Cover-Up on the ISS?

August 9, 2010

I got an email yesterday from someone I used to know slightly at NASA Lewis. He ended up retiring a decade after I moved on. He did some contract work on shuttle and ISS systems. We were never close but a thermodynamics buddy of mine who was also briefly at Lewis would mention this guy now and again as they crossed paths, and more so when they consulted on the same project about five years ago. My friend was no fan of this guy, not because of his work, which was solid as far as I ever heard, but because this guy had an extremely abrasive personality and was given to some pretty off-color humor.

I’m not sure how I ended up being on the receiving end of this guy’s email, the email itself was sent with the recipients hidden in the BCC field. I have no idea to how many people this was sent, but presumably quite a few if I ended up on the list.

I’ve been following the reported PVTCS issues on the ISS and they’re peddling a load of crap. They knew this wasn’t a simple PFCS failure before they did the first EVA. The timetable and procedures are all wrong for a normal PFCS replacement. My best guess is a micrometeorite strike of the PVR, causing coolant pressure loss and contamination, overworking the PFCS until it failed, or a direct PFCS strike with coolant contamination. It’d hardly be the first time they covered up a strike of the ISS. You heard from Jack? I haven’t spoken to him since the fall conference, wonder if he knows something.

Some Googling identified the PVTCS as the entire cooling system, the PFCS appears to be the pump module, and the PVR is the radiator.

I’m not sure I buy the validity of what this guy is saying, I am not at all familiar with the ISS systems. I forwarded it to my friend to see what he thought and got a one line response, “That asshole is just pissed off he lost his fat shuttle contract.” There’s no love lost between the two of them, and my friend’s a pretty toe-the-line sort of guy, so he isn’t likely to go against what NASA reports.

I am not aware of NASA covering up any significant micrometeorite strikes. I remember reports of a few serious ones to the shuttle, found as part of the stepped up imaging after the tragedy following the foam strikes, and those were hardly kept from the public. Something as large as the ISS is bound to be routinely hit, given its many years in orbit, and thus such strikes would hardly be news worthy, unless perhaps the risks to astronaut safety are greater than is widely known. I can imagine NASA might be motivated to keep such a danger quiet at a time when it’s being forced to mothball the shuttle fleet and terminate its plans to return to the moon. The ISS is NASA’s last stand in space, and they would not be expected to give it up without a fight. But are they covering up the nature of the PVTCS failure on the ISS? I’m not yet convinced.

The Things that Matter and the Things that Don’t

July 18, 2010

My wife left me two weeks ago, on Independence Day. Actually that’s not factually correct, she made me leave her, the kids, and the home. She intends to file for divorce. I suppose I could have made her move out instead, or at least put up a fight, but it would have been a Pyrrhic victory. The bulk of the life I care about that doesn’t involve them can easily fit inside the trunk of my car, and the closet of the extended stay motel room in which I’m currently staying.

I suspect there’s at least one moment in most people’s relationships where each person is forced to make a choice about how vulnerable each wants to allow themselves to be. We have all done things we’re not proud of, we’ve all been aspects of ourselves we’re not proud of, we’ve all got secrets we keep because we’re afraid of what others would think of us if they knew. I wonder how many of us have truly been honest with our spouses, told them the things we knew they might not be able to accept, the things which might make them leave.

My wife and I had been doing a lot of counseling. I’d been going individually twice a week to try to get control of my emotions and anxieties and life, and we’d been going as a couple once a week in an effort to reconnect and undo the damage the wear and tear long relationships produce, as well as address some of the unique issues our circumstances have created.

At some point in the process I began to seriously weigh telling my wife the whole story about my leaving JPL, and the mind shift and fears which followed. The flirtation with the idea became an obsession with the idea. Telling the internet your secrets provides some relief, but the internet can’t give you a hug, it doesn’t know you, it hasn’t known you. The internet can never tell you everything’s going to be alright in a voice louder than a whisper. I wanted to tell her, I needed her to tell me.

A few years ago during a bout of insomnia I fell into watching true crime TV shows. Often enough they’d feature a story where an unsuspected killer spontaneously confesses to his prison cell mate or his pastor or his friend. And it’s not long before his perfect crime is undone by his own hand. As a viewer I couldn’t help but think, “How stupid are they?” While I accepted that guilt and conscience are very real psychological phenomenons, how could these people not have wrestled those urges into submission, just as easily as they had the morality which should have prevented their crimes? I suppose I better understand the mind of the confessor now. I knew what might be lost if I was honest. I knew it might cost me my marriage. I did it anyway. And now I’m paying the price.

While I may wish I’d never told her any of it, I now realize it was inevitable. Maybe I would have told her in a month, a week, or a year, but I would have told her, and she would have left me. The compulsion to share was too great, the need for acceptance too great.

I can’t blame her, I suppose, but I do. My anger at her is putting a functional life out of reach for the present. I’ve been delaying client after client, rescheduling meetings into next month, and using each project as an excuse to push back the deadlines of every other one. My days have looked like nights. Sleeping too much, drinking too much, embracing the idiocy of the idiot box, and reading lunatic ravings like my own on the web. Anything to avoid or justify the present.

My wife was always the practical one. She loved me for being a dreamer, able to take her to worlds she could only dimly imagine. And I loved her for grounding me, just enough to see my ideas and dreams get traction in the real world. I owe what I have to her, which is curiously said in both thanks and damnation. We were a highly functional match, and for many early years a passionate and loving one. But age changes us, life changes us, takes from us our capacity to tolerate differences. And soon we’re just left separated by a giant chasm of dissimilitude. Still, you cling to the perpetual hope that you can get it back, that the gap will close, or that perhaps some invisible bridge remains to let you meet in the middle when you most need to. Ultimately I felt constrained by her pragmatism, grew resentful of the me I may have been in some parallel universe unfettered by a wife who countered so many of the ideas I’d gleefully share with an argument beginning with the phrase, “Now be realistic…” And she would have been better off with a husband who didn’t aspire to more than he was, who was satisfied with being a loving husband and a good employee, who didn’t think his destiny was much bigger, a destiny borne on the back of some idea or invention he hope to nurture from dream to reality. We both meant well. I didn’t mean to be the bad husband, she didn’t mean to be the bad wife. But often enough the things which attract us to our spouse turn into the very things we come to hate about them.

Her religion doesn’t permit of much that is unusual, at least unusual for them. One could well argue that the story of Christ is highly unusual, and were it not for its embedding in two thousand years of social history, few would accept it as anything but a peculiarly implausible fairy story, as unbelievable as any UFO, bigfoot, ghost story. But her beliefs are backed by all that cultural embedding, and her religion responds as if threatened by claims of the unapproved paranormal. She doesn’t go so far as to say the paranormal is the providence of the Devil, but I suspect she believes it. Her dogma was the source of my fear of sharing, most of the reason for my silence, and why I knew this might not end well.

The end came unexpectedly, as they always do. I spent so much of my life anticipating fears, worrying about the unlikely worst-case scenarios of the obvious situations that surround me. I worry about the infinitesimal chance that my plane will crash on its way to Pittsburgh, but I head off on a camping trip with my boys without giving a moment’s thought to the pain of a pulled muscle which turns out to be a near fatal case of acute appendicitis. The worst of life comes without warnings. And even when we do accurately anticipate unavoidable horrors (the deaths of those we love, the course of our own diseases) we are spared nothing through the endless anticipating worry. We’d be better off living like moderate fools surprised at every reasonably unavoidable horror.

My wife caught me, saw “troubling” web pages open on my computer. I felt like a Caucasian husband with a Caucasian wife caught looking at a site devoted exclusively to Asian fetish porn; her reaction operated on multiple levels. She was troubled at the general subject matter, troubled at the very specific subject matter, and let her mind read deeply into just what this specific corruption of my interests and intellect said about me, about us. I limit almost all my research and absolutely all my personalized browsing and posting to one cheap, disposable, anonymous netbook. I ordinarily keep the computer in the bottom of my desk drawer when not in use, underneath two outdated and unusuable laptops. I ordinarily keep the computer locked down so rebooting, suspending, hibernating, or screen saver activation will lock the console and require a password. As with all such failures of security, it only takes one mistake and one wrong moment for that mistake to occur. I was installing a number of updates and some new software and had thought I’d be in the house alone until evening. After the third or fourth password prompt triggered by the screen saver activation my laziness got the better of me and I disabled its password prompt. I took a shower. My wife returned home early after errands, her sister no longer needed help setting up for the family barbecue. My wife went in to my office to tell me she was back, and finding me gone thought she’d take the opportunity to print out some directions she was going to need the next morning. I cycle through so many computers she didn’t think anything of getting on this unfamiliar netbook. She has no interest in gadgets, and she’s just as happy I don’t bother her as I once did introducing her to each new one I buy; besides she views their expense as profligate. Because the installations were going slowly I was reading quite a few fringe sites in Firefox as the disk slowly churned its new bits, periodically prompting me for approval.

I came around the corner to my office unsuspecting. I immediately had the dread of being caught, and the guilty look of being caught. My face doomed any chance I had to play off my browsing activities as the fruits of boredom. “What the hell is this?” set the tone for everything else she had to say.

Most of us flawed humans have irrational responses waiting for activation on particular subjects. Hers had been biding their time. I hadn’t brought up any of these fringe topics in years, they had introduced unpleasant discord a decade or so before, back when my only interest had been academic.

Without being aware of it, I had apparently been hinting at or cowardly suggesting that my troubles had their origins in the paranormal. I suppose it was my confessional toe dipping itself in the water while I was sleep walking through recent weeks. This was all the confirmation she needed, the whiff of perfume clinging to the collar of a suspected cheater. I had a choice, I could have probably gotten away with whitewashing it all, making up some elaborately confused but compelling lie. But her anger invited mine, gave me a voice. And so I told her. I’ll never forget her expression. I imagine it’s a face paranoid schizophrenics get used to seeing, frozen on the faces of those witnessing lost, loudly quasi-interactive rants. My voice was calm, though, but perhaps too calm, resigned. I don’t know how much she heard, I’m sure it became too much and she checked out early on. Regardless, she heard enough.

Instead of the comforting hug I had long hoped for, craved, I got what I had always known I would, something along the lines of, “John, you need serious, serious help. I can’t help you, the kids can’t help you, and the fact that you’ve kept all these… delusions to yourself for so long tells me you refuse to help yourself. What’s all this counseling been for? Why have you wasted my time? Their time? Your time? You’ve not been honest with the psychologists, and more importantly you’ve not been honest with me… I can’t do this any more, I don’t want to do this any more. I don’t deserve this, the kids don’t deserve this.”

The remainder of the conversation continued on that theme, with me too devastated to offer much protest. The evening ended with me getting no barbecue, seeing no family, and getting to see only a handful of safe and sane fireworks set off in the parking lot of the motel where I spent that first night. My accommodations would improve slightly in the days that followed, but not my life; a pool and jacuzzi in the building hardly makes up for the unending hours of devastating solitude, and the anticipation of an uncertain future.

I fear all this time alone isn’t helping my mental state. I spend my hours alternately numbing my faculties and consuming vast quantities of variable conspiracy/paranormal information. Conspiracy/paranormal writings make for deeply unhealthy reading. I have come to believe that if you read too much of someone’s insanity their mental contagion may spread to you, at least for a time. In the realm of the conspiracy/paranormal it’s almost impossible to tell who is insightfully sane and who is merely ravingly clever.


Almost the End of My Everything

June 17, 2010

For weeks now I’ve been avoiding the world of conspiracies, avoiding this site, other sites, and even my own thoughts and memories. I’ve been forced instead to think about the mess I almost made of my life, the mess I may be making of my life. I’m still struggling to sort it all out.

My wife, my two sons, and I had all gone out to brunch with some of my wife’s relatives. We’d taken two cars since I had some work I needed to do, and my wife and our sons were going to head over to her brother’s house where the boys were going to ride their cousins’ four ATVs. When I got back to the house I let myself in and noticed the alarm was off. I didn’t think anything of it at first, because this has happened before when we all leave separately as we did this morning. She thinks I’m still inside, I think she’s still inside, and so nobody sets it. I put in an hour of work before going to the kitchen to get some tea. As I’m filling the kettle from the tap I notice that the kitchen door is unlocked, both the deadbolt (which requires a key) and the lock built into the knob. We never use that door, it’s been impassable for years, one of those security door braces is against the door knob, and in front of the door is a low shelving unit my wife keeps the laundry supplies in. The key has been lost for at least two years, and only weeks before this incident the wife and I once again searched everywhere for the key because without it we had to disassemble some of my son’s college apartment furniture in order to bring it in the other entrance. And yet now both the deadbolt and the knob were unlocked. I felt the sudden grip of panic.

I’m not sure who or what exactly I was initially afraid of. The government was not my first thought, but it would become my primary one. The big gun safe was in the closet in the guest bedroom, just a few feet away from the kitchen. I quickly moved there, unlocked the safe and grabbed the only gun I kept loaded, my dad’s Korea sidearm, an old M1911. I went back to the front door, set the alarm to “night stay” so I’d know if anyone came or went, and then searched the house room by room, checking under each bed and in each closet. I even peered into the attic when every other location was checked. If anyone had been there, I saw no trace of them. Nothing appeared disturbed, and no one remained. As the adrenaline waned I began to get a little disturbed by what I’d just done. I was like a man possessed. I am ordinarily relatively meek by nature, avoiding confrontations whenever possible, sometimes to my detriment. God knows what I would have done if I’d found someone. My calm did not remain restored for long.

I tried to reach my wife to see if perhaps she had found the key or gotten a locksmith, but got instant voice mail, which wasn’t unexpected, her brother’s house has spotty cell phone reception. I went back to my office, and started to get back to work. My mind was still too energized to get back to the mentally intensive task I really needed to work on, so I tried to ease back into work by tackling some simple debugging, looking at why a SQL query was pulling the wrong data from a database. I clicked the shortcut I’d set up to automatically build the SSH tunnel I’d need for my DB front end. The login dialog popped up. It shouldn’t have. The login should have happened completely automatically using my configured SSH keys. The key agent was no longer running. That was odd. It quickly dawned on me that my computer must have been restarted, and I simply hadn’t been paying attention when I’d logged on earlier. A quick check of the event log confirmed that the system had probably stopped within 20 minutes of us leaving the house that morning, and whatever happened wasn’t graceful, the event log just stopped suddenly. This was not related to any scheduled update, there was no tell-tale sign of a blue screen, and nothing but a power failure could explain the long down time. And the fancy UPS that my computer is connected to would have kept the computer alive for at least an hour before gracefully shutting it down.

I went back into panic mode. Without particular intent I pulled my gun back out of the desk drawer where I’d temporarily placed it and left it out within easy reach. I began a search to try to narrow down the exact time my computer went down. The last event log entry could have been made a while before the computer was hard reset. While that search was running I examined my computer to see if looked as though it had been disturbed. It had clearly been moved. The speaker out cable I had connected to the desktop barely reached, so much so that I’d accidentally pulled it out a few times myself when I’d nudged the computer mere inches. The speaker cable was now disconnected. Just minutes before leaving the house this morning I’d been listening to a streaming radio program on that computer over those speakers. I now examined the computer in minute detail, looking at every screw head, every USB port, at the CD ROM tray, looking for any sign that someone could have gotten data out of my computer. And I’d swear I saw it, the USB ports usually end up plugged with dust or cat hair between uses, and I keep a can of compressed air handy for that reason. One of the USB ports looked different from the rest. I even used a coated paperclip to probe that one to see if there had been hair which had been just compressed out of the way when something was inserted. There was.

The file search completed to reveal that the computer had shut down about 35 minutes after we left. I looked for any other signs that there was a power outage, and there had been no power outage. All the clocks which usually reset with any outage longer than half a second were all showing perfect time. My son had left his non UPS protected X-Box paused on some game in his room, and it was still paused. I still had my gun with me as I walked the house checking for signs of a power outage.

The only conclusion I was left with seemed to be that someone had come in and perhaps cloned my hard drive, just as people had done at JPL. I just kept pacing the house, alternately moving my finger into and out of the trigger guard. I must have done that for hours, pausing occasionally to sit on my bed, look out the window for suspicious cars, check my cell phone, examine the various doors and windows for signs they were used. I didn’t think the person(s) had made their way in through the kitchen door, I supposed that was just the door they first picked, and finding it still wouldn’t open they moved to another door, and then subsequently forgot to go back and cover their tracks by re-locking that door as they had done another. Perhaps we had forgotten to set the alarm, or more likely they’d disabled it; I’d read years before about how easy it was to eavesdrop on and then clone the little key fobs for auto alarms, and suppose it is just as easy for houses. The more I tried to force an answer from a paucity of data the more and more disturbed I got, and the more time passed.

My family found me this way. No, they found me far worse. The alarm was still on “night stay”. When they got home that evening my wife opened the front door and the alarm went off. The house was that dark that comes at dusk when your eyes seem least able to make sense of what they see, made worse by my turning on no lights. The alarm horn was blaring from inside the bedroom closet, less than ten feet from where I had been sitting. My gun was still in my hand. I ran down the hall towards the front door, leading with my pistol, and when I came around the corner to the living room, in view of the door, and saw it open I began screaming at the figures in the door something they told me later approximated, “Who are you? Who the fuck are you?” They said I repeated it almost 10 times. My wife was apparently repeatedly screaming back, “It’s us! Don’t shoot! It’s us!” I didn’t hear her. I don’t know that I heard anything. I don’t know where I was, and in that state I don’t know why I didn’t fire. Someone turned on the lights.

The recognition finally came, and I lost it, utterly and completely. I broke down immediately, stumbled backwards the foot or so to the wall by the doorway to the hall, slid down to the floor, pushed the gun out of my own reach, under the edge of the couch. I sobbed uncontrollably, gradually drawing myself into a fetal position, lying on my side there on the floor.

My wife has always handled our crises; I’ve always been in awe of her ability to make the right choices in situations where I would freeze and make no choice; she spent some time in college as an EMT and told me about a few awful calls she went on that would have ruined me forever. My wife took command and told our younger son to go down the street and see if our neighbor, “Dr. John” was home and could he rush over; he was a close friend, and a psychiatrist. She had our older sun retrieve the pistol and lock it up. I found out a week or two later something that sent me on a brief crying jag; she’d sent him back to the safe less than twenty minutes later to quickly inventory the guns and to change the combination to one I wouldn’t know; how horrible it is to think of your own family very reasonably afraid of you.

I was just lying there, sobbing desperately, gasping for air, as she wrapped her arms around me, and just told me all the nice things I couldn’t imagine I deserved in that moment. I had very nearly killed them, perhaps even should have killed them, had I not retained some slim sense or cowardice or something. And all she did was tell me that she loved me, that they all loved me, and that everything would be ok, that I was safe, that we were all safe, that everything was fine. I am so grateful for her love, many is the time I’ve felt unworthy of it, and never have I felt less worthy than this lingering now.

Dr. John came over; he probably got there within five minutes. I was still uncommunicative, only making horrible, desperate noises. He sedated slightly me with some sort of injection. I guess my youngest must have given him a preview of my condition; I can’t say I’ve seen doctors carrying around those medical bags they once did. They led me back to our bedroom, got me in bed, and I was left for only a few minutes while she consulted with him, and made arrangements for the kids to drive back and stay with their uncle and aunt. I also found out later that they had apparently invented a cover story. They were kind enough to not tell anyone their dad had gone insane, instead they said the power had gone out, and that it wouldn’t be fixed until at least the morning. I’m not sure I deserve their kindness, either, to continue to look after my image in a moment like that.

I was calming down, or letting fatigue over take me. I was vaguely aware of my wife coming back in soon after, and of her lying next to me, and holding me. And I slept into the next day.

There is an awful moment that comes in mornings like that one, where you don’t remember what’s wrong with the world, where you naively think this morning is like every other recent pleasant morning. And then it suddenly isn’t. I remember many such mornings after people I loved left me, after my dad died, after my dogs have died. Perhaps the sedation I had received had helped reduce the intensity of my memory, or perhaps my altered mental state had done that job, because although I was roughly aware of the horror of the evening before, it felt a little like someone else’s horror. I just remained, sitting upright in bed. I was probing my memory, trying to understand it, and afraid that if I moved or got up my wife would suddenly awake and have so many questions to ask that I wouldn’t be prepared to answer. What could I tell her?

I could tell her something that approximated the whole truth, something that included the suspicions, stories, and experiences that had cost me a job and ultimately friends and colleagues. But that meant sounding certifiably insane if my truth was wrong, and perhaps putting her at risk if I my truth was right. Or I could just leave the episode largely unexplained, leave out my fears about my computer data being taken, and just present it as it started, a fear that a burglar was still or had been in the house. I’d already been lying to her for so long by keeping my truth from her, I wouldn’t really be making a new choice so much as just perpetuating the old one.

She was awake. Perhaps she had been. “How are you feeling?” she asked. “Like it was all a horrible, horrible nightmare.” I said. “Maybe that’s all it was.” she offered, and kissed me as she got out of bed. I stayed there a bit longer. After a couple minutes I heard her in the kitchen, making breakfast. And after a very quick shower I joined her. We ate mostly in silence, but not an unpleasant one. She wasn’t requiring anything of me, and I wasn’t quite ready to offer anything. The silence seemed natural. We finished, and she went about the next hour or so as normal. The kids would be back at noon, and I knew I had to talk to her with enough time before they got home, so I did eventually seek her out. For some reason it feels very difficult for me to share that conversation. I tried a few times to write it down, but I don’t get very far. Why it should feel harder than the rest of the story I’m not sure. Perhaps everything else could be framed by actions, and this was largely emotion.

At any rate, I did tell her something more than the nothing I had told her before. I didn’t give her specifics, but I did finally let her know that there was a reason I left to begin consulting, that it hadn’t been for the reasons I’d previously told her. But I presented everything slightly skewed, not that I thought there were secret forces working within the government developing technologies that were hidden from those of us with a right to know, but more like I believed the direction the program was going in was vaguely unethical, that lives were being put at risk, that money was being squandered, and… To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I said. That’s the danger of lying, it’s so hard to remember. She heard it as I’d hoped, it didn’t make her feel I was crazy, and it sounded plausibly stressful, and perhaps it could have led to an eruption in some sort of panic attack when combined with a possible burglary.

She provided the solution to that mystery. I had gotten everything wrong, there had been no government agents in our home, there had been no cloning of my computer hard drive. She had called a locksmith, specifically because we’d had such a horrible time dealing with my son’s furniture, and because we’d have the same horrible time when he went back to college at the end of summer. He had come out the afternoon I was out of town, just a couple days before, and he had picked the locks and when he went to re-key the locks realized he had left some tool or part he needed at his shop, and because my wife’s schedule was crazy and she didn’t know mine, she’d asked him to come back on Monday, and she told him it was fine to leave unlocked, but secured with the bar and blocked as it was. And my computer had been moved, and it had been disconnected, but not by unknown persons. My wife had borrowed her sister’s digital camera a few weeks before, ours had recently broken and my wife was planning on trying to get it repaired while I was trying to use this as an excuse to get a new one. My wife had told her sister she could pick it up. Her sister did so on her way to meet us for brunch, she turned off the alarm, came in, retrieved the camera from where it was by my desk, unplugged the camera power cable which would have been in the same strip as my PC, and my sister-in-law must have moved the power strip just enough to barely unseat the computer power cable not at the outlet, but where the cable goes into the PC’s power supply. This tugging also moved the computer just enough to disconnect the speaker cable. As for how my computer came to turn back on, I suspect it might have been the cat. She often lies on top of the computer, and I suspect in getting on or off she brushed against the power cable just enough for it to make contact again and turn the computer back on. As for the USB port seeming like it had been used, I could not sanely ask for any of this information, so I can only guess that my wife may have plugged in my memory stick reader to copy the photos off the camera in advance of her sister collecting it. I nearly killed one or more of the people I loved because of a fiction I had invented. Just how much am I capable of inventing?

Dr. John had referred me to a psychologist he knew in the weeks following, just to see how I am doing, try to help me cope. And it is helpful, but I suppose since I am not being entirely truthful with anyone about exactly what I fear it can only be so helpful. You can’t expect a doctor to cure a disease when you lie to him about the symptoms.

I’m still trying to make sense of all this. I have been staying away from everything that drove me to this point, that invited all that fear, all that anxiety. I clearly didn’t and don’t have a healthy relationship to it. I’m not sure how I find that, or how I’ll know it when I find it. I felt like talking about these things was helpful for me, should be helpful for me, but it feels like I’m doing it wrong, at least in part.

I am continuing the therapy and journaling has been an exercise my therapist has suggested, so perhaps I can come to understand better how and what to more healthily share.

I may need to continue my silence here for some time, and perhaps for a while keep to topics which feel less personal and more abstract, topics where perhaps I can provide professional insight, but without directly knowing the persons or projects involved.


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.

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.


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.


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.