mirrors and black cats. Over the course of space travel’s voodoo history, the next man in line had replaced Elliot See, Charles Bassett, David Griggs, and Sonny Carter after each had been killed in an air crash before his scheduled launch.

While the station can rotate and shift position to protect itself from the heat, the shuttle can’t stay docked in the middle of those acrobatics. Endeavour would remain grounded until the end of the year. For the crew, it was one more worrisome hitch. In their private quarters, still coming down from their near-launch adrenaline burst, they were called together and told that their next try would be delayed until November 18 at the earliest, and that they might as well head back to Houston. They packed up their few belongings and flew home in their trusty two-seater T-38s, feeling disappointment and maybe just a little relief.

The laughter and joking had stopped. The men of Expedition Six could follow along with their scripts, but they weren’t to interrupt the rigid, technical dialogue flowing between upstairs and control. The only one of them with any sort of role was Bowersox, who, in the leftmost mid-deck seat, could reach the buttons that would allow him, in case of dire emergency, to open the hatch and deploy the wire-basket slide that would carry the crew, two at a time, down to the armored tank. If his services were required, more than likely they were seconds away from becoming corpses.

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