He was like Moses come down from Mount Sinai, not in wrath, but in sorrow and love. He stood at the feet of the statue of Lincoln and those who attended his words were like an ocean spread before him. I saw it on television, ghostly black and white.
“I am happy to join with you today, in the shadow of Damocles, in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
He said no more of that awful thing that hung over every hope and dream of every living human being on this Earth. His was a dream of not only an Earth being saved, but of an Earth made worthy of being saved.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
“I have a dream today.
“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
“I have a dream today.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
I scribbled in my notes, hearing those words, wondering what sort of world we would have beyond Damocles. I assumed that there would be a world. I had seen too much of the effort being made to make sure of it to doubt that supposition one iota. It would not be utopia, surely. The day the Earth would be spared Damocles would be one of great rejoicing, I believed. But in the end, we were all human beings. After Damocles was history, we would be more than capable of inflicting smaller miseries on ourselves.
But sometimes we could rise above all that. A human being painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Human beings created a country on ideas of liberty and justice and called it America. A human being made a speech about a dream and roused the consciences of millions.
In the meantime, I had my own work to do. The military had its own space effort, which they called Dynasoar, which revolved around a winged space craft that would be launched on a rocket, much like a Mercury capsule, but would land horizontally, like an air plane. It was thought that the program would help gather data for the big, Saturn launched space shuttle that was being designed.
I was somewhat surprised to learn that the military, at least for officers, was as integrated as any liberal college I had ever been in. One reason was that Harry Truman had mandated it. Another reason was that the military, more than most organizations, was a meritocracy. While office politics did play a role in how far one rose, sheer ability played far more of one. So, I was astonished and later pleased to see the number of black pilots in the Dynasoar program. This had spilled over, by the way, into the NASA manned program, since every NASA pilot had come from the military.
But that NASA pilot I was most concerned with as the stifling heat in Houston began to ease with the coming of fall was a white woman named Francine Barry. As the flight of the Serenity 7 drew nigh, she seemed to be as omnipresent as a Hollywood movie star. A picture of her made to look glamorous was on the covers of both Life and Look. She was interviewed on all three networks. Just about everybody knew the official, NASA approved version of her biography.
She was having a sociological effect as well. There was a marked increase in women majoring in math and science at American universities. Classes which would have only male students in previous years would now have at least three or four females. Some professors, with quaint ideas about the role of women, were having difficulty dealing with this. Even at Rice, where one of the first Women in Aerospace chapters was formed, there were complaints about female engineering and science students not being taken as seriously as their male counterparts. There were calls for more hiring of female instructors in the engineering and science departments. That caused more problems since, in 1963, there were very few women qualified to teach those subjects.
Marion started to complain to me on the subject at dinner once. “I blame literature, to a certain extent. The depiction of women scientists and engineers tends to be stereotyped and sexist.”
“Sexist?” This was the first time I had heard the term. Marion gave me a rude look, as if I should have heard it and already have a thorough understanding of the term. “Take science fiction. Women are either lust objects for male characters to save from evil aliens or, like Asimov’s Susan Calvin, cold, sexless things with no human feeling. Even Heinlein does better women characters than Asimov.”
I had not read anything by either gentleman, though I had heard of them. In any case, I thought it best to maintain a respectful silence when my wife was on one of these tears. I found that most anything I would have to say was likely to get me into trouble. Such was my introduction to what eventually became feminism.
With the new fall semester, Marion became busy stuffing literature into young, undergraduate brains. I became busy observing and gathering material on the flight of the Serenity 7. This task took me to Florida, where Francine was ensconced doing last minute simulations and training.
Because Francine was such a media favorite, NASA put her up at a beach house in an undisclosed location close to the Cape. The approaches to the house were patrolled discretely by security officers. I was stopped by one of them on a dirt road the led from the main highway and my name was checked against a clip board list of approved people who could visit her. Then I was waved through.
Francine greeted me at the door wearing a swim suit, a white shirt over it, and sandals. “Hey, Cornelius, glad you could come,” she said and conducted me inside. The décor of the house was typical mid twentieth century contemporary. I could smell something wonderful coming in from the kitchen. “Roast chicken,” she said. “I thought that we could have something to eat.”
“I didn’t peg you as being the domestic type,” I said.
“Are you kidding? I like home cooking and since I’ve always lived alone, that means I have to do the cooking.”
The logic was flawless. “Then I should be delighted to share your repast, Miss Barry. Though if I had known, I would have brought a bottle of wine.”
She smiled at me. “You are such a gentleman. Would chardonnay suit?”
“Good. In the meantime, let’s go for a walk. Get out appetites worked up.”
I was glad I was dressed casually, with sneakers, slacks, and a golf shirt. We walked near the surf, the sand squishing beneath our feet. The sun was already low over the western horizon and the salty breeze was gentle and cool. “So let me ask the obvious question,” I said. “How does it feel to about to be the first American woman in space?”
“Frankly, I hardly believe it’s happening. It’s like a dream.”
“You think you’re ready?”
“I could do this mission in my sleep, though Gordo had some problems on his flight with systems failing on him right and left. But I’ve simmed just about every problem imaginable and a few I didn’t think anyone could imagine.”
“You feel confident, then?”
“My whole life has just been preparation for what’s about to happen in a week.”
Later, we were back in the house, enjoying the dinner she had so generously cooked. Besides the chicken, we had rice and peas mixed together, asparagus, and a loaf of garlic bread. She entertained me with training stories and anecdotes about her fellow astronauts.
“So we were out in the middle of some god forsaken jungle in Panama doing survival training. We got to gather some stuff that would choke a goat and learn how to prepare and eat them.”
“Let me guess. They expected you to do the cooking.”
“Oh no. Deke-he’s head of the astronaut office now that the heart murmur has put him off the flight manifest-had laid down the law. We’re all astronauts, no matter the race, color, creed, or sex. And I think most of the guys get it now. We’re going to have to rely on one another. Of course, I think one or two are wondering if I’m going to fall on my face.”
“Anyway, we all learned the preparation and cooking of such lovely items as snake, frog, and other dubious delicacies. I asked one of the guys, Pete Conrad, what his reptile tasted like. ‘Chicken,’ he replied. And that was how we all described everything. ‘Tastes like chicken.'”
We both laughed good naturedly.
Later, after we cleaned up together, we settled down on the couch and continued sipping the chardonnay. “My daddy was a pilot. He did crop dusting during the thirties, so unlike a lot of people back then he had no trouble putting food on the table. I remember when he took me up in the plane for the first time. I was seven or eight at the time. It was like we were flying to heaven itself, with the Earth spread out all below like some toy landscape. I knew what I wanted to do with my life from that very moment.”
“When the war came, daddy started as a flight instructor. But he wanted to fight. A matter of pride, I suppose. So he managed to pull strings and in 44 he was flying a P 51 Mustang over Europe. He got jumped by a flight of those German jets, ME 262s. He got two of them. The other one got him. Nobody saw a parachute, so it was assumed that he rode that flamer all the way down to the ground.”
I noticed a tear in her eye, tricking down the left cheek. I reached over, wiped it away. “He’d be proud of you, Francine.”
“He is proud of me.” She took something out of her shirt pocket. It was a pair of wings. “They found him at the crash site a few weeks later, when the front reached it. They gave the wings to my mom, but she couldn’t stand to look at them. I wanted them, though. It’s what I have of him. I’ll carry it into space with me.”
She set her glass down on the coffee table, bent over, and kissed me. It was a long, lingering kiss, filled with longing and lust. I set my own glass down and responded. I gathered her to me and kissed her back.
“I figured I’d have to go first, you being a gentlemen and all.”
I got up off the couch without a word and extended my hand to her. She took it, allowed me to help her off the couch. Then, hand still in hand, we went into the bedroom.
There was no thought within me for about the next hour but the feel of her, the smell of her, the sound of her outcries. It was only later, afterwards, when we lay in bed in one another’s arms that I had the thought, my God, what have I done?
It was not that I had fallen out of love with Marion. In fact I started to imagine her face if she found out. Would it be contorted in anger? In tears? Too late I knew that I should have done everything to avoid even the possibility of seeing that.
The problem was that I wanted Francine the way a man dying of thirst wanted a drink. Our love making was possibly the most erotic experience I had ever had up to that point. I knew that in a little while I would want her again.
“Well,” I said, “Now what?”
“Now what?” she replied. “In just a little bit you are going to have a quick shower, get dressed, and leave. It wouldn’t do to have people find out.”
“Will I see you again?”
“Unfortunately, quarantine starts for me in the morning. No human contact except for the flight surgeon and trainers.”
I knew that, but I had meant afterwards. But I didn’t say anything. I did as she said, showering and getting dressed. I kissed her just behind the front door, then left her.
I got back to my hotel, but did not go to sleep. I lay in bed, smoking, and let all of those conflicting feelings wash over me. There was guilt, of course. I had betrayed my wife in the most fundamental way imaginable, in thought, word, and deed. I knew why I had done it. Francine was like no other woman I had ever met. She had been a woman of some accomplishment even before anyone had heard of the Mercury program. I was not intimidated by that fact, as I gather some men were. Indeed, the fact made her even more desirable. Who would not want to make love to the first woman astronaut? I thought.
I did not see Francine alone that next week. I was busy interviewing other people at the Cape and observing various operations leading up to the flight. I would see Francine coming or going to a session in the simulator and we’d wave, as if we were casual friends. I was also included in a press conference where the press shouted inane questions like, “How does it feel to be the first American woman in space?” How did the reporter think it feels?
“Any special someone you’d like to say something to?” Now that almost made me wince. I suspect that if NASA had found out that their prize woman astronaut had had an adulterous fling, she would be off flight status in the next breath. That was despite the fact that many of the male astronauts were veritable tom cats.
“Oh, I’m far too busy for that sort of thing,” she replied. “But my brother Sean and his wife are going to be watching the launch.”
Good answer, I thought. Nothing about her mom, though. Later I found out, by leafing through Francine’s official NASA biography that her mom had died five years before.
News from New York threatened to overwhelm the flight of the Serenity 7. President Kennedy, in a speech before the UN General Assembly, proposed that the Soviet Union join in the effort to divert Damocles and to establish settlements on the Moon and Mars just in case that effort failed. The proposal was controversial. While Britain and France were participants in the program, the idea of the Soviets joining the Orion Project did not sit well with a lot of people, even within the President’s own party. Senator Goldwater, widely seen as the President’s probable rival for the elections in the following year, thundered against the proposal on the floor of the Senate.
In any event, Nikita Khrushchev was lukewarm toward the proposal. The reason, as we discovered a few months later, was that he was desperately trying to hold on to his job. The lost of the first Soviet Orion had not sat well with the rest of the Politburo. Khrushchev had to use all of his political skills fending off people who wanted his job and had little left for making deals with the hated capitalists.
Then, one morning in September, America launched her first woman into space. She emerged from the building, clad head to toe in a silvery space suit, waving jauntily at the crowd. That crowd included your humble narrator. Despite myself, I felt my heart leap. Her face was masked by the space helmet, but I think she did look right at me, before turning and getting into the van to go to the launch pad.
A few hours later, the Serenity 7 Mercury capsule was launched atop an Atlas rocket on a tail of flame. I sat in the observation stand, among all the other dignitaries, specially favored media, and some friends and relatives, including the aforementioned brother and sister in law.
Francine executed twenty two orbits around the Earth in what NASA called a flawless flight before splashing down in the Pacific. She was picked up by a helicopter from the USS Wasp within an hour. NASA concluded that it had gotten invaluable data about the effects of the space environment on female physiology. What Francine got was several weeks of fame, which included a ticker tape parade in New York that rivaled the one John Glenn had gotten and a White House reception, among other things.
I returned home to Houston and my wife, who thankfully was none the wiser for my betrayal of her. Indeed, all of the ink being written about Francine’s flight had put Marion in a better disposition than when I had left her. At last, a beautiful, intelligent woman who was a heroine in her own right, the Amelia Earhart of the space age. I could do naught be agree.
I settled into a comfortable routine, writing the second volume of my history, The Wings of Mercury, giving the occasional lecture at the university, and being a family man. Our daughter was growing very nicely, starting to babble things that eventually would become words. Marion would regale me with stories of faculty politics in the English Department.
Late November, President Kennedy came to town on what was for all intents and purposes a campaign swing. Marion and I got in to a reception at the Rice Hotel, which impressed her to no end. It was also the first time I had met the First Lady, a woman of great grace and beauty. The President asked me how the second book was coming and then suggested that I come up to Washington some time soon. He was a little coy as to why, though I was soon to find out.
After that, the rest of the week was an anticlimax. I remember the following day that C.S. Lewis had died, which saddened me as I was something of a fan of his works. I had resolved that as soon as possible our daughter would be initiated into the Narnia books.
Of course I was not a fan of the Out of a Silent Planet books. I found the idea of God restricting man to a single planet to be bad theology. A few years later, Arthur C. Clarke told me of an encounter he had with Lewis and his friend J.R.R. Tolkien in a London pub where they debated the desirability of space flight. That had been in the fifties. I wonder what either gentleman thought about it after the Damocles announcement, when the survival of our species absolutely depended on space flight.
I spent most of the winter writing the second book. It was a period of pause for the space program in any case. Gemini was a year away. Dynasoar about two years away. The Orion 2B was sending in pictures from Earth orbit daily, however. Many of them would show up on the cover of Life, which had started a special section inside the magazine called “Images of Earth.”
I finished the second book, Wings of Mercury, in March and sent it off to the publisher. The news from Washington was focused on the election and the proposed Civil Rights Bill that many hoped (and some feared) would finally erase the stain of Jim Crow from the South. In April, Marion and I were both invited to have dinner with the President and First Lady in early June.
I had to go to Washington in any case, for a round of interviews. Taking Marion along, leaving our daughter with Marion’s mother, who had come down to visit the week before, made the trip a working vacation. Marion saw some museums, went to witness a spirited debate in the Senate from the gallery, and otherwise had a great time while I worked.
A limo picked us up at the hotel and took us directly to the White House. Me resplendent in my tux, Marion lovely in her dinner gown took the elevator to the private quarters. The President and the First Lady greeted us at the elevator door, then conducted us to the dining room.
It was as I remembered, a study in elegance that would have made a French aristocrat proud, without being too ostentatious. The President was in a jovial mode. He was not only prepared for battle of the Civil Rights Bill, but also an income tax cut, both of which were actually opposed by a considerable portion of his own party. But that and the upcoming Presidential campaign had put him in a happy mood. A typical Irishman, I suppose, there was nothing like the prospect of a good fight to put him so.
“Looks like the Republicans are going to nominate Goldwater,” he said. “I’m thinking of inviting him on a joint campaign trip, sort of like the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. It’ll be fun and I think the country would benefit.”
After dinner, as the stewards cleared things away, we retired to a sitting room in the private quarters for cocktails and conversation. The First Lady and Marion soon fell into a deep conversation about some point of literature, while the President and I talked politics. “One of the things Goldwater is going to suggest is folding NASA in with the military, to make it into some kind of Space Force,” he told me.
“What enemy does he propose to fight?” I asked.
“There are a lot of military space applications that can be used against the Soviets.”
“We have one sure enemy. But it’s one that nature has given us.”
“Indeed. Indeed. But I need some arguments. What do you sug-“
He suddenly stopped, starring ahead of him and past me as if seeing something. Then his glass dropped from his hand and spilled over the carpet. And then he fell forward, practically into my arms.
For a moment, I was too stunned to do or say anything. Then I heard the First Lady scream. I lowered the President to the floor, turned, and saw the shocked look at the Secret Service guard who had ran in at the sound of the scream. “Get a doctor!” I yelled. The guard turned and ran out.
But it was too late. John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, had died in my arms. The cause of death was a massive stroke, at first found to be remarkable for a man of his age and apparent health. Years later, an investigation revealed the horrible truth.
The President suffered not only from chronic back pain brought about by wounds sustained in the war, but also complications of a disease of the adenoid glands called Addison’s Disease. He was being given questionable drugs, pain killers, steroids, anything to keep him going. There had been no consideration of side effects or drug interactions. One medical expert testified that Kennedy probably had a cholesterol level in the three hundreds. Given that, it was only a matter of time.
While Marion and I were being questioned by the Secret Service, a search was made for Vice President Johnson. He was found within the hour in a Capital Hill office explaining to a Senator why it would be in his best interest to play ball with the Administration. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren was located and rushed to the Capital, where he administered to oath of office to Lyndon Johnson in a crowded corridor outside the Senator’s office.
We stayed for the funeral. Indeed, both the now former First Lady and Attorney General Robert Kennedy insisted. Those two or three days happened in a kind of fog. The President’s body was placed in state at the Capital Rotunda, draped in a flag, watched over by a guard of honor. The line of people, great and small, to pay him his last respects stretched for miles.
They buried him in a little plot at Arlington, which was his right as a veteran of the Second World War and what was thought appropriate for a President who had died in office. The ceremony had all of the appropriate features; the twenty one gun salute, the over flight of fighters in missing man formation, the speeches, the heads of state from around the world.
Afterwards, as we were making ready to return home to Texas, we got an audience with now President Johnson in the Oval Office. He was a bigger than life, towering, coarse Texan. When we first met him, he was quiet, almost hushed. “Dr. Neal, I should like you to continue your work chronicling our efforts to ward away Damocles.”
“I will, Mr. President,” I said.
He seemed to wince a little, as if not liking that mode of address, but knowing that it was his burden now. “Thank you,” he said. He drew himself to his full height, as if shouldering his new burden. “Well, I’ve got lots of work to do. Maybe in a few months, you all can come out to the ranch and we can talk under happier circumstances.”
“I’d like that, sir,” I told him.
We were driven to the air port and put on a plane for home. As the plane took off, I looked at my bride, who was looking out the window.
“What are you thinking?”
She looked at me. “I’m thinking it’s a long time until 2001.”
“There’s a lot to do before that.”
“And for our little girl?”
I had heard that question before. Caroline wouldn’t be middle age when Damocles arrived, if it did. Some time later I learned that Marion was pregnant again, this time with a son it turned out. We named him William. He was part of the generation that would face Damocles, if we failed to stop it.
And God would damn us forever if we did fail.
Children of Orion – Chapter 5
Children of Orion – Chapter 7
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.