“No Miss Fisher,” the Space Guard public affairs officer chirped happily when she called California, “no problem setting up a meeting. We can also provide you with a short video that show what a kilometer or larger NEA might do if it made its way into the atmosphere. Sure won’t be a pretty sight.”
Sarah thought of the over muscled actor who was the lead in the movie as the Air Force officer spoke earnestly about the risks.
“What’s a NEA?”
“Near Earth Asteroid, little pieces of misery over one kilometer in size. It could literally wipe out life, as we know it. Hit a point just off the East coast and good by New York and Boston.”
“Like killing all the dinosaurs,” Sarah laughed nervously.
“More like killing all humans,” the Air Force officer said in sotto voce. “So far we’ve not found any that large, but it’s always possible that one will make it through undetected. We think we’ve caught about half of the ones out there in deep space that might get close. Frankly, there are lots of gravitational slingshots that can change a benign orbit into a dangerous one.”
“What’s a gravitational sling-shot?”
“Each planet, moon, and our sun, has a distinct signature in terms of its attraction to objects in motion, you know, Isaac Newton 101. If you get more than two lines of gravitational pull working together you increase the speed of the object and change its direction. If they are working against each other, then you slow it down. Astronomers and geophysicists spend a lot of time trying to figure out what all these forces do to the orbits of deep space objects.”
Sarah had nodded off just after he made it to gravitational pull, but she awoke enough after he stopped droning to set up a time to bring a film crew out to JPL in Pasadena. While watching the actor in the asteroid movie destroys the asteroid one more time, she started plan an approach that would be both scientific and also spark human interest. After a couple of hours, she realized that she needed more information on asteroids and the real danger they posed to the planet. The JPL space search group had a vested interest in frightening people, if for no other reason, than to insure next year’s budget was appropriated. The theme had to be more down to earth, more personal in order to vest viewers in the show. One way was to show that if a meteor strikes it can kill; and that it’s not so rare an occurrence or improbable Australia was just too far to travel for the show. What she needed was an event that ended someone’s life that was closer to home.
In the middle of a nightmare about total destruction in which the actor in the movie was holding it back with one hand while stroking her thighs with his other, she remembered why the story had seemed familiar to her. Susan Spenser, her roommate from college, had called her, about fifteen years back, asking if she could give her a reference. She’d dropped out of school the middle of her Junior year, obviously pregnant, and returned to New Mexico, to her families ranch somewhere in that state. While they talked, Susan babbled something about meteor striking the house and killing her parents and her sister. It was a long shot, but unless she could find another human side to the story, then Susan Spenser’s story might have to suffice, that is, if she could find her.
“Where do I go to talk to an expert about meteorites and asteroids?” she asked Connie Smith, the WNN librarian the next morning.
“Dr. Winifred Thomas at Cornell,” Connie answered without a second’s pause.
“Anything you don’t know Connie?”,
“Jameson asked for information on super nova’s and other cosmic things for a special we did last year, so I did a bit of research on the subject of meteors and other objects in space. She’s a disciple of Carl Sagan. Straight shooter, quite down to earth for a college professor, you’ll like her Sarah.”
When she told Ed Randall about needing to interview an expert on meteors at Cornell before she went to see JPL in California, his eyes lit up.
“I’ve got a great idea. Let’s see if I can get you to do an interview with Judith Wilson when you’re there. I bet you that little lady needs all the good publicity she can get right now.”
“Typical male testosterone,” Sarah responded with some anger, “Judith Wilson is no more for peace than other Secretaries have been for war. What Secretary of Defense is for war? ”
Randall laughed. “Let me see what I can do with arranging a meeting with the Dr. Wilson, and you call that other Professor, what’s his name?”
“It’s a woman, Winifred,” she turned on one foot and marched out of the office still angry.
Back in her office, she thought again about Susan. If she hadn’t lied to her about the cause of the accident that killed her parents then ending the segment at the ranch with Susan showing them around the burnt out structures would add the personal to the scientific. So, it was time to dig up Susan again. Where should she start to look? There must be a hundred Susan Spenser’s in the United States assuming she kept her last name the same.
The next Secretary of Defense, Judith Wilson, was seated in her cramped office surrounded by a pile of student papers waiting to be graded. Years before, as a young Assistant Professor of Political Science, she founded Cornell’s Peace Studies Department in response to the belligerent, super-Americanism of the Kelly administration that alternated between calling the Soviet Union the “evil empire” and negotiating treaties to reduce the number of nuclear warheads pointed at each other. Graduates had gone to work in many fields, from law to diplomacy. Some even became military officers, many had populated NGOs dedicated to peace and justice.
She stood by the window looking out at the wet falling snow falling on the gothic buildings of the Cornell campus. She hated to leave. After twenty-five years the view was a familiar. Yet she knew she had no choice. Here was a chance to reshape the military-industrial complex and to shake-up the Pentagon.
She was also well aware that the task before her might not be achievable. McNamara was probably the last to do so successfully only to use this new organizational structure with its modernized logistic chains to fight an unwinnable war 10,000 miles away in Vietnam; Forrestal tried but became bogged down in Iraq. One thing she did know was General Helmut Reinhardt, whose departure was rumored to be before the New Year, had crossed the imaginary line and had to go. She was hardly naïve as to the threats facing the country and the world and she resented the idea that either she, or the new President, Kirsten Anderson, were so stupid as to now see the obvious, as General Reinhardt had said, ‘we live in a dangerous world’.
The knock at the door startled her. Her part-time secretary, a harried graduate student on a work-study grant, looked in.
“They’re ready for you in the conference room Dr. Wilson.”
Straightening her suit jacket, decidedly different from the jeans and work shirt she normally wore to the office on the days she didn’t teach, she walked down the hallway towards the lion’s den.
Sarah stood up when Judith Wilson entered the room. She was a short woman so Sarah towered over her. Ron Evans, the cameraman, quickly touched up her face before switching on the lights.
“Now that you’ve made me into something I’m not,” she smiled, “let’s get this over with.”
“Dr. Wilson your appointment was not universally applauded,” Sarah asked. “Does this bother you?”
“No, not really,” she leaned forward. “I expected that reaction. And no, Sarah,” Judith smiled brightly, “I’m not planning on trying to change the name from Defense to Peace. All nations, free or totalitarian, have a right and duty to defend their sovereignty. We all live in dangerous neighborhoods.”
“Then you won’t try to cut the defense budget?”
“Let’s put the defense budget into perspective. America spends roughly the same amount on defense as all the other countries in the world combined. Even if we reduced our expenditures by one half, we would still outspend every other country individually. I’m not calling for significant reductions, only redirections towards much needed equipment maintenance and supplies. At the present time we would run out of munitions and spare parts within three or six months with little chance of replacements coming from cold production lines. We have too many orphan systems. I want to see our military buy only what is needed and maintain it so it can be used and there is a sufficient logistics tail to sustain a long duration conflict if necessary.”
“What kind of force mix are you looking to build Dr. Wilson?” Sarah asked sounding more knowledgeable than she knew she was on the subject of force mix and strategic doctrine.
“Forrestal started the process. I have to give him credit for forward thinking, but he got waylaid in the task by having to fight wars we were ill prepared to fight. I want to encourage the military to think seriously about how to fight insurgencies and then propose force structures that meet that challenge without losing sight of how to deter our old adversaries, Russia and China. Right now we are invested mainly in Special Operations training and troops just as President Piroshky begins the modernization of the Russian conventional forces in Europe, we need a better balance between these two extremes.”
“You once suggested getting rid of the service designations and combining existing forces into functional commands. Do you still want to do this?”
“Honestly, if I were Queen, then I would do it. Realistically,” she paused and thought for a moment, “it would fly against traditions long ingrained and accepted as precedent. But, I would take the management of procurement from the Services and vest control in a professional organization dedicated to managing complex projects in the interests of the American people, not for the personal gain of senior military officers after they retire. The Department is the largest business in this country. It could benefit from having professional managers rather than amateurs drawn from the three services.”
“General Reinhardt apparently has given a series of speeches that are highly critical of you. Will you replace General Reinhardt if you are confirmed?”
“General Reinhardt is a great American.” Judith chose her words carefully, knowing that this part of the interview would make it to the air tonight. “His rescue of trapped soldiers at Al Alhambra during the Iraq War was brilliant. And I also know that only a soldier of his caliber and leadership skills could have saved the men downed by the Taliban along the Afghan-Pakistani border. He’s perhaps the most accomplished military officer of his time or possibly of anytime, but he’s not infallible. He has made a mistake if he believes that either I or Kirsten Anderson are any less aware of the dangers that we face as a nation especially during these very trying times, then he is mistaken. The General, however, now has stepped over the line and become a partisan. That is unacceptable. I understand that he is retiring as of December. We will find a new Chairman who meets our needs.”
“Good interview, ” Ronny Evans congratulated her as he started to pack up the equipment, “ that part about General Reinhardt will make news for sure.”
Dr. Winnie Thomas’s office was cluttered with examples of meteors, sky charts of both hemispheres, and large framed pictures taken by the Hubble telescope. Sarah noticed photos of Winnie and Carl Sagan prominently displayed as well and she pointed these out to the cameraman.
“So you want to learn about meteorites Miss Fisher?”
“We’re doing a show on the dangers coming from outer space. Question to you Dr. Thomas, should we be afraid?”
“Probably not; still, it’s a random phenomenon, quite unpredictable no matter what they tell you out there in Pasadena.”
“We’re going to California next week. How did you acquire the title ‘Meteor Lady’, Winnie?’”
“I search for fragments after an impact. I’ve hunted for these all over the world. The fragments help geologists and geophysicists understand how the earth and the solar system developed out of the cosmic dust. In Antarctica, I found a meteor that we believe might have come from Mars eons ago.”
Winnie explained her techniques for collecting fragments. It was similar to that used by archeologists or dinosaur hunters. Sarah saw Winnie as part of the ranch sequence, scouring the ground for the meteor that destroyed killed Susan’s parents and sister. She could bring some students with her too. Co-eds, digging in the ground, with shorts and t-shirts, might make the show a little more interesting. .
“What are the chances of a meteor striking a house, Winnie?”
“Very unlikely, but as I said before, a meteor hitting a house is a random occurrence and so it can happen.”
“What if WNN flew you out to a site that has never been searched? We could then film you and your students as they hunted for fragments.”
“You have a site in mind?”
“Yes and no,” Sarah stammered thinking about Susan Spenser again.
Winnie looked at the calendar on the wall. “It’ll have to be after the term ends in early-December.”
Sarah’s interview with Judith Wilson caused ripples in Washington. Reinhardt went on a rampage. The right wing talk show hosts at WNN had a field day about how Professor Wilson had denigrated an authentic hero, winner of two Congressional Medals of Honor.
The Republicans, especially the neo-conservatives, saw enemies everywhere – from the crazy North Korean dictator with his growing arsenal of missiles and nuclear weapons, to more traditional adversaries like Russia, China, and Iran, and even from a close allies like Germany and Japan. They were organized and far from shy about shading the truth, and ignoring facts. Randall, however, was elated by the interview. He received many requests for excerpts from other news channels and was able to market it and recover his sunk costs from sending Sarah and the cameraman to Cornell.
”What about the meteorite story, Ed? Have you looked at the budget I submitted.”
“The what?” He’d forgotten about her original assignment entirely.
“You know the one about lurking dangers from outer space, something to scare the shit out of parent and child just before Santa arrives.”
"Oh yeah, I remember, tell me what you’re planning...”
The Air Force Space Guard Program was part of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. Its mission was to find all near earth objects, map their orbits, then identify the ones that could pose a risk. They estimated that they’d found only about half the objects that could pose a potential danger to human life.
“Isn’t there a theory about a large meteor striking the earth and leading to the dinosaurs’ extinction?”
“That theory is one of many for the extinction, but in any case the destruction that such an impact would cause would make any of our recent problems seem mild. It would create either a massive tidal wave or worse or if it struck land, throw up as much debris as a nuclear war creating a haze that would make growing crops nearly impossible for possibly decades and cause worldwide extinctions of animals and possibly humans as well.”
Sarah hoped that Ron Evans, the cameraman, picked up the man’s facial expressions accurately. She saw fear in his eyes. Good, she thought, that’ll make people sit up and listen.
“What are the odds of something like that happening?” Sarah asked.
“Million to one, but it’s still more than we can afford. But even smaller objects, like the one that just a few years ago was visible as it crossed nearly all of the Eurasian landmass can be dangerous. Shock waves alone are quite destructive. So we have to be prepared to deal with these as best we can. Unlike the dinosaurs, we have means to nudge a bad rock in the right direction so it misses us. Don’t you think?”
“I suppose you’re working on some solution that would enable us to destroy one of these monsters. Right?” Sarah asked hopefully.
“Of course, but that’s more of an engineering problem and not an astronomical one. If you want to talk about remediation, then you need to meet with Professor Carlton. He’s heading up the Special Engineering Studies Department here at JPL. ”
“Robots or trained roughnecks” Sarah asked with a smile.
The Air Force officer barely cracked a grin.
It took another day to arrange a meeting with Roger Carlton. He had a joint appointment at JPL and Cal Tech, where he taught Mechanical Engineering. He didn’t like to interrupt his normal routine. After many unreturned calls to Carlton, Sarah turned to the Director of the Lab for help.
“I don’t know what the hell I can add to your story, but apparently someone here thinks it would help the Lab keep it’s meager budget,” he barked at Sarah, as she and the cameraman entered his cramped office.
“This won’t take long Dr. Carlton. After all your work might be the difference between extinction and continued life.”
“Get that over muscled idiot of an actor who played that B movie about an asteroid,” Carlton said with a laugh, added, “frankly, the only damn menace circling our planet are things that go bang in the night and are manmade.”
“What?” Sarah asked surprised. Don Evans continued to roll the tape.
“Old idea; stupid government boondoggle that I was dragged into long ago,” he stopped suddenly. “I must not say any more. Loose lips sink careers.” He smiled. “Forget that last remark, Miss Fisher, for my good and for yours. Now, what can I do for you?”
“They tell me you’re working on the design of a prototype robotic device that could land on an asteroid to set-off explosive charges that would break it apart. Is this something that is feasible?”
“Quite, but it will take money to build, and probably will need to already be in orbit to be effective. So far, it is not high on NASA’s wish-list. There are some private companies that want to tow an asteroid, hopefully one with valuable minerals, closer to our orbit to mine it, but I think that is a pipedream and could turn out to dangerous too if the rock decides to go ‘rogue’.” Carlton laughed.
The phone rang. While Carlton talked, Sarah walked around the office. There were a few mementos, a couple of NASA plaques that she’d seen in other offices, and a framed 8x10 glossy photo on the wall. She recognized Carlton, and she also recognized Helmut Reinhardt standing at the center of the group. Sarah read the sign one of the men held in his hands. It read “Project NorthStar, In Defense of America”.
“Interesting photo Dr. Carlton,” Sarah pointed while Don Evans filmed.
“I’d like to forget the entire experience.”
“It was a stupid concept, bad idea, dangerous too, and a waste of taxpayers’ money as it was buried deep and forever once the powers that be decided it was just too damn dangerous to have around.”
“And General Reinhardt, what did you think of him Dr. Carlton?”
“That bastard pushed it through. Eventually, even Secretary Forrestal got cold feet and I think he was the one who verbally gave the task to Reinhardt. ” He stared at his ring finger. Sarah noticed and saw the gold ring. It was on the wrong hand to be a wedding ring.
“Enough said on bad things in orbit around the earth. Despite my reservations, it’s been a pleasure.”
Sarah spent a good part of the flight back to New York working on the outline of the half hour segment. There remained the problem of finding a live example of something similar to that meteor hitting the house in Australia in the United States so that Winnie could hunt for fragments and Ed Randall would agree to the added expense. That meant that she’d have to continue to look for Susan Spenser. The three names she found in her search had turned up to be dead ends.
Halfway through the flight, she nudged Don Evans awake. “You have the entire discussion I had with Roger Carlton, including when I pointed to the photo on the wall?”
“Sure,” he yawned and then slipped back into sleep.
She shook him awake again.
“Can you stop action to see the photo clearly?”