Osborn, Stephanie. Burnout. Kingsport, TN: Twilight Times Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-606192-00-9.
At the conclusion of its STS-281 mission, during re-entry across the southern U.S. toward a landing at Kennedy Space Center, space shuttle orbiter Atlantis breaks up. Debris falls in the Gulf of Mexico. There are no survivors. Prior to the disaster Mission Control received no telemetry or communications from the crew indicating any kind of problem. Determination of the probable cause will have to await reconstruction of the orbiter from the recovered debris and analysis of the on-board flight operations recorder if and when it is recovered. Astronaut Emmett “Crash” Murphy, whose friend “Jet” Jackson was commander of the mission, is appointed a member of the investigation, focusing on the entry phase.

Hardly has the investigation begun when Murphy begins to discover that something is seriously amiss. Unexplained damage to the orbiter's structure is discovered and then the person who pointed it out to him is killed in a freak accident and the component disappears from the reconstruction hangar. The autopsies of the crew reveal unexplained discrepancies with their medical records. The recorder's tape of cockpit conversation inexplicably goes blank at the moment the re-entry begins, before any anomaly occurred. As he begins to dig deeper, he becomes the target of forces unknown who appear willing to murder anybody who looks too closely into the details of the tragedy.

This is the starting point for an adventure and mystery which sometimes seems not just like an episode of “The X-Files”, but two or more seasons packed into one novel. We have a radio astronomer tracking down a mysterious signal from the heavens; a shadowy group of fixers pursuing those who ask too many questions or learn too much; Area 51; a vast underground base and tunnel system which has been kept entirely secret; strange goings-on in the New Mexico desert in the summer of 1947; a cabal of senior military officers from around the world, including putative adversaries; Native American and Australian aborigine legends; hot sex scenes; a near-omniscient and -omnipotent Australian spook agency; reverse-engineering captured technologies; secret aerospace craft with “impossible” propulsion technology; and—wait for it— …but you can guess, can't you?

The author is a veteran of more than twenty years in civilian and military space programs, including working as a payload flight controller in Mission Control on shuttle missions. Characters associated with NASA speak in the acronym-laden jargon of their clan, which is explained in a glossary at the end. This was the author's first novel. It was essentially complete when the space shuttle orbiter Columbia was lost in a re-entry accident in 2003 which superficially resembles that which befalls Atlantis here. In the aftermath of the disaster, she decided to put the manuscript aside for a while, eventually finishing it in 2006, with almost no changes due to what had been learned from the Columbia accident investigation. It was finally published in 2009.

Since then she has retired from the space business and published almost two dozen novels, works of nonfiction, and contributions to other works. Her Displaced Detective (January 2015) series is a masterful and highly entertaining addition to the Sherlock Holmes literature. She has become known as a prolific and talented writer, working in multiple genres. Everybody has to start somewhere, and it's not unusual for authors' first outings not to come up to the standard of those written after they hit their stride. That is the case here. Veteran editors, reading a manuscript by a first time author, often counsel, “There's way too much going on here. Focus on one or two central themes and stretch the rest out over your next five or six books.” That was my reaction to this novel. It's not awful, by any means, but it lacks the polish and compelling narrative of her subsequent work.

I read the Kindle edition which, at this writing, is a bargain at less than US$ 1. The production values of the book are mediocre. It looks like a typewritten manuscript turned directly into a book. Body copy is set ragged right, and typewriter conventions are used throughout: straight quote marks instead of opening and closing quotes, two adjacent hyphens instead of em dashes, and four adjacent centred asterisks used as section breaks. I don't know if the typography is improved in the paperback version; I'm not about to spend twenty bucks to find out.

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