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It was probably a sign of the times that the biggest science story of the twenty– first century, and probably the biggest ever, broke in that tabloid of tabloids, The National Bedrock. It might have gone unnoticed had an enterprising reporter not launched it into the middle of a press conference intended to be a quiet, nostalgic celebration of NASA’s accomplishments over a span of sixty years. And to get everyone’s mind off the fact that the Agency was now looking at a closing of the doors. In any case, when it first happened, nobody recognized it for what it was.
NASA’s public affairs director, Jerry Culpepper, was in total control, fielding questions, returning glowing responses, admitting that, yes, we knew the Agency had fallen on hard economic times, as had the rest of the country, but there was much to commemorate, much to feel good about, and that was where our attention should be focused on this historic day.
It was July 20, 2019, exactly fifty years since Apollo XI had touched down on the Moon. Jerry stood before a large canvas depicting Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin, gathered around a control panel, looking down at a lunar landscape. Jerry, carried away by the emotions of the day, was riding with them.
The event was being held just off the lobby, in a room that would be dedicated to exhibits from that first landing. Space helmets, moon rocks, astronaut uniforms, and the logbook (signed by each of the astronauts) would be on display. Photos of a Saturn V, a lunar module, the Kennedy Space Center, the Sea of Tranquility, adorned the walls. “They set a high standard for us,” he said, speaking of the eighteen astronauts who’d made the six lunar flights. It was a statement he immediately regretted, because it overlooked the legion of men and women who’d ridden the big rockets before and since, who’d put their lives on the line and, in some cases, had made the supreme sacrifice. He thought about correcting himself but could see no way to do it gracefully. So he moved on, talking without notes, and finished with a line he’d often used in guest appearances: “As long as we remember who we are, they will not be forgotten.”
He looked out over his audience and spread his hands. “Questions?”
Hands went up all over the room. “Diane.” That was Diane Brookover, of The New York Times.
Jerry didn’t care much for Diane. She was okay in a routine social setting, but she enjoyed trying to make him look foolish. Of course, that was true of reporters in general, but she was particularly good at it, especially when she smiled. She was smiling then. Whatever. Best to get her out of the way early. “Jerry,” she said, “why does the government need a NASA Hall of Fame when they already have one for the astronauts? I mean, aren’t you really putting this thing up simply to distract attention from the fact that NASA’s closing down?”
“We’re not closing down, Diane,” he said. “It’s true, we’ve entered an era of austerity. No one’s denying that, but we’ll still be here when your grandkids show up to take one of the tours. Look, there are good times and bad. That’s inevitable. We’ll ride this one out, as we always have. As to the Hall itself, the astronauts have, since the beginning, been our go–to guys, the people out front. The problem is that they are so significant, and so visible, we tend to miss others who’ve also made major
contributions— the scientists, the engineers, the computer specialists. We’re a team. We’ve always been a team. From the first day, back in 1960. Without the support people, the ones behind the scenes, the achievements of the past sixty years would never have happened. So the Hall of Fame is a way for us to recognize everybody, including some major contributors the public has never really known about.”
Jerry was quiet and shy except when he had an audience. Then it seemed as if a different personality took over. He smiled easily, connected with everyone, and enjoyed his work. It was a valuable capability, especially in those rapidly darkening times.
The hands went up again. He looked over at Quil Everett, from NBC. Quil was tall, lanky, prematurely gray, with a vaguely British accent. “Jerry, where do you think NASA will be in ten years?” Jerry glanced at the ceiling, as if NASA were headed for the stars. “Quil, if you can tell me what the fiscal situation will be for the government, I could probably answer that question with some precision. If we get the resources, I think you’d be surprised at what we might accomplish. If not, at the very worst, we’ll be right here, waiting for the future to arrive.”
Barry Westcott, from USA Today, was next. “Jerry,” he said, “when Gene Cernan brought the last Moon mission home, he was turning out the lights on the entire American manned space effort. Wouldn’t you agree that’s exactly what happened, just that it’s taken a long time for us to realize it? The biggest thing we’ve done since has been to send robots around the solar system.”
That brought a deadly silence. “Let’s keep in mind,” Jerry said, “that it wasn’t Cernan who turned off the lights. It was Richard Nixon. The Agency was ready to move on. But we were caught in a war, there was no money available. And the truth is that we had a president who really didn’t care that much.” That was over the line. He wasn’t supposed to criticize presidents, past or current, but thinking about Nixon alwaysgot his blood pressure up.
And the moment arrived: Warren Cole lifted a hand. Cole was from the AP, and he was seated in his customary spot up front, frowning, staring down at something on his lap. It looked like a copy of one of those garish tabloids,
“Jerry,” he said in a warning tone, “have you seen the current copy of The National Bedrock?”
The press officer smiled politely. “No, I haven’t, Warren. Guess I missed it this week.”
“They have a story about some of the material put out by NASA a few days ago.”
The Agency had released a mountain of documents, audios, and videos going back to its first year, tracking the history of the U. S. space effort. Jerry had been looking through them that morning. Building his sense of what might have been. He’d seen a copy of the original 1960 message distributed through the armed forces seeking volunteers for an astronaut program. The video of John Kennedy speaking to Congress in 1961, promising that we would land on the Moon before the
end of the decade. Walter Cronkite describing the liftoff of Apollo XI. And boxes of documents recording everything, from ordering the upgrading of computers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to detailed reports on the losses of theChallenger and Columbia, and the deaths of Roger Chaffee, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Edward White in a training accident.
“There’s a lot of stuff there, Warren,” he said. “Is there something specific you’re interested in?”
He got to his feet. “May I play something for you? From the audios?”
“Sure. But keep it short, okay?”
Cole held up a gooseberry. “They recorded part of a conversation between Sidney Myshko, who was the commander on one of the early lunar flights, and Mission Control. It was an orbital mission in January 1969. Six months before Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon. There’s only a minute or two, and it’s packaged with a lot of other communications. But this one segment is particularly interesting. The first voice is Myshko’s. And you should be aware that the mission at that time had
reached the Moon and was in orbit.” He thumbed the device.
Myshko: Houston, approaching launch point.
Houston: You are go for launch.
Myshko: Four minutes.
Houston: Copy that.
Myshko: It’s incredible, Houston.
Houston: Keep in mind we are going to lose communications when you pass over the horizon.
Myshko: Roger that. (Pause) We are in the LEM. Ready to go.
Houston: Good luck, guys.
Jerry frowned. He couldn’t get past the first line. “Approaching
“Jerry, this is supposed to be strictly an orbital flight. And it’s several
months before Apollo XI. But they’re talking as if they’re getting ready to go down to the surface.”
“That can’t be right, Warren.”
“Want me to play it again?” The place had gone dead silent.
“We are in the LEM.” The LEM, the Lunar Excursion Module, was the vehicle that would have served as the lander had they been going to the surface. “Ready to go.”
“Warren,” said Jerry, “there’s obviously a communications breakdown
Cole lifted the gooseberry. Stared at it. “I guess. Can you explain
how a breakdown like that could have occurred?”
Jerry tried laughing. “I’d say it was a joke. In case any reporters were listening.”
“All right. Look, this is the first time I’ve heard this. So I have no way of knowing what was going on. I suspect they were just rehearsing. We all know how these flights are. You do everything as you would on the actual mission except land. That’s not hard to believe, is it?”
“It just seems very odd.”
There’d been two other test flights to the Moon after the Myshko mission. One commanded by Aaron Walker in April, and Apollo X, by Thomas Stafford, in May. Then Apollo XI had launched, and the world changed. “Warren, these details are a bit before my time.”
“Mine, too, Jerry.”
There was a rising buzz in the room. Cal McMurtrie, seated behind Cole, was asking Cole if it was true, was that really in the package, where was it exactly?
“Well,” said Jerry, “there’s obviously been a gaff somewhere. It’s probably just a ground– based test run of some sort. Is it dated?”
“January 14, 1969.”
“Let me check on it, and I’ll get back to you.” He looked around the room and picked someone who traditionally gave him no trouble.
Mary Gridley was NASA’s Administrator. She was a decent boss even though hers was a purely political appointment. As, for that matter, was Jerry’s. She was waiting for him out in the corridor. “What the hell happened?” she said. It was less a question than an accusation. Mary was tall, taller than he was, and she had a voice like a drill. She was one of the smartest people Jerry had ever known and fully capable of manipulating anybody to get what she wanted. But she concentrated her efforts on making NASA work rather than centering them, like other bosses in Jerry’s experience, on her own career. She had little tolerance for screwups. And it was evident from the look in her eyes that somebody had screwed up. He was pretty sure he knew who it had been.
“You saw the press conference?” he asked, knowing damned well she had. But he needed a moment to organize his defenses.
She pointed back down the passageway in the direction of her office. Then she spun on her heel and Jerry— though he walked beside her— followed her back. She didn’t say anything more until the door had closed behind them. Then she exhaled. “Jerry,” she said, “that was supposed to be a celebration out there.”
It was indeed. Jerry had expected to spend the morning talking about moonwalks and robot missions to Jupiter and Voyagers and the International Space Station. He’d been ready with Buzz Aldrin’s famous line about not getting so lost in cleaning up social messes that we forget about the stars, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comment that he was tired of driving around the block, boldly going where hundreds
had gone before, and that he would gladly sign on for a ride to a new world. He’d had a dozen other quotes ready to go that, somehow, hadn’t shown up. “I know—” he said. “I didn’t expect—”
“Jerry. You let the situation get away from you. Anything like that happens again, just admit there’s a misunderstanding somewhere and move on. Don’t stand there talking it to death. That business with Sidney Myshko—”
“I’m sorry, Mary.”
“I thought you were smarter than that.” She sighed. “Don’t ever let them take control of the conversation. Anytime you do that, you’re going to lose.” She sat down behind her desk and shook her head. “We’ll need to find out what happened, if we can, and put out a formal statement. The damned thing’s already gone viral.”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
She touched her keyboard, and the display lit up. She’d done a search for Sidney Myshko Jerry Culpepper. The screen showed 28,726 postings. He leaned forward to get a better look:
When Did We Really Go to the Moon? NASA Spokesman Culpepper Hasn’t a Clue
Confusion at NASA: Government Can’t Get Its Facts Straight
These Are the Guys in Charge of Space Shots?
Did Somebody Land on the Moon Before Armstrong?
Conspiracy Theorists Back in Force
It Was Neil Armstrong, Dummy
Jerry stopped at his secretary’s desk on the way into his office. “Barbara,” he said, “get Al Thomas for me, please.”
He went inside, closed the door, and collapsed into a chair. Amazing how trivial stuff becomes such a big deal. Especially in government.
The office walls and the desk top were covered with framed pictures from his career. Jerry standing beside President Cunningham at a NASA dinner. Jerry chatting amiably with the governor of Florida. Laughing it up with Senator Tilghman. Shaking hands with Jon Stewart. Jerry was up there with all kinds of celebrated people from the political and entertainment worlds. But there wasn’t a single photo of
There weren’t any astronauts anymore. Hadn’t been for years.
He’d been watching the news before going down to the luncheon. Ironically, he’d left the TV on, and it was now running an old Star Trek. Captain Kirk giving orders to raise shields and man battle stations.
His alert dinged, and the Enterprise blinked off and was replaced by Al Thomas’s amiable features. “Hi, Jerry,” he said in his trademark baritone. He sounded like an action– movie star. In fact, he was a skinny little guy with thick glasses. “I was about to call you.”
Al was in Huntsville, where he oversaw NASA’s archives.
“You saw the press conference?”
“I heard about it.”
“What happened? Where’d that thing come from?”
“I don’t know. I have my people going back over the record now, trying to figure it out.”
“Was it really in the package?”
“Oh, yes. I was hoping it wouldn’t be there. It would save a lot ofwork. The records from that era aren’t exactly digital. Something like that can be hard to find. We’ll need a little time.”
“Who was the CAPCOM?” Th e guy on the NASA end of the transmissions.
“Hold on a second.” Al was thumbing through documents in a folder. “Here it is. Frank Kirby. I thought that was his voice. He was there for most of the missions during the lunar era.”
“Assume it is their voices, Kirby’s and Myshko’s, is there any way that could have happened? Might it have been, for example, a practice run– through of some sort?”
Barbara’s radio was playing in the outer off ce. Sounded like the Downtowners singing about women and bullet trains. “Sure,” Al said. “It could have been anything. Probably, they were just screwing around during off time, playing out what they desperately would have liked to do. All those guys wanted to make the landing. But sure, it had to be something like that.”
“Okay, Al. Look, let me know if you get something more, okay?”
“Absolutely, Jerry. Umm— are they upset over there?”
“It’ll pass. Mary doesn’t like it much when the organization looks silly.”
“Yeah. They’re on my case here, too. I can’t believe they actually expected me to vet all that stuff .” He sounded rattled. “Anyway, I’m sorry we made a problem for you.”
Jerry wondered whether he should mention the incident in the NASA blog. He didn’t want to do anything to extend the story, but he’d be perceived as ducking it if he didn’t say something. He started a response, It doesn’t take much to excite the media. Then deleted it. It’s never a good idea to attack the reporters. He grinned. Especially if you’re a public relations guy. Maybe substitute publicfor media. Yeah, that might do it.
Barbara’s voice broke in: “Jerry, you have a visitor.”
He glanced at his calendar. Nothing was scheduled. “Who is it, Barb?”
Blackstone? The overhyped cowboy billionaire who was always talking about taking America into space? What the hell could he want with Jerry? “Okay,” he said, as if Blackstone stopped by every day, “send him in.”
He tapped his keyboard and brought up a proposal Mary had made for an unmanned Mars mission. It had gone nowhere. He was gazing steadily at it, pretending to be absorbed, when the door opened. He held up a hand, busy at the moment, have a seat, be right with you. Jerry tapped the display a couple of times and made a face. Then he looked up.
He was accustomed to dealing with people in high places, but he felt immediately intimidated. Blackstone was one of those men who could walk into a party at the White House and take over the room. He towered over Jerry, who, at five–eight, disappeared easily into crowds. An irritating smile suggested he was bestowing a favor merely by being there. Thick black hair and an unruly mustache added to the cowboy mystique. He obviously worked out a lot, and he walked like John Wayne. He’d have looked perfectly at home with six– guns strapped to his hips.
Despite all that, Jerry could have tolerated him except that the son of a bitch made a habit of criticizing NASA. The Agency was a waste of government funding. Bureaucrats bound for Mars but traveling by dog cart. A few weeks ago, on Meet the Press, he’d commented that NASA had gone to the Moon a half century ago, come home, and been sitting on the front porch ever since.
Jerry did not normally rise when men came into his office. But somehow he found himself on his feet. “Please,” he said, “have a seat, Mr. Blackstone.” He indicated the wing chair, which was his preferred location for visitors. It was a bit lower than the other chairs. “What can I do for you?”
Blackstone ignored the chair. “You can start, Jerry, by calling me ’Bucky.’ ”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Bucky.” The billionaire came forward and shook his hand. Jerry leaned back on the desk, and Blackstone finally sat down. “How’s everything going with Blackstone Enterprises?”
Blackstone nodded. “Well enough,” he said. “I guess the truth is that we’re having an easier time than NASA.”
“You probably don’t have all the facts,” Jerry said. “We’re doing all right.”
His visitor nodded. “Every time the government has a problem, they cut your funding.”
“We’re still here.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Jerry.” He cleared his throat. “I suspect the country will always be in good shape as long as NASA is here and functioning.”
“We like to think so, Bucky.” Blackstone glanced back toward theouter office. The Downtowners were doing “The Frankford El.” The volume had gone down, but it was still audible. He signaled surprise that Jerry would permit such moonshine. “Guilty pleasure,” Jerry said.
“What can I do for you?”
Blackstone smiled benignly. He understood perfectly. We all have weaknesses. “I saw the press conference this morning,” he said.
Jerry nodded. “Odd story, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, yes.” He sat back, relaxed, crossed his legs. “More years ago than I care to remember, I did public relations for the Stanfield Corporation. Nothing at the level you’re operating at, of course. But I remember how unnerving it could be. You were always at the mercy of the unexpected.”
“That’s certainly true.”
“I thought you handled yourself pretty well, Jerry.”
“Were you able to find out how it happened? The conversation between Myshko and ground control? What was it, some sort of test run?”
“Probably. We haven’t tracked it down yet, Bucky.” He didn’t feel
comfortable using the man’s first name. “But I can’t imagine what else
it could have been.”
“Of course. I thought maybe it was a hoax. That somebody added it to the information released by NASA.”
“At this point, we just don’t know. We’ll figure it out.”
Blackstone leaned back and shook his head. “Strange things happen.” He had dark, piercing eyes, narrow cheeks, and a no–nonsense manner.
“I guess,” Jerry said. “Did you come in for the press conference? I didn’t see you in the room anywhere.”
“No. I was up talking to your boss. Afterward, I went down to the cafeteria for lunch. I always like eating here. You never know whom you might meet. Anyhow, that’s where I saw it. Just the last fi fteen minutes or so.”
Jerry wasn’t sure how to respond. So he made a sound deep in his throat and nodded.
“Jerry, I know your time is valuable, and I don’t want to take it up unnecessarily.” Blackstone smiled, and much of the hardness went away. “Despite what we’d like to see happen, we both know NASA’s time is done. Over. There’s a lot of pressure right now by the corporates who feed off NASA to keep you going, and that’s the only thing keeping it a float.”
“I’m not sure I agree.”
“It’s okay. We can debate it another time. At the moment, we both know UPY and MagLev and all the rest of them have made a fair income selling Saturns and test vehicles and God knows what else to the government for sixty years. They’re not in the same league with the armaments industry, but there’s still a lot of money involved. Today, though, times are changing. The government’s under a lot of pressure. Next year’s an election year, and the public is up in arms. They’ve had it with billions spent for a program that doesn’t do anything. You know as well as I do that the Hall of Fame is a diversion, the latest step in a general shutdown.”
“That’s not going to happen, Bucky.”
Blackstone shrugged. Jerry’s opinion was of no consequence. “The president’s going to have to show more progress in cutting costs than he’s been able to do so far. He’s even going to go after the Pentagon, I hear. You really think he won’t be coming after you? After NASA, that is?”
“They’ve already hit us pretty hard. We’re still here, though. We’ll still be here when I retire.”
Blackstone’s eyebrows rose, and an amused smile appeared. “You know, Jerry, the truth is that, okay, you need public funding at the start for something like a space program. You have to have it. The project’s just too big, the risk too great, for any individual company. But once you get it off the ground, the best way, the way that’s always worked most effectively in this country, is to turn it over to private industry. If Nixon had done that in, say, 1973, it’s hard to say where we might be by now.”
Jerry didn’t really want to get into an argument. And in any case, he knew there was some justification for what Blackstone was saying. So he held out his hands, suggesting that the future was anybody’s guess. “How about some coff ee, Bucky?”
“Thanks,” he said. “But I should be on my way.”
“If we’re ever really going to get back to the Moon, put together a manned expedition to Mars, do anything like that, it will be a private entity that does it, probably a group of corporations. I came here today to talk with Mary Gridley about some areas where we can help each other. And I watched you in that press conference when they asked you about the Myshko flight.
“You handled yourself pretty well, Jerry. NASA will never get to Mars. You know that as well as I do. But we will. Blackstone Enterprises. If you’re interested, when we leave, we’d like you to come along.”
“You’re offering me a job?”
“I need a good public– relations officer. I have a good one in Ed Camden, but I’ll admit to you that he doesn’t believe in what we’re doing. I need somebody to be the face of the organization, a true believer. Someone who understands that we belong in space. That we have to get clear of this world if we’re ever going to be more than simply a lot of people sitting around watching television. That we’ll continue to evolve as a civilization.”
“Bucky,” Jerry said, “I appreciate the offer. It’s very kind of you.”
“I’m committed here. I just don’t agree that a single corporation or a corporate group can manage a project of this size. I think that, if the United States government can’t do it, if NASA doesn’t do it, it’s not going to happen.”
“Jerry, the future’s with us.”
“I wish you luck. But you’ll have to show me.”
“We will. In any case, the offer’s on the table. But it won’t be there forever.”
Jerry was the most visible person in NASA, save for the old astronauts. That was like being the biggest satellite in Earth orbit, except for the Moon. Nevertheless, Jerry got a lot of calls from strangers. Barbara deflected the majority of them. They tended to be from people asking how they could become astronauts, meet astronauts, or get astronauts to help out in various fundraising events. A few were from cranks who complained that NASA was spending too much money or wanted to know why we weren’t on Mars. And some even wanted to report meetings with aliens or UFO sightings.
Occasionally, she passed one that mattered on to him. “From somebody named Harkins,” she said. “He says he’s a former Navy captain. And that it’s important.”
“Did he say what it’s about, Barb?”
“Negative. Insists he’ll talk only to you, Boss.”
The guy was easily in his eighties. White hair brushed back, bifocals, cracked voice. But he sat straight up in a leather chair, his wrists draped over the armrests. “My name’s James Harkins, Mr. Culpepper,” he said. “I used to fl y choppers for the Navy.”
Jerry could see the fl ickering light of a fi re in the background. “Yes, Mr. Harkins, what can I do for you?”
“I’m not sure that what I have to say will be of any interest to you. But I think it’s time for someone to know. I watched you earlier today.”
“Okay. What did you want to tell me, sir?”
“I was aboard the Kennedy when it picked up the Myshko team. There were three of them on board, of course.” The other astronauts had been Louie “Crash” Able and Brian Peters.
Jerry had a sinking feeling. Whether it was a suspicion that he was about to hear something that would undercut his convictions or because he was going to discover that Harkins wasn’t as sane as he looked, he couldn’t be sure. “You actually helped pick them up?”
“No. But I was on deck when they were brought in.”
“All right. So what did you want to tell me?”
“Maybe nothing, really. Nothing that makes any sense. But it’s always bothered me, and I’d just written it off until I heard about that radio exchange. Between the capsule and ground control.”
“What did you see, Captain?”
“We pulled three astronauts out of the water, Mr. Culpepper. They all had bags with them. Well, no big deal about that. It’s what you’d expect. But one of them stumbled coming on board and dropped the bag on the deck. I don’t remember which one it was.”
“A couple of rocks fell out.”
“Mr. Culpepper, these guys were riding a Saturn rocket. Weight mattered. Why would any of them take along a couple of rocks?”