My involvement with Orion started in the spring of 1961, when I was teaching history at a small college in Tennessee. It was the centennial of the Civil War, or as my parents had always insisted on calling it “the War between the States.” Everyone was writing about that conflict which had torn the nation apart, almost permanently. I was no exception. I had just come out with Shiloh: Grants Greatest Test and the work had gotten me some measure of fame. Indeed, President Kennedy had sent me a hand written note congratulating me. I suppose that book was part of the reason why he summoned me to have dinner with him that April when he told me that the world might be coming to an end.
I was doing a guest lecture at the Smithsonian in Washington. It was a Friday and the cherry blossoms were just starting the bloom. I had planned to stay over the weekend, before returning to Memphis and the classes I was teaching (Introduction to American History, the History of 19th Century America, Civil War and Reconstruction.) I was looking forward to many years of filling young minds with an appreciation of their heritage, as well as writing books. I was planning a book about Gettysburg and would spend the summer there doing research. I didn’t know, as I stood up before an audience of about two hundred or so, to talk about a desperate battle that took place almost a century ago, that this would be the last semester I would ever teach. And I never did write the Gettysburg book.
I first noticed the man sitting in the front row as I was describing the ferocious fighting in the Hornets Nest by Prentiss’ division. Most of the audience were either tourists or students, and were all pretty casually dressed. This man wore a dark, well tailored suit. He seemed to be watching me more than listening, taking in my face and my built. I was just thirty that year, tall, somewhat gangly, with chestnut hair. People who have seen me on TV in later years, with my gray beard and craggy expression, would not have credited it.
I did a question and answer. There were the usual questions from Civil War buffs about the minute details of various skirmishes and units. And the inevitable what if questions. What if Johnson had lived? What if Buell had been allowed to attack the Confederate flank? There were no questions about slavery or anything as embarrassing and crucial as that. In those days, when the Civil Rights Movement was just beginning to make itself heard, the Civil War was all about battles and people on both sides being heroic. The underlying issue was rarely if ever talked about.
The man in the dark suit approached me after I finished and thanked the audience. “Good lecture, Professor Neal.”
“Thank you,” I said, “but now, if you’ll excuse me-“
“I’m Special Agent Frankel, with the Secret Service.” He discretely showed his ID as everyone else was filing out of the auditorium.
“I don’t understand.”
“You’re in no trouble, I assure you. In fact, the man I work for would like to invite you to dinner.”
I don’t know of anyone who turns down an invitation to dine with the President, even someone who didn’t vote for him (I had, by the way.) “When?”
“About eight. We’ll have a car sent around to your hotel around seven thirty.”
I didn’t have to tell him where I was staying, of course. “Tell him I would be delighted,” I said.
* * *
The car came around to my hotel precisely at 7:30, not a minute before or after. Special Agent Frankel was seated in the back. On the way to the White House we made some small talk. I recall that Frankel was a baseball fan, specifically a Cubs fan. There were not that many teams in the south back then, unless you count the Houston Colt 45s (which many didn’t.) So I listened to his talk of stats and scores half out of politeness and half out of a desire to focus away from my nervousness about eating with the President.
We pulled through an iron gate, were checked by a uniformed guard, and then drove down a driveway to a small door where there was another guard. We got out and, with IDs checked again, passed through the door, then down a soft carpeted hall, then up an elevator. We went down another hall, and then through a door into the private dining room. Some stewards were setting the table, but otherwise we were alone.
“It’ll just be you and the President,” Frankel informed me. He glanced at his watch. “He ought to be here in a couple of minutes.”
Then he left me alone.
I spent a moment admiring my surroundings. The table was set with first-rate china and flatware. The room itself was decorated with exquisite taste. I remembered reading somewhere that the First lady had taken it as her task to totally redo the White House’s décor. If the private dining room reflected her taste, then I remember thinking that there were high hopes for her accomplishing that task well.
“Professor Neal, how are you doing?”
I looked up to see President Kennedy literally bound into the room, the picture of vigor and health that subsequent revelations belied. I shook his hand; it was a firm, though not crushing handshake, the handshake of a man who didn’t need to prove himself. “Very well, thank you, Mr. President,” I replied.
“Well, shall we get started?”
“By all means.”
We sat down and as if by signal, the stewards reappeared to serve the first course and to fill our wine glasses.
During dinner, we made a lot of small talk, primarily about the Civil War and the battle of Shiloh. I had heard that the President had been an indifferent student at Harvard, but it seemed to me that he had read my book thoroughly. He peppered me with questions, not only about the battle, but what its larger implications meant. “It is my opinion that Shiloh was the first real blood letting of the war,” he said. “That it finally convinced people that it was going to be long and costly.”
“Indeed,” I said, since that very conclusion was in the last chapter of the book.
“And that the conclusion of the war was not going to entail just the return of the status quo ante bellum,” he added. “That the problem was slavery was going to have to be addressed.”
I raised an eyebrow. It was a very good insight. “Yes, it could be so argued.”
“And we’re still dealing with the aftermath of that.”
There were no southerners which any education that would not pick up on that. “You mean Jim Crow.” Jim Crow referred to laws then extant in southern states that were designed to disenfranchise and otherwise oppress black people. It was, in some ways, the South’s attempt to deny the verdict of the Civil War.
“With the crisis that it is upon us, the country may not be able to turn away from that any longer.”
By “crisis” at that point, I thought he meant the Cold War, the struggle taking place at that time between the countries comprising the Free World and the Soviet Empire. That was not what he was talking about, as I soon found out. However, he was sounding me about, as a southern white man.
“I should think that common decency would sooner or later focus our attention on that particular problem,” I replied.
President Kennedy seemed to relax a little. He now knew my attitude on civil rights which, while popular among the faculty and student body of the college I taught at, would not be very well received elsewhere in the South at that time. I had seemed to have passed some kind of test.
The conversation passed to other, more non consequential subjects. I seem to remember President Kennedy telling an amusing story about his brother Bobby and Vice President Lyndon Johnson, but I forget what the point of it was. Between the main course and the dessert, a steward brought me the President’s copy of Grants Greatest Test to sign, which I did with a flourish.
After dessert, there was brandy, cigars, and more conversation. The President seemed pensive, as if he were thinking of something he dared not yet reveal to me. Then one of the stewards brought in a folder, which he handed to the President. He opened it, looked at what was inside, and said, “Thank you, Carlos.” The steward left the room and shut the door behind him. “What do you know about astronomy, Cornelius?” By this time he was on a first name basis with me. I never called him anything but “Mr. President.” “John” or “Jack” was reserved for family and very close friends.
“I had a course in college,” I said.
He shut the folder and handed it over to me. “Tell me what you think of this.”
I opened the folder. It contained a black and white photograph of a field of stars. One of them was circled. There was a caption “Damocles: February 12, 1961.” “I don’t understand.”
“You know who Damocles was?”
“An ancient Greek King who slept under a sword that hung by a thread.”
“Our more modern Damocles is what I am reliably informed is a nickel iron asteroid about eight miles in diameter. It is what astronomers call an Earth approaching object. That means its orbit around the sun occasionally intersects the Earth’s orbit.”
“This object was discovered last year and has been tracked ever since. Its path has been calculated. Three weeks ago I was informed that Damocles will hit the Earth sometime in the fall of the year 2001, about forty years from now, and will wipe out all life on this planet.”
He spoke those words in an even tone, as if he were announcing a storm that was coming. I set down my brandy glass and took the cigar out of my mouth. I felt very cold and in no little danger of my bowls loosening. I took hold of myself. I managed to ask, “My God, is that certain?”
“Checked and double checked.”
I suddenly realized that I was in this room for a purpose other than dinner and conversation. “What’s there to be done?”
“Done? Why, plenty Cornelius. And I’d like you to play a small part in it.”
* * *
I returned home to Memphis, carrying with me the most awful secret a man could ever be asked to keep. I was probably one of maybe two hundred people who knew, scientists, government officials, diplomats, a hand full of trusted others such as myself. I met with the Dean at the college and found out that the White House had already contacted him to smooth the path to my indefinite sabbatical. I could not tell anyone what I would be doing, not my family, not my closest friends.
The announcement to the world was scheduled to take place May 25th in the form of a speech before a joint session of Congress. Congressional leaders would already be informed that morning, as would the leaders of Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and a number of other countries. The rumor was that President Kennedy was going to announce some kind of space initiative in response to the recent flight of Yuri Gagarin around the Earth, a man to the Moon mission perhaps. What Kennedy did announce changed the history of the world.
I had already packed my house for a move down to Houston, where I would be based. My commission would be a roving one, with frequent trips to Washington, Florida, Nevada, and other places. I was in Washington for the speech and got a prime seat in the press gallery.
The President entered the chamber to applauding from the members of Congress, polite from the Republicans, more demonstrative from the Democrats. There were also members from the diplomatic corps, the Supreme Court, the cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, NASA Administrator James Webb. Mrs. Kennedy sat in the visitors’ gallery.
The President made his way to the podium, shook hands with Vice President Johnson and Speaker Rayburn, then turned to the audience. The applauding died down slowly but surely as the people in the chamber took their seats.
“The Constitution imposes upon me the obligation to ‘from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union.'” The President said “While this has traditionally been interpreted as an annual affair, this tradition has been broken in extraordinary times. These are extraordinary times. And we face an extraordinary challenge. Our strength as well as our convictions has imposed upon this nation the role of leader in freedom’s cause. Circumstances have now imposed upon us the role of leader in an even greater cause.
“Less than eight months ago, astronomers at the Mount Palomar Observatory discovered an asteroid which has been subsequently named Damocles. Further observations and calculations determined that this celestial body has an eccentric orbit that from time to time crosses the Earths orbit.
“I have been informed that scientists have calculated that Damocles will strike the Earth some time in the fall of 2001, just over forty years from this date. It has a sufficient mass and velocity to effect the destruction of all life on this planet. Unless something is done, our civilization, our species has but forty years to live.”
He paused to let his words sink in. For the first second, I could hear a gentle stirring in the chamber. Some people, who had obviously not paying attention, seemed startled, as if to say, “What was that he said?” Others were in various kinds of shock, muttering, exclaiming, in one case close to where I was sitting, praying.
Then the President resumed speaking, his words cutting through the gathering hubbub like a sword.
“If you have surmised that I have issued a death sentence to the human race, put that surmise out of your minds. I do not propose, while imparting to you this grave news, that the human race go gently into that good night. I believe that we have the resources and the will the effect not only our salvation but the salvation of every human yet to be born.
“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself, before this century is out, to the goal of diverting the Damocles asteroid to a safe orbit so that it will spare the Earth.
“Next, I believe that a parallel effort should be mounted for the establishment of human colonies on the Moon, Mars, and whatever other celestial bodies are deemed appropriate so that, should the first effort fail, the human species and human civilization will survive the destruction of life on Earth.
“Even today the means to accomplish these goals are being developed. I am announcing today that for the past four years, a top secret project called Orion has been conducted with the idea of harnessing the awful power of nuclear explosives as a means to propel space craft. As part of the goal of preserving the human race from the threat of Damocles, this project will now become a mandate of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Orion will now become the centerpiece mission for NASA, as a means to not only explore and settle the heavens, but to save human life on Earth.
“I therefore ask the Congress, above and beyond the increases I have earlier requested for space activities, to provide the funds which are needed to meet this all important goal. Let it be clear–and this is a judgment which the Members of the Congress must finally make–let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs. We cannot go half way nor reduce our sights in the face of difficulty. The fate of the human race depends on our perseverance. .
“Now this is a choice which this country must make, and I am confident that under the leadership of the Space Committees of the Congress, and the Appropriating Committees, that you will consider the matter carefully. But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take this action, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful.
“This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel. New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further–unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in this urgent and necessary enterprise.
“The stakes are high, the highest in history. Either all of history ends with the coming of the new millennium, or the challenge presented to us by Damocles will be just the beginning of a new epoch of human civilization. I pledge to you now that every ounce of strength and will from this government shall be exerted to meeting this challenge. We have been tested before, in both war and peace. With God’s help, we shall meet this test as well. Thank you.”
The chamber erupted. Shock and horror had, with a few minutes a little bit of eloquence on the part of the President, been replaced by resolve. I felt myself swept up in it, as I leaped to my feet and slammed my hands together to join in the general ovation.
And so that is how it began.
* * *
There is an old saying that nothing concentrates the mind of a man more than the certain knowledge that he is to be hanged in the morning. And so with a single man, so with all mankind.
The newspapers, of course, ran the story front page, with great big headlines. They all used the illustrations that the White House had released of what an Orion space craft would look like. It was a conical vehicle, with a pusher plate and a device to eject the nuclear bombs one after the other, to explode to the stern of the ship, the explosion pushing on the plate, which in turn would transfer its forward momentum to the space craft. Trip times to-say-Mars would be reduced from months to weeks.
Television news blotted out all other programming in order to discuss the Damocles threat for several days. These shows mainly consisted of an array of experts being interviewed about the matter. Von Braun, who apparently was on the secret committee that evaluated Orion as the solution, was a favorite. I watched him on TV being interviewed by Walter Cronkite, who at that time was not even the anchor of the Evening News. He did a good job of explaining the principle of Orion and how it was superior even to the Rover nuclear rocket that was then also under development. The world also got to see people like Arthur C. Clarke, Freeman Dyson (who had involved with Orion from the beginning), and others both famous and obscure.
All of this television had a soothing effect, I think. Strange, since the sum total of human space flight experience at that time consisted of one orbit for Yuri Gagarin and a fifteen minute sub orbital hop for Alan Shepard. Now we were talking about sending huge ships, with one or two hundred people each, unimaginable distances. But it was going to have to be done. We were used to the idea of people being able to do things with the right will and resources. Had we not split the atom and broken the sound barrier in living memory? We would conquer space just the same.
For the most part, religion had a soothing effect in those first few days as well. The Church of the Last Days was still in the future. Churches and other houses of worship were filled to over flowing for over a week after the speech. Pope John XXIII gave a homily in St. Peter’s Square to an audience of almost a million people entreating God’s help in the coming crisis. Protestant ministers made similar sermons to their flocks. My favorite was tucked into a sermon by Reverend Billy Graham at one of his crusades in Madison Square Gardens less than a week after the announcement.
“The Lord God has sent to us a sign, not as a punishment, but as a test and a plea for an awakening. With His help, we shall meet this challenge, guided by His strength and by the ingenuity that He gave us.”
The international reaction was also, for the most part, positive. Britain, France, and dozens of other countries offered pledges of support. The Soviets were silent, as were the Red Chinese. As it turned out, they had their own plans concerning Damocles.
The political leadership on both sides of the aisle was supportive as well. Senator Goldwater, who was already being mentioned as President Kennedy’s opponent in 1964, said, “We are united in meeting this threat, for under the hand of doom there are no Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, there are just Americans, just as we were when we defeated Nazism and Japanese militarism, just as we are in opposing Soviet Communism.”
The world seemed to be drawing together in the face of the threat of annihilation. In a way it was a heady thing to witness, knowing that we were all in this thing together.
Too bad it wasn’t destined to last.
Children of Orion – Chapter 2
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.