About the Author
Read an Excerpt
NASA Neutral Buoyancy Lab Underwater Training Facility Houston, Texas Present Day
The two former Navy SEALs broke through the surface of the 40-foot deep, 200- by 100-foot 6-million-gallon pool that NASA used for training astronauts. Although neutral buoyancy diving did not perfectly duplicate the effects of a zero gravity environment, it provided the best way to simulate weightlessness for EVAs, or extravehicular activities, in space or on a planetary surface.
Astronauts who had trained at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, or NBL, as it was known, and then went on to do EVAs outside the shuttle or International Space Station reported that it was effective in helping them prepare.
Standing on the edge of the expansive pool were FBI director Douglas Knox and secretary of defense Richard McNamara.
As the metal platform rose out of the water, two astronauts wearing modified pressure suits with leg weights strapped to their ankles stood rigidly, back to back.
Harris Welding rotated his head inside the large helmet and waited for the assistant dive operations training officer to help him out of his gear.
Two training support personnel began removing the breathing apparatus from Welding's partner, Darren Norris, while another unhooked the tank that supplied nitrox.
Once their helmets were detached from the suit, Secretary McNamara stepped forward, remaining behind the yellow and black striped safety line at the pool's edge. "You're both doing exceptionally well. We want to personally congratulate you on your progress."
Welding laughed. "Thank you, sir. But all due respect, the two of you didn't fly out to Houston just to give us a pat on the back."
"No," Director Knox said. "I know it takes forever to get out of those suits, but meet us in the briefing room in forty-five minutes. We've got some classified information to share regarding your mis —"
Three children, two girls and a boy, came running toward Knox and McNamara, with a woman in her late thirties trailing twenty feet behind them.
"Wesley-Ann and Nicki," their mother shouted. "Stop. Michael, get your little sister!"
Knox stuck out his right arm and corralled the children. "Whoa, it's dangerous by the edge of the p —"
"Hi Daddy," the older girl, about seven, said.
A broad grin spread over Welding's lips. "Hey sweetie. What are you doing here?"
"You're s'posed to eat dinner with us, remember?"
"Oh. Uh, yeah, sweet pea. But you're way early." Welding was still sheathed in his suit and standing rigidly on the platform with a few inches of water from the humongous pool sloshing violently at his boot tops.
The woman reached Knox and gathered up her kids. "Sorry. They get so excited visiting Harris. He's been training all over the country for a year and a half, so when he's right in our backyard we try to spend as much time as possible with him." She held the three children with her left arm and stuck out her right hand. "Tanya Welding."
"Douglas Knox. You have great kids. They're adorable."
"Thank you. Are you — I know your name. But ... sorry, I can't place it."
"No apologies necessary." The corners of Knox's mouth lifted ever so slightly. "I'm with the FBI. I try to stay out of the news as much as possible. It's not always possible."
"Sir," Welding said. "Mind if I take a little time with my family?"
"Absolutely," Knox said. "Take whatever you need. Just be in the briefing room in forty-five minutes."
DRESSED IN NASA T-SHIRTS AND CARGO PANTS, Welding and Norris sat down at the oval table. Joining Knox and McNamara were CIA assistant director Denard Ford and Brig. Gen. Klaus Eisenbach from USSTRATCOM, the United States Strategic Command.
"The time has come," Ford said, "to brief you on certain classified aspects of your mission." He turned to Eisenbach. "General."
Eisenbach's uniform was heavily decorated. He tugged it into place as he rose and walked over to the tabletop podium.
"Are Carson and Stroud getting this briefing too?" Welding asked.
"They are," Eisenbach said. "But you two are not due back at Vandenberg for a couple of weeks and it couldn't wait."
Welding and Norris shared a look, then leaned forward in their seats.
"You've spent time studying the Apollo missions," Knox said, "because they served as the basis for how you'll be approaching your op."
Eisenbach picked up the remote control from the table. "The knowledge we gained, the data we collected, the technology we developed, rank among the most important scientific achievements of humankind. But there's something that came out of Apollo that's never been publicized or published. Anywhere. Seventeen was the last Apollo, but the first to include a scientist, geologist Jack Schmitt."
"If I remember right, they brought back hundreds of pounds of lunar rock," Norris said.
"Yes. Including some odd orange, titanium-laced soil from Shorty Crater that contained the radioactive elements thorium and uranium, which are also found on Earth." Eisenbach clicked the controller, and the screen behind him lit up with a chemical diagram. "But they also found a new element. Like thorium, it's radioactive. But we believe it goes far beyond thorium's capabilities."
"How so?" Welding asked.
"We only had a few micrograms to work with so we couldn't be sure of what we were seeing. We couldn't produce it in the lab so a lot of our analysis required extrapolation and, more recently, computer modeling. I don't want to get into molecular physics — I'm not an expert so it'd be a short conversation — but this is one of the heaviest elements to be discovered, at the far reaches of the periodic table. Typically such elements are very unstable and highly radioactive. Elements heavier than uranium aren't usually found in nature. They're manufactured, so to speak, in linear accelerators in a laboratory. They only exist for thousandths of a second."
"What's it called?" Norris said. "This new element."
Eisenbach cocked his head. "Like everything in science, there are naming conventions and protocols. The name's unofficial since, to the rest of the scientific world, this element doesn't exist. But because it could be a great deal more powerful — and dangerous — than anything we've discovered on Earth, we've named it caesarium after Rome's emperors for the potential dominance it can provide a country that has it."
"You mentioned dominance," Norris said. "Can you be a little more specific?"
"It increases the yield of a nuclear explosion by almost a factor of ten. There are lots of variables with nuclear weapons — the two biggest being how large the warhead is and the height at which it's detonated. But if you're looking to cause maximum mayhem and civilian and economic devastation, anything that improves the explosion's strength and radius by such a magnitude is a major concern."
"It gives new meaning to the term weapon of mass destruction," McNamara added.
Eisenbach flicked a speck of dust off his uniform. "It could take out an entire major metropolitan city in the United States with a single nuclear-tipped ballistic missile, the kind Iran and North Korea have been testing. And if they launch multiple warheads and we're able to neutralize all but one or two — which is likely to be the case — major American cities will cease to exist. And they'll remain uninhabitable for decades."
Knox folded his hands on the desk in front of him. "They hit DC? The seat of our government — as well as the strategic planning nerve center of our armed forces — will be gone. Think about that."
Welding had a wife and three young children; Norris, ten-year-old twins. Knox knew this factored into their calculus as the seconds of silence passed.
"So what's our mission?" Welding finally asked.
"We have some HUMINT," Ford said, referring to human intelligence — spy work. "China is training for a Moon shot. From what we can ascertain — and some of this is unconfirmed — they're planning to send up a robotic lander and rover to collect rock samples."
Norris sat forward in his seat. "Are they looking to bring back caesarium?"
"We don't know. Not yet. We're working to find out. But we have to assume they are. Even if they're not, they may find it. We can't take that chance."
"So that's why we're going up?" Welding said. "I don't see how —"
"For now," Knox said, "that's all you need to know. Once we have more information, we'll lay down a specific mission plan and explain in more detail what your objectives are."
Norris held out both hands, palms up. "I can't believe no one's ever thought of this being a problem. Isn't there some sort of agreement that prevents the mining of another planet?"
"They have and there is," Eisenbach said. "The Outer Space Treaty was adopted in 1967. It basically says that the exploration and use of outer space — including the Moon — is for the benefit of all countries. It's the province of all mankind. If China's not planning to share their samples with everyone, their mission would be a clear violation of that treaty. That's the US position. Of course, if they do bring caesarium back, we wouldn't want them to share it with anyone. Except us."
"So it's a no-win scenario. Once they have it — "
"That's not all," Ford said. "The Republic of China ratified the treaty before the United Nations General Assembly's vote to transfer China's UN seat to the People's Republic of China in 1971. The People's Republic of China described the defunct Republic of China's treaty ratification as illegal, but the US considers China to be bound by its former government's obligations. So far, China's agreed to adhere to the treaty's requirements."
"There's also the Moon Treaty," Knox said.
"Which no space-faring country ever signed," Eisenbach said. "Its purpose was to prevent the militarization and resource mining of the Moon without sharing all findings with the international community, through the UN. Like the sea floor treaty."
"And then there's the SPACE Act of 2015," Eisenbach said, "which muddied the water because it gave US citizens the right to commercially explore and exploit space resources, including water and minerals. The only thing excluded was biological life. It specifically states that America is not asserting sovereignty or jurisdiction over any celestial body. But some have argued that the US recognizing ownership of space resources is an act of sovereignty that violates the Outer Space Treaty."
"So nothing's really clear," Ford said. "It also hasn't been tested — although it sure looks like that's on the verge of changing."
"But if China's getting ready to launch a Moon shot," Norris said, "and if they're going there to bring back caesarium, the bell's been rung. No way to unring it. Regardless of whatever treaties exist."
"That's pretty much it in a nutshell," Knox said. "Which is one reason why you've been training for this mission." "The other reasons?" Welding asked.
"Reasons two, three, four, and five," McNamara said with a steely stare, "are ... because those are your orders."
"We'll give you more as soon as we're able to." Ford folded his hands in front of him. "That's all we've got for you, gentlemen. The possibility exists that we'll be launching sooner rather than later. We just wanted you to be mentally prepared. The rocket was moved to the launch pad several weeks ago and is being prepped. Just in case."
"Questions?" Knox asked.
"Just one," Norris said with a shrug. "How will us going to the Moon stop China from launching their mission?"
"That'll be addressed at the appropriate time," Eisenbach said. "Anything else?"
A moment later, McNamara rose from his chair. "Dismissed."
FORD CAME UP BEHIND THE MEN as they entered the suit room to prepare for the afternoon dive.
"Sir," Norris said. "Something we can help you find?"
"No, no. I just — I think you two are the best of the best and we owe you a better explanation of what's going on than just the standard need-to-know bullshit."
"Appreciate that," Welding said.
"For what it's worth, I was in favor of telling you more, but there's considerable ... debate about how to move forward. So even if we laid out the approach, things could change. If China forces our hand, I personally don't think there's a choice, but for the moment, it's classified. I know that's not what you want to hear."
"I always butted heads with my CO," Welding said with a chuckle. "I wanted all the info we had so I could be thinking about it, working it through. Just how my brain works. Getting piecemeal info, it's inefficient. For me, at least. I can be a creative part of the solution, not just a lethal tool who can execute a mission plan."
Ford laughed. "Then you should've stayed in the SEALs and worked your way up to —"
That was the last any of them heard as a powerful explosion rocked the room and the cinder block walls tumbled down on top of them.CHAPTER 2
NASA Johnson Space Center Mission Control Houston, Texas
The mission control specialist leaned forward and studied his screen. "Hey Sam, check this out."
Sam blinked his eyes clear and reseated his headset. His oversize coffee mug was empty and he had been caught napping at his station. He glanced at Jamie, who was hunched over his keyboard a few seats to his left in the expansive high-tech monitoring center. Thankfully, Jamie was focused on his station instrumentation. "Whaddya got?"
Jamie made eye contact with Sam. "I'm putting it on the main screen right now."
An aerial view of what appeared to be a massive rocket filled the wall-size display, an intense magnesium-bright flame trailing beneath it.
"Where's this coming from?" Jamie asked as he studied the trajectory.
"China, Sichuan province. From what I remember, they've got a launch center there, so that makes sense."
"Switching satellites to get us a better look," Jamie said. He pushed a button and a three-quarter angle came up alongside the other view.
"Heavy lift vehicle of some kind," Sam said. "Four liquid boosters mounted to the first stage." He watched the image another few seconds as the startlingly white flame below the rocket turned orange. "I'd say something on the order of ..." He scrawled a stylus across his monitor, finished his calculations, and brought his gaze back up to the screen. "Holy shit."
"That's one big mother," Jamie said.
"Big isn't the word. If I'm right, that thing is 6 million pounds. About 7 million pounds of thrust. Almost as big as the Saturn V." Saturn V, the powerful multistage rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon, was one of the largest ever to successfully fly.
"Even if you've missed the mark by 20 percent ..." Jamie's voice trailed off.
"If I had to guess, it's bigger than their Long March 3B/E."
"But China doesn't have a rocket bigger than the 3B/E."
Sam swallowed. "Obviously they do."
"We need to report this."
Jamie got up from his terminal and walked briskly to the back of the large mission control center. He knocked on the glass window of his superior's office, assistant chief of operations, Zenzo Aoki. Aoki looked up from his desk and waved Jamie in.
He stepped inside, his hands now clammy. Jamie had been assigned to ops only three months ago, but he had worked at NASA for fourteen years. When he requested the transfer, his colleagues told him he was crazy because the work tended to be tedious in between launches. He was about to make them eat their words.
"Sir, we've got something you need to see. Main screen." Jamie cocked his head toward the front of the room.
Aoki craned his neck, then gave up and walked over to the windowed wall behind Jamie. Together they watched the rocket continue its ascent.
"Who?" Aoki said. "Where?"
"Chinese. Sichuan province."
Aoki crinkled his brow as he processed that. "Mass?"
"Six million pounds."
Aoki's left eye twitched.
"It's bigger than the Long March 3B/E. They were rumored to be developing something called Chang Zheng 5, but I didn't know they built it, let alone tested it."
Aoki's gaze was fixed on the screen. "Yeah."
"And a vehicle that large would be sitting on the pad for days, if not weeks. How could our satellites have missed something that big?"
"Unless China hid it," Aoki said under his breath. "Okay, Jamie. I'll take it from here. Go back to your station. Keep monitoring it until further notice. And get me a trajectory."
As Jamie put his hand on the doorknob to leave, he turned back and saw Aoki lift the red telephone handset.
"This is Assistant Chief Aoki." He looked up and locked gazes with Jamie's reflection off the window. "Get me the Pentagon."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dark Side of the Moon"
Copyright © 2018 Alan Jacobson.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.