Cross-range maneuvering is no longer possible by 50,000 feet. You're locked in, wherever you're going. Now you have company. Fighter planes—“chase planes”—have picked you up. They're swarming all around you, snooping around the hull for damage. Eighteen miles from the runway, you finally slow to subsonic speed. Now you really have some options. At this low speed and altitude, you could punch out safely.
At 12,000 feet, the plummeting begins. Nose down at 24 degrees to the horizon, 30 degrees in some flights. Feels like a dive bomber. That DC-9, the one that makes your knuckles white on commercial flights, comes in at three degrees. Thirty seconds out, you can raise the nose back up. Now you have one and only one chance to lower the landing gear. No time to cycle them. If the gear don't lock, that's it. The chase planes are coming right down to the strip with you, following your every move like baby ducks. They snoop around the landing gear. Locked? If not, the chase pilots have a couple seconds to tell you to bail out.
The excerpt is talking about the landing of a shuttle. In fact, both the take-off and landing of a shuttle is pretty scary when you read about it. The article itself is from April of 1980 and goes into the cost overruns NASA incurred building the shuttles and how they aren't even that cost effective.
I remember hearing the arguments as a kid—especially the bit about the tiles, all 33,000 individually made and placed tiles per shuttle. So brittle that you could crush them in your hand. And the payload? Lucky to get a full 65,000 pounds into space. The Saturn V could lift 250,000 in a single shot (and in fact, the later stages of a Saturn V were used to construct Skylab in the mid-70s, which I suspect was bigger than the current Internation Space Station).
The shuttle is good at getting people to and from space (that is, when everything works correctly). I don't really see why we had to abandon the disposable rockets for those times when really large payloads have to go into space (like space station modules or even geosynchronous satellites) and leave the shuttle as a primary people mover.
But politics and budgets won.