The Big Lie of the Space Race

May 22, 2010

This was originally included in the story I haven’t had time to complete, The Feynman Constant.

When Sputnik 1 entered orbit on October 4, 1957 America’s cold war confidence was badly shaken. The starting pistol had been fired in the space race, and we had faltered badly off the line. But we were determined to sprint the rest of the distance and cross the finish line first, a finish line that everyone came to quickly see as the moon.

A race isn’t a race without an opponent, and without the red menace pitted against us we surely would have leisurely ambled our way to the moon instead of run, just as we are now only leisurely ambling our way to mars. Ask anyone who worked the space program in these early days and they’ll tell you it was the greatest time in their professional lives, an entire lifetime of career fulfillment lived in just a decade. And it was what our country and perhaps the world so desperately needed in that instant, a way out from under all the cold war nuclear anxiety, a way to channel the tension into a more positive and contestable domain.

Not everyone believes it all happened the way it did by accident. Many within NASA felt and I suspect many continue to feel that the many frightening Soviet space firsts were the result of an intentional, passive collusion by the highest element(s) of our own government who saw the great advantage of a population and a congress initially horrified to find themselves in second place, willing to write the blankest of checks in the hopes that it would be enough to restore us to technological preeminence.

We could have gone into space at least a year before we did, but the Eisenhower administration set us on a different course. Project Orbiter which would have placed a satellite in orbit atop one of Werner Von Braun’s V2-descended Jupiter rockets was curiously rejected in favor of a much riskier and more complicated Project Vanguard. It was only a few years later, after Sputnik succeeded and a hastily launched Vanguard TV3 spectacularly failed in an explosion on the launchpad with a nervous American population watching that the Explorer program would get its chance.

In just three months NASA was able to build and launch Explorer I, a satellite hastily built by JPL deployed atop one of the Jupiter-C IRBMs that Von Braun built for the Army. We could have done that earlier. We should have done that earlier. The Soviet rocketry program was being closely watched by the CIA through its network of spies and through reconnaissance flights. Eisenhower was routinely briefed on the Soviet progress. By some accounts Eisenhower had more than six months warning that a Russian attempt to enter orbit was imminent, but he chose to stay the slow Vanguard course. With Sputnik’s launch a cover story was quickly invented by the Eisenhower administration to explain the intelligence gap, according to them, this was a quick and dirty Soviet project begun and completed in less than 30 days, hence the lack of adequate warning. The Soviets were only too eager to adopt and repeat this particular lie as it only made them seem all the more capable, able to so rapidly put together a successful and ambitious mission.

And the Russians were capable. The USSR put the first two satellites in space, Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2. The USSR put the first animal in space, Laika the dog. The USSR put the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. The USSR conducted the first EVA, via Alexie Leonov. The USSR sent the first probe to the moon, Luna 1. The USSR even sent the first probes to other planets, to Mars (Marsnik 1) and to Venus (Venera 1). But we’ll never know how many of these early first we lost because one of our hands was tied behind out back.

The plan worked beautifully. NASA got its blank check. Kennedy took over from Eisenhower and rallied an entire nation behind the mission to the moon. And we would eventually win the race, handily; the Soviets would never even cross the finish line. And the incalculable investment we made in the technology to get us to the moon has paid dividends and provided jobs ever since. So we won in every way that mattered except one, we were dupes.

I would like to believe that we will grow into a more honorable future, where our leaders do not trick us, because they are better men than that, and where we would not let them, because we are wiser men than that.

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Voyager 2 Has Flipped Its Bit

May 12, 2010

I was just alerted to this story by one of the followers of this blog…  Last month Voyager 2 began returning some unusual signals.  This story is being reported by alternate news outlets as suggesting that aliens have tampered with Voyager 2.  NASA’s own take on the story is quite a bit more conventional.

I’m afraid most of my readers will be disappointed, but I feel confident a conventional explanation is the correct one.  I’ve seen something similar happen before.

As I detailed in Curiosity of Spirit, cosmic rays can have peculiar and devastating effects on electronic hardware. In most cases, like that of Spirit, a computer’s memory can be altered, perhaps even regions of it made unusable.  I remember a meeting I was pulled into at GRC in 1992 or 1993.  A recently launched military spy satellite had suddenly become effectively unresponsive.  It continued to transmit, but its responses were unintelligible, and it didn’t appear to be receiving or reacting to messages transmitted to it.  Ordinarily NASA wouldn’t be involved since it was a military project, but other agencies were apparently being cursorily queried for ideas as the satellite was soon going to miss a burn without which it might pose a risk to other satellites.

We were being asked to spend two hours brainstorming and come up with whatever we could.  Like Voyager 2 the basic protocol was still received as expected, but the contents were no longer readable. Initial theories related to a problem with the memory used to buffer the transmissions, problems with the logic boards, problems with a recent software update, etc.  The engineer who shared the office next to mine suggested something that fit the facts perfectly. “What if the encryption key was somehow changed?” A discussion followed and by the end of the meeting this became the leading theory, that a cosmic ray or some other event had bit flipped one or more bits in the encryption key used to encrypt data for Earth and decrypt data from Earth.  With the key no longer matching the key on Earth, the satellite was effectively speaking a different and incomprehensible language.  Someone relayed our guess to whoever had asked us to be involved and about two weeks later we learned that this was in fact what happened.  Apparently it was no easy task figuring out what the key had now become.  NSA was drawn into it and put their considerable resources to bear in trying different alterations of the original key to make a new key which could decode the received data.  It took them most of those two weeks, a stable of computers, and billions of combinations tested, to find the new key (which was only a handful of bits away from the original).  Once they had the new key, all communication and control was restored.

I’m pretty confident that Voyager 2 is suffering from a similar bit flip problem.

John


Accelerated Natural Death (The A.N.D. Program)

May 10, 2010

About four years ago I was in Washington, DC for a conference. I had arranged in advance to meet my friend for dinner at a chophouse off the main drag in Washington’s charming throwback neighborhood of Georgetown. This friend was the same one I mentioned in The Real Mission of the X-37B. He had just recently returned from a posting in Iraq, and somewhere in the mix of his stories from the intelligence front lines we fell into a larger conversation about global politics and the high cost of foreign regime change in American man and material. I made a somewhat throwaway comment bemoaning all the money and lives that could be saved if the CIA wasn’t bound by the Executive Order forbidding the political assassination of foreign leaders. I should clarify that my own position is not and was not that the US should be involved in radically reshaping the politics of other countries, I meant my comment only in the sense that if we are going to be in the business of toppling regimes anyway, it seems ludicrous to brutally target impoverished, conscripted soldiers while intentionally leaving the wealthy, evil leaders initially untouched.

“Twelve-Three-Thirty-Three doesn’t stop us.” he said. “Fate stops us, sometimes. The rest of the time we apply a little A-N-D” [Executive Order 12333 is the latest of the orders re-affirming the illegality of political assassination.]

“And?” I asked.

“Accelerated Natural Death, also known officially as Alternative Neutralization Directive. Bad people die all the time of terrible and completely natural diseases. Sometimes we just help karma by getting the ball rolling. If we can get one of our guys near enough, we can take the target out naturally and without suspicion in one to twelve months. We don’t do it much for high profile guys, too hard to get close to them, too many people would get suspicious if we did it too often, and too much responsibility if the cure turns out worse than the disease. We mostly use it to ‘stack the deck’, re-arrange the men behind the man, or even sometimes to modify their opposition. We try to make subtle changes in the power structures so the nation grows in the direction we want, like pruning a Banzai tree.”

He spent the next twenty minutes telling me some of the methods they’ve used, as I tried to look attentive and casually unhorrified.

“One of our highest profile hits was in 1984. We tried to take out Gromyko [Soviet Foreign Minister at the time]. He was a major pain in the ass, and everyone in State wanted him gone. Nothing was going to improve while he was in place, the winter Olympic boycott that year was proof of that. He was headed to New York to meet Reagan following a U.N. conference. We had an agent in the Soviet embassy in New York City, working as a valet, who would have access to Gromyko.

“The method we used most often was irradiation. We would find a way to expose our target to a prolonged, low dose of radiation and let God decide whether the man lives or dies. The dose was always low enough that he wouldn’t suffer tell tale radiation sickness, but high enough that medical gave him a good chance of developing terminal cancer within six to twelve months.

“If we needed quicker and more definite action we took stronger measures. I remember one Latin American annoyance from a few years before we sent into premature kidney failure. He was a hard-liner who had a little too much influence over an otherwise tolerable dictator. We knew he had a pre-existing kidney problem; all we had to do was accelerate his decline. We made sure a one week vacation he took on the Mediterranean following a European conference took the last ten years off his life. The chemicals we put in his food over that week sent him into renal failure within thirty days, dead within thirty-five. I felt especially good about that mission, because he surprised us by taking his kids with him on the trip, and when we knew we couldn’t be sure who would eat what, we revised the chemistry to make sure we wouldn’t be damaging those in his entourage with functioning kidneys. We’re not always able to retain our humanity, so I’m proud of the moments when we can.

“Gromyko on the other hand was healthy, so far as we knew. We had to go with radiation. The plan we came up with was simple. Late one night after Gromyko went to bed, our inside man would retrieve Gromyko’s favorite pen, an absurdly ostentatious Soyuz brand ballpoint pen, with a gold pen cap encrusted at its tip with a ruby. The pen’s mechanics were a crude copy the Parker Jotter pen, which helped us with the planning. Gromyko carried it with him faithfully, and when not in his hand, it was clipped to his inside jacket pocket. Overnight our boys would replace the ink cartridge with one that included a small pellet of partially depleted uranium. The inside of the pen body would then be lightly coated with a thin layer of lead paint, leaving a strip running the length of the cylinder such that radiation would only escape in the direction of the pen’s clip. In this way most of the radiation escaping the plutonium pellet would pass directly into Gromyko’s heart and left lung, based on his habits. We spent enough time watching Gromyko in the weeks leading up to this plot that we estimated how quickly Gromyko would run through ink. The plutonium-tainted ink cartridge we installed would only have enough ink to last Gromyko three or four days. We wanted to be sure he’d dispose of our cartridge and replace it with one of his own before leaving New York City. We’d try to make the switch ourselves, but we wanted this added fail-safe. Gromyko returning to the USSR with a plutonium ink cartridge was an unacceptable risk.

“Making the drops with our inside man was ridiculously easy. We’d compromised the Soviet embassy in ’81 or ’82. We could do bilateral drops whenever we wanted, via a drain in the basement laundry of the embassy. Once we established our agent inside we’d sent a team of agents to tunnel up from the sewer to intercept the line that ran from this basement floor drain. It was diverted such that document tubes and even small objects could be literally dropped down or pulled up. Based on photos our man supplied we’d even fabricated a replacement drain cover that could be quickly removed and replaced without unscrewing any bolts, using an innocuous tool disguised as an ordinary key.

“The Gromyko plan went smoothly and undetected, executed the night after he met Reagan. The pen was secreted out via the drain drop, the work done in a nearby building, and before morning the pen was retrieved and replaced in Gromyko’s coat. A few days later his trip concluded and Gromyko returned to the USSR. Unfortunately he went on to live another five years, and when his time did come we didn’t deserve any of the credit. Oh well, if a bullet isn’t involved, there are no guarantees.

“Funny thing was, we think the pen did take somebody out. One of Gromyko’s chief aides died within nine months of the trip. When our inside man went to make sure Gromyko’s pen’s ink cartridge had been replaced on the morning he was leaving the valet noticed not only had the cartridge been replaced, but also the ruby on the pen top was missing.

“The valet had been given a discrete radiation dosimeter integrated into a working lighter. He would carry it with him and check it periodically to make sure his exposure to our plutonium pen was ‘safe’. When Gromyko left for Moscow the dosimeter was still in the safe exposure region. But three days later, shortly after the valet helped Gromyko’s aide pack to catch up with his boss, the valet was horrified to discover the dosimeter had climbed almost to the danger zone.

“We think the aide and Gromyko must both have had the same model pen and they had accidentally switched them during the trip. Truth be told, the aide was a pretty rotten fellow. And Gromyko did seem easier to work with the following year. We wouldn’t have gotten Gorbachev into power without Gromyko, so in retrospect, it’s a good thing we didn’t kill him. And that’s what we like about these A.N.D. cases, we’re not playing God, we’re just giving God a little help if he wants it. We used to joke that we weren’t rigging the lottery, we were just buying more tickets.

“It was still a wake up call for us, though. Directorate decided never again to go for anyone that high up. We didn’t want even the semblance of plausible responsibility. Instead all future A.N.D. missions would be targeted at less prominent but still influential figures, often the men behind the men behind the men in power. We believed we could still effect macroscopic changes by targeting the right microscopic figures. Of course we’d also A.N.D. a few irritants as well.

“Sometime after the Gromyko affair directorate forced a clarification of the twelve-three-thirty-three exemption. Our new policy became known as the Law of Forty-Nine. For an A.N.D. to be exempt from Executive Order 12333 the target needed to have a greater than forty-nine percent chance of surviving our attempt. As long as the target was more likely to survive than die, it did not legally constitute an assassination. All future A.N.D. operations adhered to the Law of Forty-Nine. Of course medical was very obliging when it came time to calculate the target’s mortality rate, so in practice we didn’t feel overly impeded…”

He would later tell me a few of the other methods they used, including the targeted use of other environmental toxins, the use of other radiation sources (such as the alpha particle emitter Polonium, which later saw public detection in the 2006 Litvinenko poisoning case, allegedly by the Russians), and even the use of compact microwave emitters.

I wish I could end this post by saying I was morally outraged, that I courageously condemned my friend for his complicity, that I publicly or even privately rebuked the perversion of the rights of man and the goals of justice we seemed to want to codify in our nation’s grand constitution. But things feel so much more complicated these days, perhaps the founding fathers would have written a very different document today. While the methods my friend described are hideous end runs around justice, leaving the world wholly unprotected from injustice at the whims of an unaccountable few, perhaps there is some undeniable validity underlying it. Perhaps the great wars and the greatest brutality of the last century could have been avoided with the accelerated natural death of those who a majority of nations secretly deemed unsalvageably responsible for evil. Perhaps it is a reasonable solution in an unreasonable world.

But I tremble when I think of how the A.N.D. solution is currently being implemented, and how its targets may still be selected. That can usher in no destiny we want.

John


Probing the Mystery of Spirit’s Censors

May 4, 2010

An article in last week’s Sun newspaper was entitled “NASA: Evidence of Life on Mars”. The piece opens very confidently:

NASA scientists last night unveiled compelling evidence of life on Mars.

A special mission to the Red Planet has revealed the likely presence of a form of pond scum – the building blocks of life as we know it.

NASA unveiled the results of the recent Opportunity and Spirit probes sent millions of miles through the solar system to discover signs of extraterrestrial life.

Sadly, NASA reacted quickly and explained that the newspaper must have simply misunderstood the results their scientists had presented.

It got me wondering, though… In my Curiosity of Spirit document I was forced to admit that Rich and I were never able to figure out just what was being censored in the images from Spirit. We couldn’t see anything worth suppressing in the thumbnails they were using to make the determination. We wondered if perhaps they were using some special filters to process the images to bring out subtle artificial or organic patterns in the image. Rich and I made a few attempts with various guessed filter settings, but we gave up as we saw nothing obviously unfamiliar pop out of the thumbnails.

I now begin to wonder if perhaps The Sun accidentally misunderstood it correctly. What if Spirit really had photographed something akin to “pond scum”. What if those mysterious persons who were looking at the Spirit thumbnails transmitted over the faster than light connection to Earth were using filters to process the images which would make organic material coating certain portions of rocks more visible. Rich and I unaided would have likely missed the discolorations, and thus their significance. I am increasingly convinced this may be the right answer to the mystery; it fits the facts so neatly.

It would be a far easier case to prove with the images (and regions) they suppressed, but if we assume they accidentally let a few images slip through, then there is still a chance; the thumbnails would surely have been hard to work with, there’s no way they could have noticed everything.

If anyone reading is available to assist in the analysis of the Spirit imagery, testing various filter settings to see if we can draw out possible organic features, please contact me.

John


Mutable Thought-Memory Method

May 3, 2010

In my post, Paranoia + Precaution = The Dead Man’s Switch, I vaguely mentioned a method I had for ensuring I wouldn’t reveal information under duress. Someone quite reasonably doubted such a thing could be possible; it does sound rather far fetched, and I think the topic warrants further comment.

I do have vague plans of revealing the method I call the Mutable Thought-Memory Method. I believe it would help a lot of people: from dissidents, to spies, to soldiers taken prisoner, to ordinary people. Anyone who needs to store and remember some small piece of information in their brain that they must not be allowed to recall under emotionally stressful conditions can use this method. But I still have some improvements I wish to make before posting the full information, and I still want to reveal only a variation on the method I actually use so I won’t potentially compromise my own security.

For now, just to satisfy people’s reasonable curiosity, and because I’m rather proud of my scheme, I’ll discuss the approach I came up with in the early 1990s, from which my current approach and the one I’ll reveal later descends.

I was doing some trusted systems work in the early 1990s. Our trusted systems work involved developing the hardware and software necessary to ensure that information can be stored securely and irretrievably in electronic hardware. The data our trusted systems were trying to keep safe were cryptographic keys, with which files or streams of data can be encrypted and decrypted. Protecting the keys is critical because if the keys are compromised and directly readable, then anyone could intercept and falsify any future transmissions anywhere which use those same keys, potentially rendering whole data networks vulnerable. The work I was involved in was intended to secure satellite communications. It’s important that such communication be secured because aside from wanting to protect the data from interception you also want to ensure that the satellite will only accept commands from its owners, not spurious commands sent by hostile nations. And should a satellite fail to achieve orbit and crash halfway around the world, we want to sleep easy knowing no one could recover the cryptographic keys from the wreckage and put other systems at risk.

Commonly with trusted systems the cryptographic keys are stored on the same microchip that holds the code which does the actual data encryption and decryption. The encryption and decryption code is all that can be directly accessed, the keys themselves cannot. To read the key data you would actually need to at least partially physically disassemble the chip itself, and the chip is intentionally designed to be catastrophically damaged if any attempt is made to disassemble it. It’s quite a fascinating and tricky problem, from both the physical construction of the chip to the software and encryption running on it and talking to it.

On the long commutes to and from work I began wondering if I could create a functionally similar scheme that would let me store a memory in my brain in a similarly secure and selectively irretrievable way. On the face of it, it seemed like an unsolvable problem, but those are the kind I like.  I explored quite a few unworkable ideas throughout the rest of that summer but made no real breakthrough until just before my mother’s birthday.

My mother’s birthday is on October 10th. No, that is not right, I think my mother’s birthday might be October 12th. No, I’m not entirely sure which one it is in fact, but I know with absolute certainty it is one or the other. I would say I have 70% confidence that her birthday is the 10th, but if you asked me several months from now when the date was closer and the pressure was on to make sure I sent a card, present, and called, then my confidence would fall to 50% and I’d be totally unable to even hazard an informed guess as to which of those two days it was. For some peculiar psychological reason, related either to brain structure or how we humans happen to use it, some memories are peculiarly mutable under stress. In the case of my mother’s birthday, no matter how hard I try to remember absolutely the specific date, I seem unable to with perfect confidence.

My eureka moment came when I realized that this peculiarity of mind was just the building block I needed to develop a method for securely storing other memories such that they could not be retrieved under duress.

Over the months that followed I began to gradually figure out how to take this simple observation and turn it into a more complicated and complete method. Along the way I had to build a few software applications that would help me pick, test, re-enforce, and use these special memories to store and retrieve the information. I discovered that most of the mutable memories were similar in nature to what I experienced with my mother’s birthday; they were cases where I knew an answer was one of only a small handful of possibilities, usually only two, but in some cases three or four. For simplicity’s sake I made the protocol allow only the more common binary mutable memories. Suitable mutable memories I decided would be ones which I could retrieve while under no stress at a success rate no less than 75%, but when under stress at a rate approximating chance (50%). I would record and/or discover new mutable memory elements with the software I wrote, and then it would test my ability over time to remember those things, including under situations with unexpected time constraints and with stressful noises and interruptions (to simulate duress). The software would also intentionally degrade my success rate in testing by sometimes re-enforcing the wrong responses, thereby helping to keep those memory elements mutable. The elements I would choose could not be easily or quickly externally verifiable, my mother’s birth date would be a less than ideal candidate for this reason, whereas my stress-mutable memory of the name of the second girl I ever kissed at summer camp (“Julie” or “Julia”) was a good candidate since no one but myself (and Julie, possibly Julia) knows of her existence. These individual binary mutable memory elements would need to be combined to form an n bit key which would unlock data stored with traditional software based encryption. Because the success rate of retrieving the individual stress-mutable binary memories under no stress is not 100%, I must allow for a m misses in the n field while still declaring the key a match. I developed a formula for working out a suitable n and m which made it extremely probable that under no stress I would be able to produce the key while under stress or with someone randomly guessing the probability of guessing successfully would be very low. I then built the system which interrogates me for the answers in an appropriate way, including a short but not stressful time limitation on providing responses, a randomization of the questions asked, and the allowance of m misses.

In the next major revision of the system I added additional complexity, certainty, and greater stress-sensitivity to the system by requiring the interrogated person to perform geometric spatial rotations of the mutable results mapped onto a variety of regular shapes. Further revisions continued trying to improve the system by striking the best balance between usability and security.

Actually using the current method in practice is pretty intense, each key retrieval I perform represents a mentally miserable 4 minutes that feels like 40 minutes. For that reason I think the current design would not work outside of realms which require very high security and have very intelligent stewards for the data. But perhaps once I release the details of the method I developed others with greater knowledge of psychology and security can improve upon it.

Hopefully this description gives enough detail that those who feel like such a thing is impossible might reconsider that position.

John