There were a half a dozen of us in the tiny conference room in the modified Boeing 707 known as Air Force One, flying over the south eastern United States toward Houston. These included President Kennedy, Defense Secretary McNamara, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Maxwell Taylor, NASA Administrator James Webb, and I. I had been in Washington most of the past week, helping to prepare for the event at Rice University. That gave me the privilege of flying in Air Force One back to Houston and attending this briefing.
Administrator Webb was indicating a screen where slides were being projected. “We’ll be able to wrap of Mercury late next year, with Francine Berry’s flight. Then, a year and a half later, we can start on Mercury II, which we are going to redesignate as Gemini. We’ll be able to test long duration flights, space walks, rendezvous, and docking in about eight flights over two years.
“The development of the Saturn launcher is proceeding on schedule. Along with it is the passenger transport third stage that can send as many as twenty astronauts to low Earth orbit. This will be our means of crew transfers with an Orion V once it is deployed in space. We’ll have a cargo transport capable of carrying the nuclear bomb fuel for resupply purposes. We hope these will be ready in the 1966-68 time range.
“The first unmanned, nuclear bomb powered Orion will launch next year. After instrument check out in Low Earth Orbit, it will be launched to Lunar orbit and will begin a year long remote observation program. Eventually it will land at a site we have selected for the first lunar settlement. The Orion 2A, as we’ll call it, will be loaded with scientific instruments, water, oxygen, and a small, nuclear power plant that will be used by future settlers. A year later we shall launch the unmanned Orion 2B to Mars with a similar mission plan.”
“When do we send people?” asked the President.
“That all depends on the Saturn launched resupply vehicles. Once an Orion is launched, it will stay in space and be serviced by other space craft. For planning purposes, a two thousand ton Orion 5 with a twenty person crew is scheduled to launch in the summer of 1968 and will land on the Moon about three miles away from the Orion 2A. The twenty person crew will spend six months to a year using material they will have brought along to start assembling the lunar colony. About a year later we can start shuttling up the permanent colonists, two hundred at a time.
“The first humans to Mars go about 1975, and start building up the colony in a similar fashion. By 1980, we’ll have thriving communities on two other worlds, with a little luck.”
“What about Damocles?”
“That’s the question, Mr. President. Damocles is still out beyond the orbit of Pluto which, even with an Orion ship, is a several year trip. So far our longest experience of people in space is a fifth of a day.”
“I remember being told that the further out we can get to it, the less we’ll have to divert it,” McNamara said.
“That’s true,” Webb replied. “But we have no idea how to divert an asteroid.”
“Nuke it,” General Taylor said.
“We could,” Webb replied. “But that might just get us bombarded with a lot of smaller rocks rather than one big one. We need to launch a probe, similar to the Mariner that is now on the way to Venus, to fly by Damocles and examine it. Our remote observations indicate that it is a nickel-iron rock, incredibly massive. Then we can start to figure out how we’re going to divert it.”
“When can I tell the American people we will attempt to divert Damocles?” the President asked.
“For planning purposes, we’ll looking at a 1980-81 launch with an arrival at about 1984-85. But it’s not definitive.”
“Definitive enough,” President Kennedy said evening, “Dr. Neal, what do you think?”
“I’m just the observer here, Mr. President,” I said.
“You’ve been observing a great deal, which makes your input invaluable.”
“Mr. President, most people are confident that we can deal with Damocles. We’ve met and overcome challenges before. A small, but significant number of people are convinced, however, that everything is coming to an end in the fall of 2001. People who believe that will start to behave in ways I cannot predict. So, I believe that every little bit of hope you can give people, the better. That’s twenty years before it’s due to hit, so even if the first mission fails or the date slips, there is a cushion.”
The President nodded. “My thoughts exactly, Dr. Neal.”
* * *
The Rice University speech had been planned for months. It had taken on a renewed urgency with the fight being led in the Senate against funding for Orion by Senator Proxmire. The initial shock of the Damocles announcement had worn off, to some extent, and some people were having second thoughts about the huge program President Kennedy was proposing to deal with the situation. The nuclear disarmament movement was starting to conduct demonstrations, mostly in Europe, but some had been noted in the United States, against using a space craft propelled by nuclear bombs.
It was time, therefore, for the President to come out and defend the program. He choose Rice Stadium in September, filled it up with students, union workers, and invited guests. Marion and I sat practically on the front row.
“For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond,” he said. “It is from there that the greatest peril this planet has faced is coming that, if we do nothing, we destroy all life on our world. But it is also from the heavens that the greatest promise beckons. We have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. The only war we shall take into space is against the threat that nature herself has presented.
“We have vowed that we shall set forth on this new ocean not only to save life here on Earth, but to spread life beyond this Earth, so that nevermore shall all be threatened by some catastrophe, whether wrought by nature or by man. Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for life, peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.
“We set sail on this new sea because there is not only our species to be saved, but new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.
“We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to Mars. We choose to go to the asteroid Damocles. We choose to do these things, because we must. It will not be easy to do these things, but hard. But that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
That last line brought the entire crowd to its feet. The cheering was like the roar of a mighty ocean.
“Before this decade is out, people will go to the Moon to prepare the way for future colonists. In the middle of the next decade, people will go to Mars. In the year 1981, twenty years before Damocles is due to destroy our world, an Orion ship, propelled by the same nuclear explosives that today threaten the future existence of mankind as surely as that huge asteroid, shall depart to divert that asteroid. What an irony it is that the instrumentation that man has created that might end man will prove his salvation.”
The appropriations passed later that fall by a goodly margin. In the meantime, I spent most of that season writing the first volume of my history, entitled: In the Shadow of Damocles. October and November of 1962 passed without incident. I sent the completed manuscript to the publisher just after the beginning of December.
There was not much to do that month. The following year of 1963 would be busy, though, with two more Mercury flights and the launch of the first nuclear bomb propelled Orion. In the meantime, my bride was pregnant with our first child, which was due in the spring. Fortunately, between our incomes, we had enough to hire a house keeper, which meant that Marion would not have to quit her teaching job to be a full time mom. Day care for children was a service that was few and far between in the early sixties and we did not have any close relatives who lived in Houston to care for a child while we were doing careers.
The galleys for the book came back for my examination in March. My publisher informed me that there was enough interest for a two hundred thousand copy first printing, Versions in French, German, and Italian were already in the works. Just to compare, by that time my Civil War book had sold perhaps thirty thousand copies. That was a respectable amount, but hardly best seller territory. Publication day was May 1st.
I was in New York that day for a full range of events surrounding the launch of the book, including a signing at a major book store and an appearance on the Tonight Show. I had just arrived at the book store and was doing a meet and greet with the manager and some of the employees when a car came roaring up the Manhattan street and two men in dark suits jumped out. One of them approached me through the crowd.
“Professor Neal?” he asked.
“I’m Special Agent Hendricks with the Secret Service.” He flashed his ID. “You need to come with us, sir.”
“In the car, sir.”
Accompanied by the two agents and before the shocked eyes of the waiting crowd, I walked out of the store and got into the car. The car roared off. I noticed a police motorcycle escort taking positions.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“It’s the Russians, sir. They’ve launched their own Orion ship. And it has a crew.”
* * *
They took me to an air field, where a fighter jet was waiting. I was handed a flight suit and a helmet and bundled into the rear seat behind the pilot. After what seemed just a few minutes later of break neck, super sonic flight, we touched down at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. A helicopter waited to take me to the White House. It was in the chopper that I was briefed by a White House aid.
“They’re calling their ship the Potemkin,” he told me. “It took off from their nuclear test site at Kazakstan last night and is now in a two hundred mile orbit. We don’t know the size or tonnage, but Tass is claiming a crew of a hundred.”
“A hundred cosmonauts?” I exclaimed. “At once?”
“That’s their claim at any rate. Nothing confirmed.”
I was stunned, as I gathered the rest of the world was. The helicopter landed on the south lawn of the White House and I was hustled to the Oval Office where the President and a gaggle of cabinet secretaries, staff aids, and others were watching the coverage on television.
“The Soviet space going battleship will be visible over much of North America when night falls,” Walter Cronkite was saying. “The only word we have from the White House is that they are monitoring the situation closely.”
“That’s not going to cut it for long,” Attorney General Robert Kennedy said.
“I agree,” the President replied. “But what are we going to say that hasn’t already been said already. Cornelius, what do you think?”
“Do we know what this thing is doing?” I asked.
“Just going around the Earth every ninety minutes or so,” said NASA Administrator James Webb. “That’s been happening for the past few hours. The Soviets claim that they are doing experiments and equipment checkouts.”
“Curious that they call it the Potemkin,” I said.
“Not really,” said Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State. “The battleship Potemkin played a prominent role in the Bolshevik revolution.”
“I was thinking of Potemkin villages. They were supposed to have been erected in the Crimea in the 18th Century by Grigori Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s First Minister, to impress his monarch on the value of the region which had been newly conquered.”
“You think it’s a fake?” asked the President.
“We don’t have anything besides the word of the Soviets that it is in fact an Orion ship with that size of crew, said Webb.
“What does the CIA have to say?” asked Robert Kennedy.
The CIA Director, clearly uncomfortable, said, “We were aware that they were building a test article.” He opened a folder he was carrying and handed out photos. “These are some photos taken from the ground from a humint asset we have there.” The President looked at them first, then passed them around. The image was of an ugly, iron colored bullet rising over the desert. “Our information is that it was going to be launched robotically some time this year.”
“Nikita obviously had other ideas,” the President said sardonically.
“I don’t see anything that says that this is manned,” I said.
“I agree, Mr. President,” Webb said. “The NASA experts who have seen these have assumed that the vehicle was unmanned.”
“Alright,” the President said. “I’ll make a statement to the press. No questions. We’ll say that the Soviets have launched an Orion satellite of some kind, but have no hard intelligence whether it is manned or unmanned and if the former how many in the crew.”
“They could just have a single cosmonaut,” Webb suggested.
“Mr. Webb, if you were in charge of something like this, how would you prove the Soviets’ claim of having a hundred people up there?”
“Hard to say. Not even we have the ability to broadcast live TV from space. Not yet anyway. I’d have to wait until the thing landed and start showing film.”
“Film can be faked,” said the CIA Director.
“All of that is true,” said President Kennedy. “But whatever happens, a lot of people around the world are going to believe them. Another space first for the Soviets. Alright, then. Ted, get me a statement to read in an hour. I’ll face the lions about a half hour after that. Make the announcement. That’s all.” Everyone started to file out. “Cornelius, stay for just a moment.”
I stopped and waited until everyone else was out of the Oval Office. The President presented a copy of my book and placed it on his desk. “Of course, sir,” I said, understanding what he wanted. I opened the front flap and signed it with a flourish.
“So what do you think, Cornelius?” he suddenly asked. “How is this going to play out?”
“I’m a historian, not a prophet, Mr. President.”
“As a historian.”
“As a historian, I can only say that things have a tendency to play out in ways that no one expects.”
The announcement, which took place in the White House press room, was raucous, to say the least. The White House press corps, ordinarily quite amiable toward President Kennedy, shouted out questions like a braying wolf pack. When they finally quieted down, the President made his statement.
“This will be a brief statement and no questions will be taken. At about two thirty in the morning, East Coast time, the Soviets launched what appeared to be an Orion nuclear bomb propelled space craft from their test site in Kazakstan. It is currently orbiting the Earth at an approximant distance of two hundred miles. As for the claims made by the Soviets that this space craft has a crew of a hundred cosmonauts, we have yet to verify. How many or whatever crew this craft, which the Soviets have named the Potemkin, is still represents a considerable achievement.
“In the meantime, our own program proceeds on. The first unmanned test of a nuclear bombed propelled space craft will take place this summer at Jackass Flats. Our Mercury test program is winding down, with Gemini soon to follow. Our program is on track to establish settlements on the Moon and Mars to preserve our civilization and species should Damocles hit the Earth and eventually to intercept and divert Damocles. That is all.”
As he left the podium, more questions brayed in his direction. But all they got was his back as he left the press room.
Several news organizations interviewed me concerning the Soviet Orion, which helped mollify my publisher for my sudden disappearance from all of the publication day events that had been planned in New York. The first week found In the Shadow of Damocles at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. It stayed in that position for about eleven weeks, before starting a steady, decorous decline. I made a lot of money, needless to say.
The mission of the Soviet Orion ended when our tracking stations in Turkey noted it’s descent from Earth orbit toward Kazakstan. The vehicle slowly descended until it was off the radar screen. Then, a listening post in Northern Iran noted a sudden seismic event, comparable to a minor earthquake or a nuclear bomb test. The natural conclusion was that the Soviet Orion has either crashed or detonated as a result of an accident with its nuclear bomb fuel.
In any event, there was nothing more about the Soviet Orion from any of the Soviet media. During the next several weeks, there were small announcements about the “accidental” deaths of three Soviet cosmonauts. The conclusion from that was that the Soviet Orion had not contained a crew of a hundred, but of three, presumably dead as a result of the accident.
Before the end of 1963, Nikita Khrushchev was ousted and a new set of leaders was running the Soviet Union. A triumph of Soviet space technology had suddenly turned into a barely concealed embarrassment. Khrushchev’s tendency to try to hurry the Soviet space effort beyond its capacity to grab space firsts had finally caught up with him.
Our first child, a girl, was born in May. We called her Caroline Rose Neal and she was the most beautiful baby ever born, in my own humble opinion. Marion was quite well and spent her summer maternity leave editing a volume of the poems of Tennyson.
The launch of the unmanned Orion 2A prototype was set for July, 1963. I was invited to the same control center where I had witnessed the subscale prototype. The launch pad for the Orion 2A was five miles away. The gray, bullet shaped vehicle stood on the face of the desert, as squat and as homely looking as a sleek, slender rocket was beautiful. Yet, it exuded power, chained for the moment, but ready to be unleashed.
The countdown proceeded nominally, without any technical glitches. But there was a two hour hold because of the discovery of a group of anti nuclear protestors who had infiltrated the test site. The nuclear disarmament movement, which had been extant since the late 1950s, had expanded its agenda from opposing nuclear weapons to opposing Orion, because it was propelled by nuclear explosives. This group, a motley mix of students, academics, artists, and political radicals unfurled a banner that declared “Stop Orion!” the moment the Army helicopter spotted them. Having made their point, they peacefully submitted to arrest and allowed themselves to be conveyed off the test site into detention.
I didn’t understand their motivations then and hardly do now. The bombs used to propel Orion were designed to minimize radioactive fallout and to direct their explosive force as much as possible against the push plate. Eventually, the bomb fuel would put out no fall out. In any event, Damocles was coming. There was likely no stopping it without Orion.
As the countdown proceeded down to zero, polarized glasses were passed out. I put on mine and found that I could hardly see, even through the observation slits of the forward bunker to which I eventually moved out across the sun drenched desert.
“10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…ignition!” boomed the loudspeaker.
We saw the flash underneath the Orion seconds before we heard anything. The Orion 2A leaped into the sky on what seemed to be an endless tail of fire and light. Then the rumbling came across the desert and the hot wind. A fiery cloud rose where the Orion had been, rumbling and crackling, then resolving itself into the familiar mushroom shape.
We retreated back into the control room. The monitors were showing the aftermath of the launch five miles away. The fireball was already starting to dissipate. The control room was shielded against the electromagnetic pulse effects that even then could play havoc with electrical and electronic equipment. Even with the explosions high in the atmosphere and in space, the bomb fuel were of low enough yield that the effect was not felt on the ground.
The Orion 2A moved smoothly into an elliptical orbit about three hundred or so miles high. Eventually, the orbit would be regularized to a circular orbit. It would spend several months undergoing automatic checkouts, while using its massive array of instruments to undertake the first systematic observation of the Earths surface ever undertaken. Around January-February at the latest-the bomb fuel would be used to blast the Orion 2A out of Earth’s orbit to a polar orbit of the Moon. It would then spend a year mapping and otherwise examining the lunar surface.
I had dinner with one of the principle investigators the night after the launch. “It’s remarkable what we can put up with an Orion,” he said. “I’ve worked on some of the first probes put up by rockets, including the Mariner we sent to Venus. We were constantly having to deal with weight and power problems. Not now, though. We can cram in as many instruments as we like, powered by the atomic reactor on board the Orion. I can hardly wait before we launch one to Mars.”
“Not to mention the manned flights,” I said.
“Oh yeah. Mind, that old slogan about ‘Mars by 1965, Saturn by 1970’ is a bit optimistic. We’re still figuring out how people can deal with conditions in deep space. The Mercury program has just scratched the surface. Of course, the requirement not to land an Orion on Earth using its bomb fuel is kind of hampering us.”
“Well, imagine an Orion going off course on reentry and cooking off a nuke-say-over Los Vegas,”
“I know. I hope the guys at Marshal get that Saturn shuttle up and running soon. Then we can really start exploring the Solar System.”
I went home two days later, after a series of interviews with some of the Orion launch crew. I was sitting on my porch the night I got home, sipping a drink and going through some notes when Marion came out, totting Caroline in her arms. I shoved my notes aside and took my daughter in my own arms.
“Hi, there, little one. You’ve been behaving for Mommy?”
“She’s been a bit cranky,” Mommy replied. “But she took a bottle a few minutes ago and it seems to have made her happy.”
Marion pulled up a chair beside me and plopped down with a heavy sigh.
“You been making Mommy tired, eh?” I said to Caroline, who replied by cooing softly. Then I looked up and saw what looked like a star passing overhead, just over the water. “There it is?”
“There what is?”
“Over to the left.”
“Yeah, I see it. Is that the Orion?”
“I believe so.”
We looked at it together until it passed over the horizon, silently moving across the starry firmament. “Cornelius, where is Damocles now?”
I was startled by the sudden question. “Still out beyond the orbit of Neptune, I believe.”
“Cornelius, do you thi-“
“Dearest, our baby is going to grow up to be a little old lady, with your beauty and my southern charm, and she will bury the both of us in the fullness of time.”
Marion paused for a moment. Then she said, “Did I ever tell you how much I loved you, Dr. Cornelius Neal?”
“I seem to recall, from time to time.”
I looked around at her, holding on to our half sleeping daughter, and saw her smile.
Children of Orion – Chapter 4
Children of Orion – Chapter 6
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.