It’s an odd fact that the biggest science story of the twenty-first century—probably the biggest ever—broke in that tabloid of tabloids, The National Bedrock.
I was in the middle of conducting a NASA press conference several days before the Minerva lift-off—the Return to the Moon—and I was fielding softball questions like: “Is it true that if everything goes well, the Mars mission will be moved up?” and “What is Marcia Beckett going to say when she becomes the first person to set foot on lunar soil since Eugene Cernan turned off the lights fifty-four years ago?”
President Gorman and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Alexandrov, were scheduled to talk to the press from the White house an hour later, so I was strictly a set-up guy. Or that was the plan, anyway, until Warren Cole mentioned the dome.
It was a good time for NASA. We all knew the dangers inherent in overconfidence, but two orbital missions had gone up without a hitch. Either of them could have landed and waved back at us, and the rumor was that Sid Myshko had almost taken the game into his own hands, and that the crew had put it to a vote whether they’d ignore the protocol and go down to the surface regardless of the mission parameters. Sid and his five crewmates denied the story, of course.
I’d just made the point to the pool of reporters that it was Richard Nixon who’d turned off the lights—not the astronaut Eugene Cernan—when Warren Cole began waving his hand. Cole was the AP journalist, seated in his customary spot up front. He was frowning, his left hand in the air, staring down at something on his lap that I couldn’t see.
“Warren?” I said. “What’ve you got?”
“Jerry….” He looked up, making no effort to suppress a grin. “Have you seen the story that the Bedrock’s running?” He held up his iPad.
That started a few people checking their own devices.
“No, I haven’t,” I said, hoping he was making it up. “I don’t usually get to Bedrock this early in the week.” Somebody snorted. Then a wave of laughter rippled through the room. “What?” I said. My first thought had been that we were about to have another astronaut scandal, like the one the month before with Barnaby Salvator and half the strippers on the Beach. “What are they saying?”
“The Russians released more lunar orbital pictures from the sixties,” He snickered. “They’ve got one here from the far side of the Moon. If you can believe this, there’s a dome back there.”
“Yeah.” He flipped open his notebook. “Does NASA have a comment?”
“You’re kidding, right?” I said.
He twisted the iPad, raised it higher, and squinted at it. “Yep. It’s a dome all right.”
The reporters in the pool all had a good chuckle, and then they looked up at me. “Well,” I said, “I guess Buck Rogers beat us there after all.”
“It looks legitimate, Jerry,” Cole said, but he was still laughing.
I didn’t have to tell him what we all knew: That it was a doctored picture and that it must have been a slow week for scandals.
If the image was doctored, the deed had to have been done by the Russians. Moscow had released the satellite images only a few hours before and forwarded them to us without comment. Apparently nobody on either side had noticed anything unusual. Except the Bedrock staff.
I hadn’t looked at the images prior to the meeting. I mean, once you’ve seen a few square miles of lunar surface you’ve pretty much seen it all. The dome—if that’s really what it was—appeared on every image in the series. They were dated April, 1967.
The Bedrock carried the image on its front page, where they usually show the latest movie celebrity who’s being accused of cheating, or has gone on a drunken binge. It depicted a crater wall, with a large arrow graphic in the middle of a dark splotch pointing at a dome that you couldn’t have missed anyhow. The headline read:
ALIENS ON THE MOON
Russian Pictures Reveal Base on Far Side
Images Taken Before Apollo
I sighed and pushed back from my desk. We just didn’t need this.
But it did look like an artificial construct. The thing was on the edge of a crater, shaped like the head of a bullet. It was either a reflection, an illusion of some sort, or it was a fraud. But the Russians had no reason to set themselves up as a laughing stock. And it sure as hell looked real.
I was still staring at it when the phone rang. It was Mary, NASA’s administrator. My boss. “Jerry,” she said, “I heard what happened at the press conference this morning.”
“What’s going on, Mary?”
“Damned if I know. Push some buttons. See what you can find out. It’s going to come up again when the President’s out there. We need to have an answer for him.”
Vasili Koslov was my public relations counterpart at Russia’s space agency. He was in Washington with the presidential delegation. And he was in full panic mode when I got him on the phone. “I saw it, Jerry,” he said. “I have no idea what this is about. I just heard about it a few minutes ago. I’m looking at it now. It does look like a dome, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. “Did your people tamper with the satellite imagery?”
“They must have. I have a call in. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear something.”
I called Jeanie Escovar in the Archives. “Jeanie, have you seen the National Bedrock story yet?”
“No,” she said. “My God, what is it this time?”
“Not what you think. I’m sending it to you now. Could you have somebody check to see where this place is—?”
“What place? Oh, wait—I got it.”
“Find out where it is and see if you can get me some imagery of the same area. From our satellites.”
I heard her gasp. Then she started laughing.
“Jeanie, this is serious.”
“Why? You don’t actually believe there’s a building up there, do you?”
“Somebody’s going to ask the President about it. They have a press conference going on in about twenty minutes. We want him to be able to say: ‘It’s ridiculous, here’s a picture of the area, and you’ll notice there’s nothing there.’ We want him to be able to say ‘The Bedrock’s running an optical illusion.’ But he’ll have to do it diplomatically. And without embarrassing Alexandrov.”
“Good luck on that.”
The Bedrock story was already getting attention on the talk shows. Angela Hart, who at that time anchored The Morning Report for the World Journal, was interviewing a physicist from MIT. The physicist stated that the picture could not be accurate. “Probably a practical joke,” he said. “Or a trick of the light.”
But Angela wondered why the Russians would release the picture at all. “They had to know it would get a lot of attention,” she said. And, of course, though she didn’t mention it, it would become a source of discomfort for the Russian president and the two cosmonauts who were among the Minerva crew.
Vasili was in a state of shock when he called back. “They didn’t know about the dome,” he said. “Nobody noticed. But it is on the original satellite imagery. Our people were just putting out a lot of the stuff from the Luna missions. Imagery that hadn’t been released before. I can’t find anybody who knows anything about it. But I’m still trying.”
“Vasili,” I said, “somebody must have seen it at the time. In 1967.”
“You guess? You think it’s possible something like this came in and nobody picked up on it?”
“No, I’m not suggesting that at all, Jerry. I just—I don’t know what I’m suggesting. I’ll get back to you when I have something more.”
Minutes later, Jeanie called: “It’s the east wall of the Cassegrain Crater.”
“I’ve forwarded NASA imagery of the same area.”
I switched on the monitor and ran the images. There was the same crater wall, the same pock-marked moonscape. But no dome. Nothing at all unusual.
Dated July, 1968. More than a year after the Soviet imagery.
I called Mary and told her: The Russians just screwed up.
“The President can’t say that.”
“All he has to say is that NASA has no evidence of any dome or anything else on the far side of the Moon. Probably he should just turn it into a joke. Make some remark about setting up a Martian liaison unit.”
She didn’t think it was funny.
When the subject came up at the presidential press conference, Gorman and Alexandrov both simply had a good laugh. Alexandrov blamed it on Khrushchev, and the laughter got louder. Then they moved on to how the Minerva mission—the long-awaited Return to the Moon—marked the beginning of a new era for the world.
The story kicked around in the tabloids for two or three more days. The Washington Post ran an op-ed using the dome to demonstrate how gullible we all are when the media says anything. Then Cory Abbott, who’d just won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Einstein in Albert and Me, crashed his car into a street light and blacked out the entire town of Dekker, California. And just like that the dome story was gone.
On the morning of the launch, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, issued a statement that the image was a result of defective technology. The Minerva lifted off on schedule and, while the world watched, it crossed to the Moon and completed a few orbits. Its lander touched down gently on the Mare Maskelyne. Marcia Beckett surprised everyone when she demurred leading the way out through the airlock, sending instead Cosmonaut Yuri Petrov, who descended and then signaled his crewmates to join him.
When all were assembled on the regolith, Petrov made the statement that, in the light of later events, has become immortal: “We are here on the Moon because, during the last century, we avoided the war that would have destroyed us all. And we have come together. Now we stand as never before, united for all mankind.”
I wasn’t especially impressed at the time. It sounded like the usual generalized nonsense. Which shows you what my judgment is worth.
I watched on my office monitor. And as the ceremony proceeded, I looked past the space travelers, across the barren wasteland of the Mare Maskelyne, wondering which was the shortest path to the Cassegrain crater.
I knew I should have just let it go, but I couldn’t. I could imagine no explanation for the Russians doctoring their satellite imagery. Vasili told me that everyone with whom he’d spoken was shocked. That the images had been dug out of the archives and distributed without inspection. And, as far as could be determined, without anyone distorting them. “I just don’t understand it, Jerry,” he said.
Mary told me not to worry about it. “We have more important things to do,” she said.
There was no one left at NASA from the 1960s. In fact, I knew of only one person living at Cape Kennedy who had been part of the Agency when Apollo 11 went to the Moon: Amos Kelly, who’d been one of my grandfather’s buddies. He was still in the area, where he served with the Friends of NASA, a group of volunteers who lent occasional support but mostly threw parties. I looked him up. He’d come to the Agency in 1965 as a technician. Eventually, he’d become one of the operational managers.
He was in his mid-eighties, but he sounded good. “Sure, Jerry, I remember you. It’s been a long time,” he said, when I got him on the phone. I’d been a little kid when he used to stop by to pick up my grandfather for an evening of poker. “What can I do for you?”
“This is going to sound silly, Amos.”
“Nothing sounds silly to me. I used to work for the government.”
“Did you see the story in the tabloids about the dome?”
“How could I miss it?”
“You ever hear anything like that before?”
“You mean did we think there were Martians on the Moon?” He laughed, turned away to tell someone that the call was for him, and then laughed again. “Is that a serious question, Jerry?”
“I guess not.”
“Good. By the way, you’ve done pretty well for yourself at the Agency. Your granddad would have been proud.”
He told me how much he missed the old days, missed my grandfather, how they’d had a good crew. “Best years of my life. I could never believe they’d just scuttle the program the way they did.”
Finally he asked what the Russians had said about the images. I told him what Vasili told me. “Well,” he said, “maybe they haven’t changed that much after all.”
Twenty minutes later he called back. “I was reading the story in the Bedrock. It says that the object was in the Cassegrain Crater.”
“Yes. That’s correct.”
“There was talk of a Cassegrain Project at one time. Back in the sixties. I don’t know what it was supposed to be. Whether it was anything more than a rumor. Nobody seemed to know anything definitive about it. I recall at the time thinking it was one of those things so highly classified that even its existence was off the table.”
“The Cassegrain Project.”
“But you have no idea what it was about?”
“None. I’m sorry. Wish I could help.”
“Would you tell me if you knew?”
“It’s a long time ago, Jerry. I can’t believe security would still be an issue.”
“Amos, you were pretty high in the Agency—”
“Not that high.”
“Do you remember anything else?”
“Nothing. Nada. As far as I know, nothing ever came of any of it, so the whole thing eventually went away.”
Searching NASA’s archives on “Cassegrain” yielded only data about the crater. So I took to wandering around the facility, talking offhandedly with senior employees. It must feel good to see us back on the Moon, huh, Ralph? Makes all the frustration worthwhile. By the way, did you ever hear of a Cassegrain Project?
They all laughed. Crazy Russians.
On the day the Minerva slipped out of lunar orbit and started home, Mary called me into her office. “We’ll want to get the crew onstage for the press when they get back, Jerry. You might give the staging some thought.”
“Okay. Will it be at Edwards?”
“Negative. We’re going to do it here at the Cape.” We talked over some of the details, the scheduling, guest speakers, points we’d want to make with the media. Then as I was getting ready to leave, she stopped me. “One more thing. The Cassegrain business—” I straightened and came to attention. Mary Gridley was a no-nonsense hard-charger. She was in her fifties, and years of dealing with bureaucratic nonsense had left her with little patience. She was physically diminutive, but she could probably have intimidated the Pope. “—I want you to leave it alone.”
She picked up a pen, put it back down, and stared at me. “Jerry, I know you’ve been asking around about that idiot dome. Listen, you’re good at what you do. You’ll probably enjoy a long, happy career with us. But that won’t happen if people stop taking you seriously. You understand what I mean?”
After the shuttle landing and subsequent celebration, I went on the road. “We need to take advantage of the moment,” Mary said. “There’ll never be a better time to get some good press.”
So I did a PR tour, giving interviews, addressing prayer breakfasts and Rotary meetings, doing what I could to raise the consciousness of the public. NASA wanted Moonbase. It was the next logical step. Should have had it decades ago and would have if the politicians hadn’t squandered the nation’s resources on pointless wars and interventions. But it would be expensive, and we hadn’t succeeded yet in getting the voters on board. That somehow had become my responsibility.
In Seattle, I appeared at a Chamber of Commerce dinner with Arnold Banner, an astronaut who’d never gotten higher than the space station. But nevertheless he was an astronaut, and he hailed from the Apollo era. During the course of the meal I asked whether he’d ever heard of a Cassegrain Project. He said something about tabloids and gave me a disapproving look.
We brought in astronauts wherever we could. In Los Angeles, at a Marine charities fundraiser, we had both Marcia Beckett and Yuri Petrov, which would have been the highlight of the tour, except for Frank Allen.
Frank was in his nineties. He looked exhausted. His veins bulged and I wasn’t sure he didn’t need oxygen.
He was the fourth of the Apollo-era astronauts I talked with during those two weeks. And when I asked about the Cassegrain Project, his eyes went wide and his mouth tightened. Then he regained control. “Cassandra,” he said, looking past me into a distant place. “It’s classified.”
“Not Cassandra, Frank. Cassegrain.”
“Oh. Yeah. Of course.”
“I have a clearance.”
“Just give me a hint. What do you know?”
“Jerry, I’ve already said too much. Even its existence is classified.”
When I got back to the Cape I did a search on Cassandra and found that a lot of people with that name had worked for the Agency over the years. Other Cassandras had made contributions in various ways, leading programs to get kids interested in space science, collaborating with NASA physicists in analyzing the data collected by space-born telescopes, editing publications to make NASA more accessible to the lay public. They’d been everywhere. You couldn’t bring in a NASA guest speaker without discovering a Cassandra somewhere among the people who’d made the request. Buried among the names so deeply that I almost missed it was a single entry: The Cassandra Project, storage 27176B Redstone.
So secret its existence was classified?
The reference was to the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama where NASA stores rocket engines, partially-completed satellites, control panels from test stands, and a multitude of other artifacts dating back to Apollo. I called them.
A baritone voice informed me I had reached the NASA Storage Facility. “Sgt. Saber speaking.”
I couldn’t resist smiling at the name, but I knew he’d heard all the jokes. I identified myself. Then: “Sergeant, you have a listing for the Cassandra Project.” I gave him the number. “Can I get access to the contents?”
“One minute, please, Mr. Carter.”
While I waited, I glanced around the office at the photos of Neil Armstrong and Lawrence Bergman and Marcia Beckett. In one, I was standing beside Bergmann, who’d been the guy who’d sold the President on returning to the Moon. In another, I was standing by while Marcia spoke with some Alabama school kids during a tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center. Marcia was a charmer of the first order. I’ve always suspected she got the Minerva assignment partially because they knew the public would love her.
“When were you planning to come, Mr. Carter?”
“I’m not sure yet. Within the next week or so.”
“Let us know in advance and there’ll be no problem.”
“It’s not classified, then?”
“No, sir. I’m looking at its history now. It was originally classified, but that was removed by the Restricted Access Depository Act more than twenty years ago.”
I had to get through another round of ceremonies and press conferences before I could get away. Finally, things quieted down. The astronauts went back to their routines, the VIPs went back to whatever it was they normally do, and life on the Cape returned to normal. I put in for leave.
“You deserve it,” Mary said.
Next day, armed with a copy of the Restricted Access Depository Act, I was on my way to Los Angeles to pay another visit to a certain elderly retired astronaut.
“I can’t believe it,” Frank Allen said.
He lived with his granddaughter and her family of about eight, in Pasadena. She shepherded us into her office—she was a tax expert of some sort—brought some lemonade, and left us alone.
“What can’t you believe? That they declassified it?”
“That the story never got out in the first place.” Frank was back at the desk. I’d sunk into a leather settee.
“What’s the story, Frank? Was the dome really there?”
“NASA doctored its own Cassegrain imagery? To eliminate all traces?”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“So what do you know?”
“They sent us up to take a look. In late 1968.” He paused. “We landed almost on top of the damned thing.”
“Before Apollo 11.”
I sat there in shock. And I’ve been around a while, so I don’t shock easily.
“They advertised the flight as a test run, Jerry. It was supposed to be purely an orbital mission. Everything else, the dome, the descent, everything was top secret. Didn’t happen.”
“You actually got to the dome?”
He hesitated. A lifetime of keeping his mouth shut was getting in the way. “Yes,” he said. “We came down about a half mile away. Max was brilliant.”
Max Donnelly. The lunar module pilot. “What happened?”
“I remember thinking the Russians had beaten us. They’d gotten to the Moon and we hadn’t even known about it.
“There weren’t any antennas or anything. Just a big, silvery dome. About the size of a two-story house. No windows. No hammer and sickle markings. Nothing. Except a door.
“We had sunlight. The mission had been planned so we wouldn’t have to approach it in the dark.” He shifted his position in the chair and bit down on a grunt.
“You okay, Frank?” I asked.
“My knees. They don’t work as well as they used to.” He rubbed the right one, then rearranged himself—gently this time. “We didn’t know what to expect. Max said he thought the thing was pretty old because there were no tracks in the ground. We walked up to the front door. It had a knob. I thought the place would be locked, but I tried it and the thing didn’t move at first but then something gave way and I was able to pull the door open.”
“What was inside?”
“A table. There was a cloth on the table. And something flat under the cloth. And that’s all there was.”
“Not a thing.” He shook his head. “Max lifted the cloth. Under it was a rectangular plate. Made from some kind of metal.” He stopped and stared at me. “There was writing on it.”
“Writing? What did it say?”
“I don’t know. Never found out. It looked like Greek. We brought the plate back home with us and turned it over to the bosses. Next thing they called us in and debriefed us. Reminded us it was all top secret. Whatever the thing said, it must have scared the bejesus out of Nixon and his people. Because they never said anything, and I guess the Russians didn’t either.”
“You never heard anything more at all?”
“Well, other than the next Apollo mission, which went back and destroyed the dome. Leveled it.”
“How do you know?”
“I knew the crew. We talked to each other, right? They wouldn’t say it directly. Just shook their heads: Nothing to worry about anymore.”
Outside, kids were shouting, tossing a football around. “Greek?”
“That’s what it looked like.”
“A message from Plato.”
He just shook his head as if to say: Who knew?
“Well, Frank, I guess that explains why they called it the Cassandra Project.”
“She wasn’t a Greek, was she?”
“You have another theory?”
“Maybe Cassegrain was too hard for the people in the Oval Office to pronounce.”
I told Mary what I knew. She wasn’t happy. “I really wish you’d left it alone, Jerry.”
“There’s no way I could have done that.”
“Not now, anyhow.” She let me see her frustration. “You know what it’ll mean for the Agency, right? If NASA lied about something like this, and it becomes public knowledge, nobody will ever trust us again.”
“It was a long time ago, Mary. Anyhow, the Agency wasn’t lying. It was the Administration.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Good luck selling that one to the public.”
The NASA storage complex at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville is home to rockets, a lunar landing vehicle, automated telescopes, satellites, a space station, and a multitude of other devices that had kept the American space program alive, if not particularly robust, over almost seventy years. Some were housed inside sprawling warehouses; others occupied outdoor exhibition sites.
I parked in the shadow of a Saturn V, the rocket that had carried the Apollo missions into space. I’ve always been impressed with the sheer audacity of anybody who’d be willing to sit on top of one of those things while someone lit the fuse. Had it been up to me, we’d probably never have lifted off at Kitty Hawk.
I went inside the Archive Office, got directions and a pass, and fifteen minutes later entered one of the warehouses. An attendant escorted me past cages and storage rooms filled with all kinds of boxes and crates. Somewhere in the center of it all, we stopped at a cubicle while the attendant compared my pass with the number on the door. The interior was visible through a wall of wire mesh. Cartons were piled up, all labeled. Several were open, with electronic equipment visible inside them.
The attendant unlocked the door and we went in. He turned on an overhead light and did a quick survey, settling on a box that was one of several on a shelf. My heart rate started to pick up while he looked at the tag. “This is it, Mr. Carter,” he said. “Cassandra.”
“Is this everything?”
He checked his clipboard. “This is the only listing we have for the Cassandra Project, sir.”
There was no lock. He raised the hasp on the box, lifted the lid, and stood back to make room. He showed no interest in the contents. He probably did this all the time, so I don’t know why that surprised me.
Inside, I could see a rectangular object wrapped in plastic. I couldn’t see what it was, but of course I knew. My heart was pounding by then. The object was about a foot and a half wide and maybe half as high. And it was heavy. I carried it over to a table and set it down. Wouldn’t do to drop it. Then I unwrapped it.
The metal was black, polished, reflective, even in the half-light from the overhead bulb. And sure enough, there were the Greek characters. Eight lines of them.
The idea that Plato was saying hello seemed suddenly less far-fetched. I took a picture. Several pictures. Finally, reluctantly, I rewrapped it and put it back in the box.
“So,” said Frank, “what did it say?”
“I have the translation here.” I fished it out of my pocket but he shook his head.
“My eyes aren’t that good, Jerry. Just tell me who wrote it. And what it says.”
We were back in the office at Frank’s home in Pasadena. It was a chilly, rainswept evening. Across the street, I could see one of his neighbors putting out the trash.
“It wasn’t written by the Greeks.”
“I didn’t think it was.”
“Somebody came through a long time ago. Two thousand years or so. They left the message. Apparently they wrote it in Greek because it must have looked like their best chance to leave something we’d be able to read. Assuming we ever reached the Moon.”
“So what did it say?”
“It’s a warning.”
The creases in Frank’s forehead deepened. “Is the sun going unstable?”
“No.” I looked down at the translation. “It says that no civilization, anywhere, has been known to survive the advance of technology.”
Frank stared at me. “Say that again.”
“They all collapse. They fight wars. Or they abolish individual death, which apparently guarantees stagnation and an exit. I don’t know. They don’t specify.
“Sometimes the civilizations become too vulnerable to criminals. Or the inhabitants become too dependent on the technology and lose whatever virtue they might have had. Anyway, the message says that no technological civilization, anywhere, has been known to get old. Nothing lasts more than a few centuries—our centuries—once technological advancement begins. Which for us maybe starts with the invention of the printing press.
“The oldest known civilization lasted less than a thousand years.”
Frank frowned. He wasn’t buying it. “They survived. Hell, they had an interstellar ship of some kind.”
“They said they were looking for a place to start again. Where they came from is a shambles.”
“It says that maybe, if we know in advance, we can sidestep the problem. That’s why they left the warning.”
“If they survive, they say they’ll come back to see how we’re doing.”
We were both silent for a long while.
“So what happens now?” Frank said.
“We’ve reclassified everything. It’s top secret again. I shouldn’t be telling you this. But I thought—”
He rearranged himself in the chair. Winced and rotated his right arm. “Maybe that’s why they called it Cassandra,” he said. “Wasn’t she the woman who always brought bad news?”
“I think so.”
“There was something else about her—”
“Yeah—the bad news,” I said. “When she gave it, nobody would listen.”
© 2010 Cryptic, Inc.