William Pickering felt an unusual solitude as he drove his sedan down the Leesburg Highway. It was almost 2:00 A.M . . . and the road was empty. It had been years since hed been driving this late.
Marjorie Tenchs raspy voice still grated on his mind. Meet me at the FDR Memorial.
Pickering tried to recall the last time he had seen Marjorie Tench face‑to‑face‑never a pleasant experience. It had been two months ago. At the White House. Tench was seated opposite Pickering at a long oak table surrounded by members of the National Security Council, Joint Chiefs, CIA, President Herney, and the administrator of NASA.
Gentlemen, the head of the CIA had said, looking directly at Marjorie Tench. Yet again, I am before you to urge this administration to confront the ongoing security crisis of NASA.
The declaration took no one in the room by surprise. NASAs security woes had become a tired issue in the intelligence community. Two days previously, more than three hundred high‑resolution satellite photos from one of NASAs earth‑observing satellites had been stolen by hackers out of a NASA database. The photos‑inadvertently revealing a classified U.S. military training facility in North Africa‑had turned up on the black market, where they had been purchased by hostile intelligence agencies in the Middle East.
Despite the best of intentions, the CIA director said with a weary voice, NASA continues to be a threat to national security. Simply put, our space agency is not equipped to protect the data and technologies they develop.
I realize, the President replied, that there have been indiscretions. Damaging leaks. And it troubles me deeply. He motioned across the table to the stern face of NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom. We are yet again looking into ways to tighten NASAs security.
With due respect, the CIA director said, whatever security changes NASA implements will be ineffective as long as NASA operations remain outside the umbrella of the United States intelligence community.
The statement brought an uneasy rustle from those assembled. Everyone knew where this was headed.
As you know, the CIA director went on, his tone sharpening, all U.S. government entities who deal with sensitive intelligence information are governed by strict rules of secrecy‑military, CIA, NSA, NRO‑all of them must abide by stringent laws regarding the concealment of the data they glean and the technologies they develop. I ask you all, yet again, why NASA‑the agency currently producing the largest portion of cutting‑edge aerospace, imaging, flight, software, reconnaissance, and telecom technologies used by the military and intelligence community‑exists outside this umbrella of secrecy.
The President heaved a weighty sigh. The proposal was clear. Restructure NASA to become part of the U.S. military intelligence community. Although similar restructurings had happened with other agencies in the past, Herney refused to entertain the idea of placing NASA under the auspices of the Pentagon, the CIA, the NRO, or any other military directive. The National Security Council was starting to splinter on the issue, many siding with the intelligence community.
Lawrence Ekstrom never looked pleased at these meetings, and this was no exception. He shot an acrimonious glare toward the CIA director. At the risk of repeating myself, sir, the technologies NASA develops are for nonmilitary, academic applications. If your intelligence community wants to turn one of our space telescopes around and look at China, thats your choice.
The CIA director looked like he was about to boil over.
Pickering caught his eye and stepped in. Larry, he said, careful to keep an even tone, every year NASA kneels before Congress and begs for money. Youre running operations with too little funding, and youre paying the price in failed missions. If we incorporate NASA into the intelligence community, NASA will no longer need to ask Congress for help. You would be funded by the black budget at significantly higher levels. Its a win‑win. NASA will have the money it needs to run itself properly, and the intelligence community will have peace of mind that NASA technologies are protected.
Ekstrom shook his head. On principle, I cannot endorse painting NASA with that brush. NASA is about space science; we have nothing to do with national security.
The CIA director stood up, something never done when the President was seated. Nobody stopped him. He glared down at the administrator of NASA. Are you telling me you think science has nothing to do with national security? Larry, they are synonymous, for Gods sake! It is only this countrys scientific and technological edge that keeps us secure, and whether we like it or not, NASA is playing a bigger and bigger part in developing those technologies. Unfortunately, your agency leaks like a sieve and has proven time and again that its security is a liability!
The room fell silent.
Now the administrator of NASA stood up and locked eyes with his attacker. So you suggest locking twenty thousand NASA scientists in airtight military labs and making them work for you? Do you really think NASAs newest space telescopes would have been conceived had it not been for our scientists personal desire to see deeper into space? NASA makes astonishing breakthroughs for one reason only‑our employees want to understand the cosmos more deeply. They are a community of dreamers who grew up staring at starry skies and asking themselves what was up there. Passion and curiosity are what drive NASAs innovation, not the promise of military superiority.
Pickering cleared his throat, speaking softly, trying to lower the temperatures around the table. Larry, Im certain the director is not talking about recruiting NASA scientists to build military satellites. Your NASA mission statement would not change. NASA would carry on business as usual, except you would have increased funding and increased security. Pickering turned now to the President. Security is expensive. Everyone in this room certainly realizes that NASAs security leaks are a result of underfunding. NASA has to toot its own horn, cut corners on security measures, run joint projects with other countries so they can share the price tag. I am proposing that NASA remain the superb, scientific, nonmilitary entity it currently is, but with a bigger budget, and some discretion.
Several members of the security council nodded in quiet agreement.
President Herney stood slowly, staring directly at William Pickering, clearly not at all amused with the way Pickering had just taken over. Bill, let me ask you this: NASA is hoping to go to Mars in the next decade. How will the intelligence community feel about spending a hefty portion of the black budget running a mission to Mars‑a mission that has no immediate national security benefits?
NASA will be able to do as they please.
Bullshit, Herney replied flatly.
Everyones eyes shot up. President Herney seldom used profanity.
If there is one thing Ive learned as president, Herney declared, its that those who control the dollars control the direction. I refuse to put NASAs purse strings in the hands of those who do not share the objectives for which the agency was founded. I can only imagine how much pure science would get done with the military deciding which NASA missions are viable.
Herneys eyes scanned the room. Slowly, purposefully, he returned his rigid gaze to William Pickering.
Bill, Herney sighed, your displeasure that NASA is engaged in joint projects with foreign space agencies is painfully shortsighted. At least someone is working constructively with the Chinese and Russians. Peace on this planet will not be forged by military strength. It will be forged by those who come together despite their governments differences. If you ask me, NASAs joint missions do more to promote national security than any billion‑dollar spy satellite, and with a hell of a lot better hope for the future.
Pickering felt an anger welling deep within him. How dare a politician talk down to me this way! Herneys idealism played fine in a boardroom, but in the real world, it got people killed.
Bill, Marjorie Tench interrupted, as if sensing Pickering was about to explode, we know you lost a child. We know this is a personal issue for you.
Pickering heard nothing but condescension in her tone.
But please remember, Tench said, that the White House is currently holding back a floodgate of investors who want us to open space to the private sector. If you ask me, for all its mistakes, NASA has been one hell of a friend to the intel community. You all might just want to count your blessings.
A rumble strip on the shoulder of the highway jolted Pickerings mind back to the present. His exit was coming up. As he approached the exit for D.C . . . he passed a bloody deer lying dead by the side of the road. He felt an odd hesitation . . . but he kept driving.
He had a rendezvous to keep.