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10

“What I am about to tell you, Rachel,” the President said, “is classified ’UMBRA.’ Well beyond your current security clearance.”

Rachel felt the walls of Air Force One closing in around her. The President had flown her to Wallops Island, invited her onboard his plane, poured her coffee, told her flat out that he intended to use her to political advantage against her own father, and now he was announcing he intended to give her classified information illegally. However affable Zach Herney appeared on the surface, Rachel Sexton had just learned something important about him. This man took control in a hurry.

“Two weeks ago,” the President said, locking eyes with her, “NASA made a discovery.”

The words hung a moment in the air before Rachel could process them. A NASA discovery? Recent intelligence updates had suggested nothing out of the ordinary going on with the space agency. Of course, these days a “NASA discovery” usually meant realizing they’d grossly under budgeted some new project.

“Before we talk further,” the President said, “I’d like to know if you share your father’s cynicism over space exploration.”

Rachel resented the comment. “I certainly hope you didn’t call me here to ask me to control my father’s rants against NASA.”

He laughed. “Hell, no. I’ve been around the Senate long enough to know that nobody controls Sedgewick Sexton.”

“My father is an opportunist, sir. Most successful politicians are. And unfortunately NASA has made itself an opportunity.” The recent string of NASA errors had been so unbearable that one either had to laugh or cry—satellites that disintegrated in orbit, space probes that never called home, the International Space Station budget rising tenfold and member countries bailing out like rats from a sinking ship. Billions were being lost, and Senator Sexton was riding it like a wave—a wave that seemed destined to carry him to the shores of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“I will admit,” the President continued, “NASA has been a walking disaster area lately. Every time I turn around, they give me yet another reason to slash their funding.”

Rachel saw her opening for a foothold and took it. “And yet, sir, didn’t I just read that you bailed them out last week with another three million in emergency funding to keep them solvent?”

The President chuckled. “Your father was pleased with that one, wasn’t he?”

“Nothing like sending ammunition to your executioner.”

“Did you hear him on Nightline? ’Zach Herney is a space addict, and the taxpayers are funding his habit.’”

“But you keep proving him right, sir.”

Herney nodded. “I make it no secret that I’m an enormous fan of NASA. I always have been. I was a child of the space race—Sputnik, John Glenn, Apollo 11—and I have never hesitated to express my feelings of admiration and national pride for our space program. In my mind, the men and women of NASA are history’s modern pioneers. They attempt the impossible, accept failure, and then go back to the drawing board while the rest of us stand back and criticize.”

Rachel remained silent, sensing that just below the President’s calm exterior was an indignant rage over her father’s endless anti‑NASA rhetoric. Rachel found herself wondering what the hell NASA had found. The President was certainly taking his time coming to the point.

“Today,” Herney said, his voice intensifying, “I intend to change your entire opinion of NASA.”

Rachel eyed him with uncertainty. “You have my vote already, sir. You may want to concentrate on the rest of the country.”

“I intend to.” He took a sip of coffee and smiled. “And I’m going to ask you to help me.” Pausing, he leaned toward her. “In a most unusual way.”

Rachel could now feel Zach Herney scrutinizing her every move, like a hunter trying to gauge if his prey intended to run or fight. Unfortunately, Rachel saw nowhere to run.

“I assume,” the President said, pouring them both more coffee, “that you’re aware of a NASA project called EOS?”

Rachel nodded. “Earth Observation System. I believe my father has mentioned EOS once or twice.”

The weak attempt at sarcasm drew a frown from the President. The truth was that Rachel’s father mentioned the Earth Observation System every chance he got. It was one of NASA’s most controversial big‑ticket ventures—a constellation of five satellites designed to look down from space and analyze the planet’s environment: ozone depletion, polar ice melt, global warming, rainforest defoliation. The intent was to provide environmentalists with never before seen macroscopic data so that they could plan better for earth’s future.

Unfortunately, the EOS project had been wrought with failure. Like so many NASA projects of late, it had been plagued with costly overruns right from the start. And Zach Herney was the one taking the heat. He had used the support of the environmental lobby to push the $1.4 billion EOS project through Congress. But rather than delivering the promised contributions to global earth science, EOS had spiraled quickly into a costly nightmare of failed launches, computer malfunctions, and somber NASA press conferences. The only smiling face lately was that of Senator Sexton, who was smugly reminding voters just how much of their money the President had spent on EOS and just how lukewarm the returns had been.

The President dropped a sugar cube into his mug. “As surprising as this may sound, the NASA discovery I’m referring to was made by EOS.”

Now Rachel felt lost. If EOS had enjoyed a recent success, NASA certainly would have announced it, wouldn’t they? Her father had been crucifying EOS in the media, and the space agency could use any good news they could find.

“I’ve heard nothing,” Rachel said, “about any EOS discovery.”

“I know. NASA prefers to keep the good news to themselves for a while.”

Rachel doubted it. “In my experience, sir, when it comes to NASA, no news is generally bad news.” Restraint was not a forte of the NASA public relations department. The standing joke at the NRO was that NASA held a press conference every time one of their scientists so much as farted.

The President frowned. “Ah, yes. I forget I’m talking to one of Pickering’s NRO security disciples. Is he still moaning and groaning about NASA’s loose lips?”

“Security is his business, sir. He takes it very seriously.”

“He damn well better. I just find it hard to believe that two agencies with so much in common constantly find something to fight about.”

Rachel had learned early in her tenure under William Pickering that although both NASA and the NRO were space‑related agencies, they had philosophies that were polar opposites. The NRO was a defense agency and kept all of its space activities classified, while NASA was academic and excitedly publicized all of its breakthroughs around the globe—often, William Pickering argued, at the risk of national security. Some of NASA’s finest technologies‑high‑resolution lenses for satellite telescopes, long‑range communications systems, and radio imaging devices—had a nasty habit of appearing in the intelligence arsenal of hostile countries and being used to spy against us. Bill Pickering often grumbled that NASA scientists had big brains . . . and even bigger mouths.

A more pointed issue between the agencies, however, was the fact that because NASA handled the NRO’s satellite launches, many of NASA’s recent failures directly affected the NRO. No failure had been more dramatic than that of August 12, 1998, when a NASA/Air Force Titan 4 rocket blew up forty seconds into launch and obliterated its payload—a $1.2 billion NRO satellite code‑named Vortex 2. Pickering seemed particularly unwilling to forget that one.

“So why hasn’t NASA gone public about this recent success?” Rachel challenged. “They certainly could use some good news right now.”

“NASA is being silent,” the President declared, “because I ordered them to be.”

Rachel wondered if she had heard him correctly. If so, the President was committing some kind of political hara‑kiri that she did not understand.

“This discovery,” the President said, “is . . . shall we say . . . nothing short of astounding in its ramifications.”

Rachel felt an uneasy chill. In the world of intelligence, “astounding ramifications” seldom meant good news. She now wondered if all the EOS secrecy was on account of the satellite system having spotted some impending environmental disaster. “Is there a problem?”

“No problem at all. What EOS discovered is quite wonderful.”

Rachel fell silent.

“Suppose, Rachel, that I told you NASA has just made a discovery of such scientific importance . . . such earth‑shattering significance . . . that it validated every dollar Americans have ever spent in space?”

Rachel could not imagine.

The President stood up. “Let’s take a walk, shall we?”