Near Earth Objects
This piece appears in The Collapsar, Issue 6.
Milton finds the file in the back of a locked filing cabinet, and almost immediately he knows he will steal it. He is not a thief and he has never wanted to be one. He is at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, a place heavy with paperwork, a place where the absence of one dusty folder from the office of a woman with many of them will not be missed. The file itself is a manila folder packed with paper perforated on both sides, the kind from the archaic printers of the 70s with their blocky fonts and timid blue ink. There are also glossy photographs and a set of blueprints. Now is not the time for him to sift through it and confirm what he’s found. But he knows. Right now it’s just a tight feeling in the pit of his stomach, but he knows.
So he slips it into his briefcase.
He is not a thief, and the folder belongs to nobody anymore. Until two hours ago, this was the office of Dr. Elizabeth Tompkins, Project Proposal Coordinator, but Liz has quit. She has stormed out with a ferocity surprising for a woman of her advanced years, a woman of her grace and civility and general good nature. It is now Milton’s job to clean out her office. He’s supposed to get rid of the faint lilac smell, as well as all of the paperwork and memorabilia that are the natural byproduct of a forty-year career. In an old framed photo on her desk, Liz is pictured beside Buzz Aldrin—he in a flight suit, she in a lab coat—both of them looking just stupidly all-American. Milton slides these from her desk and into a trash bag with a sweep of his arm.
Milton is sad that Liz is gone, not only because he wants to ask her about what’s in the file, but also because he simply likes her. Her fascination with astrophysics is unadulterated and rooted in romantic doomsday scenarios. She was a student of Gene Shoemaker’s when she was young and is convinced that one day a Near Earth Object or comet or something will align itself with the Earth just so, glide with deadly malice through the silent expanse of space, and threaten all life on the planet. When that happens, she said, it will be the scientists who will save everyone. To her, NASA is a monastery, and its scientists are mystical star-monks protecting and advancing studies of the cosmos so that one day apocalyptic calamity can be narrowly averted. Milton wants to ask her why she quit. He will later, and only later, in a different story that both is and isn’t related to this one, connected like a constellation, dots drawn together in the mind, a thing you can only ever see if you’re taught how to see it.
To understand why Milt would take what he did, it’s probably important to know that he watched archival footage of Neil Armstrong’s first steps onto the moon in his 5th grade class. It’s also worthy of note that, unlike the rest of his classmates, he knew even then that he would never be an astronaut. He’d also never be a baseball player, movie star, or the President—he didn’t have the inherent greatness for it. He was pudgy and awkward then, like now, bright but unremarkable as a personality. He was extremely pragmatic. He knew his place. It did not bother him to think that his role was not to be the leading man; it was enough that one should exist and that he should perhaps one day play a quiet, noble part behind the scenes, facilitating something bigger than the sum of its parts. He had heroes but lacked a desire to become one himself. He played with Lego blocks, but did not build castles or pirate ships. He made construction sites mostly, elaborate and precise, and between yellow and red plastic support columns he imagined the steady construction of elaborate monuments to human achievement. There was to him something mystical about sending men into space. To ascend into that void, to circle the world from above, observing all nations from that infinite vacuum—what kind of man would that make you? Who would you be when you came back?
A little while later, he is in a warehouse near the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with Charles, and he is still carrying the file. Like Milton, Charles is low on the professional astronomy totem pole. Like Milton, he has recently finished graduate school and is attempting to get his foot in the door at NASA. Unlike Milton, he knows nothing about science—he is a business administrator, and his personal mission is to make NASA economically viable.
A few days a week, Milton and Charles are asked to scavenge indoor junkyards, largely neglected warehouses in which miscellaneous machinery and spacecraft components accumulate. What they’re looking for are parts from unidentified spacecraft or anything related to the Saturn series of rockets, especially the Saturn V. He carries a small list of components and accompanying pictures. NASA’s goals are largely decided by people who are not scientists, and project funding is subject to the unpredictable whims of legislators and erratic economic turns.
So, it goes like this: a project begins. Research is done and technology is developed. This takes time—often too much time. Funding is cut. The project team is fired or transferred elsewhere, and half-completed (or workable but unused) technology is quite simply abandoned.
Sometimes, they need to find it again and re-learn how it works, so guys like Milton and Charles have to sift through piles of rocket guts and satellite parts to try and reverse-engineer all of this old equipment, a task that both of them find tedious. NASA has announced plans to send a manned mission to the Moon in 2015, but officials say they have to figure out how to do it again first. Milton does not mind tedium, not really, not if it’s to achieve a higher end result, but Charles feels the slow crawl of time under his skin and usually becomes more irritable the longer the day drags on.
They’re flanked by endless rows of corrugated metal shelving, atop which are stacked an array of equipment that has been more carefully organized and labeled. Milt thinks Charles looks a bit dramatic there in a space opera sort of way, crouched between chaotic towers of scrap metal and shuttle insulation, twisted balls of wire, and dusty circuitry, as if he were marooned in some futuristic wilderness. This is undercut by what he’s saying:
“We already make space food, we just need to sell it outside of space museum gift shops. People are ready to buy astronaut food at Wal-Mart. I know that this is true. It all needs to be marketed as organic, for one. Natural.”
Most of Charles’s ideas are along these lines. He believes in treating NASA as a retailer of sorts, an exporter of space fascination rather than a scientific institution. Treat it like any other business, Charles says, and the free market will drive the rest. Milt moves through life in only middling ways, but Charles runs headlong into the thick of it and starts moving things around, adjusting their prices. He looks like a young Frank Sinatra without the suit.
“There’s nothing natural about eating dehydrated pseudo-food out of a foil pouch,” says Milton.
“Not when you say it like that, there’s not. But it’s about efficiency. The economy is in shambles and nutrition has never been trendier,” says Charles.
Milton doesn’t hear him, or isn’t interested—even as he digs through a stack of coolant processors designed for the shuttle Discovery, he’s thinking of the folder, which is still in his briefcase.
“Milt. Listen to what I’m telling you. What I am telling you is better than at least 90% of science.”
“I’m listening,” Milton says. “I just can’t see anyone choosing to eat this over, say, anything else.”
“Milt. Inventions based on space technology have become hot items throughout history. There is no reason this will be any different. Think temper-foam mattress material. Think Velcro. Can you remember a time before Velcro? I don‘t think anyone can.” He lifts a sheet of heat-resistant metal onto its side, looking for a serial number.
“You consider Velcro a hot item?” asks Milton.
“I think that you know what I mean and that you’re purposely having a bad attitude about it. You know what the difference is between you and me? You see the glass as half empty. Do you disagree?”
“No. The glass is definitely half empty.”
“Well, I see a market teeming with people ready to buy a smaller glass at an exorbitant price. You know?”
He has to share, if only to ensure that someone else knows about what he’s found. More than this, he has yet to fully accept it and requires someone else to confirm the reality of it to him, to verify that he is not somehow mistaken or deluded.
“I want to talk about something else,” says Milton. “Something I found. Look at it.”
He sets the folder on a shelf beside him, then spreads its contents out. Charles peers over it for a moment, gravitating towards a stapled set of what appear to be receipts from a company that makes movie props.
“What’s this? What am I looking at?”
“Plans for a soundstage, I think. Like, if the moon landing were faked.”
Charles unrolls the blueprint, leaning in for a closer look. “It’s a soundstage? How do you even know?”
“There’s a record of purchases, too. Prop rocks. A lot of grey dust.”
“Like if they were building a set piece. I get it.”
“So it’s all fake, you’re saying?”
After a moment, Charles says: “This could be anything. They could’ve been making an ad. They could’ve made an exhibit for Bring Your Daughter to Work Day. This doesn’t prove anything.”
It’s too late, though. Milton can’t shake the feeling that he’s stumbled onto something important. He feels anger wash over him like a fever, a seething malice that he has felt on only a few occasions in his otherwise quiet life, like a comet that whips through the Solar System once a century to remind humanity of its existence. He re-packs the folder and returns it to his briefcase, then resumes working. “Fine. I’ll take care of it myself.”
“What? That’s it? What are you going to do?” Charles asks. “Have you thought through your options? Are you going to go to the press with this? Milt, you could be on CNN, just like that lady who trained her dog to water ski.”
“You could leak it to the public.”
“Maybe I will.”
“You’re not going to just forget about it, are you?”
“I said I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. But they lied about something huge, something that meant something to people. I have to put them to the wall. You can’t let it slide just because you’ve always loved the idea of this place. And I don’t like you mocking me for it.”
“Okay, fine. Jesus. I didn’t know you were taking this so personally.”
“Well, I am. I’m going home. Don’t tell anyone about this.” As Milton makes his way for the parking lot, Charles is still calling after him, apologizing, but Milton’s head is elsewhere.
When Milton gets back to his apartment, he gently spreads the contents of the file out on his kitchen table, slowly, like creating a memory. Then, using a digital camera, he carefully photographs each document at a high resolution.
What will they tell their children? Milt wants to know what bold new myth will take the place of the old one, which new success story will be used to teach the kids of tomorrow to aspire to big things. He does not know if he can do anything other than keep this secret—the world needs people who can land on the Moon, who can go there and plant their flags in solid ground and walk on their own two feet. Who is he to take that away? There are other great moments in history, of course, but none of them matters to Milton the way this one does. The idea of exposing all of this feels like carelessly smashing an heirloom, something made of porcelain, cherished, important to someone—to him, at least.
The apartment is filled with half-finished telescopes on makeshift workbenches. He builds these from scratch, using components he buys piecemeal from university astronomy departments, private collectors, and online equipment suppliers. He sells the finished products, which are humble but reliable, on the Internet. At one time, he had intended to give them to close friends. Later, he realized he had none and did not care for any—building the telescopes for their own sake was enough. All of this was the byproduct of an earnest fascination with space travel, nurtured steadily since childhood, blooming in adulthood. Through the lens of his telescopes, he experiences space. From space, he considers the Earth and its inhabitants. When he looks at his creations now, he feels only the sharp stab of betrayal that he felt the day before, when he first found the file.
Later, he goes to Kinko’s. He prints out multiple copies of each photograph on high quality glossy paper. Then he packs each into a manila envelope, seals them, and piles them into the glove box of his car.
The next morning, he drinks coffee with Charles in an empty break room, brooding and heavy with the weight of knowledge. Charles has reconsidered the situation and decided that there’s only one thing to do with the incriminating evidence: ransom it.
“Absolutely ridiculous,” says Milt.
“It’s not. I’m not even necessarily talking about getting money.” Charles leans forward on his elbows, lowering his voice. “It would be a national embarrassment for this to get out. Catastrophic. They’d pay to cover it up. Or promote you, and you could change things from the inside. Something like that. You know?”
“It’s not about practicalities, Charles. I’m not trying to advance my career or get money or anything else. This is about the principle of the thing.”
Charles scoffs, voice laced with an incredulous edge. “It’s never about the principle of the thing. That’s just a thing people say. You can pretend your noble sensibilities are hurt, but they’re not. You’re just pitching a fit because a childhood fantasy turned out to be bullshit.”
“I mean, is it so controversial to suggest that just one government body not lie to people? That’s what I care about at his point. That’s what I want to fix.”
“You can’t fix that. And that’s not special at all. Things you care about as a kid turn out to be fake as an adult. Happens all the time. Barry Bonds was my favorite baseball player as a kid. He did interviews for Sports Illustrated For Kids, like, twice a year. Turns out he was on drugs the entire time. Same thing. Pretty much everyone grows up thinking they’re going to be remarkable, and then it turns out that they’re not. Schools tell you that. That you’re special and you can do anything. But you’re not and you can’t.”
“Some people do.”
“Yeah, some do. And far more thought they were going to be ninjas when they grew up, and now they’re chiropractors and accountants and they probably never even get to handle ninja stars or grappling hooks, at least not in a way related to their occupation at all.”
“Barry Bonds did steroids, so I should leverage the lunar landing soundstage plans for personal gain?”
“When you say it like that, it sounds worse than it is.”
“I already know what I’m going to do,” Milton says, “and it’s not that.”
“Well, you might as well get something out of it. It’s not an important thing, in and of itself. History is full of lies and misconceptions.”
“You know nothing about this. You don’t even care about this. You understand that, right? The implications of this are completely lost on you. So can you just stow all of this for one minute?”
“Jesus, Milt,” he says, becoming quieter. “I didn’t know you were taking this personally.”
“Well, I am.”
“I’m just saying you have to accept this and move on. Get what you can out of it in the process. A good man is easy to kill.”
It has to be true. He has to be right. He knows how it’s going to go down; he can see it all spread out before him. The files will come as a shock to the Department Head, who will panic. The bosses will tell him: If you’re loyal, you’ll take this to the grave, Milton. You’ll keep your silence and be a hero. Milton will say, no, it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than all of us.
The nuts and bolts of it are deceptively simple—they send him to Russia. All it costs them is money. A pop star did it once, Milton is told. The singer got a few weeks of cosmonaut training and there, just like that, he knew enough not to die in space. For Milton, the process can be expedited because he already knows how it all works in a theoretical sense. He just needs a physical familiarity with things like spacesuits and the inside of the craft, even though he won’t be doing much moving. There are rules, strict ones. He’s going up with a crew that’s supposed to repair an orbital telescope and he’ll mostly be floating out of the way, trying not to touch anything. There are concerns, some voiced very publicly by medical personnel, that he is not being held to the same demanding physical standards actual cosmonauts are subject to. Ultimately, these are overruled by administrators—Russia’s space program has even more funding issues than NASA does, and in the end it doesn’t take much to support one more person in crew cabin, even if that person isn’t contributing anything.
The other rules are related to what Milton can do in the week before he goes to Russia: nothing, more or less. He can’t talk to anyone, can’t even leave the Space Center. He stays in lodging for traveling scientists, where scowling middle-management types brief him, believing he will star in a reality TV show.
Now they’re lifting off. The suit is bulky and awkward, but he can’t move anyways, strapped beneath orange webbing, mostly inverted. They go into space feet first, and he tells himself that the increased blood flow to his kidneys, coupled with the force from the rapid acceleration, is the reason he’s urinating uncontrollably.
His heart hurts. Not metaphorically. There’s a tightness beneath his sternum, an uncomfortable rhythm. He feels feint. Hypoxia? A problem with his oxygen intake? Milt thinks he is dying, but he might not be. But he is pretty sure that he is, and he can’t shake the thought. He feels that, like stars dead and gone before their light reaches the Earth, his mark on the world will not be made until after he has passed. The envelopes he’s already sent will arrive on the desks of news stations in four days’ time, when they’re already in orbit, and then the evidence will be out in the open. The public will deal with the scandal as it sees fit. How will he be remembered? He doesn’t care, really, but he hopes that some people will feel good about the fact that a normal, unremarkable guy could do a remarkable thing.
He feels himself become lighter, and the sky blue visible through the craft’s porthole goes black. Someone is saying something, but he can’t hear it, not over the roar of the secondary engines, which are still firing. He is perfectly alone in that moment, and he closes his eyes.
He sees himself as if from outside his body: he is unstrapping himself from his chair and nudging himself upwards, floating slowly towards the opposite wall of the craft. He is twisting his body awkwardly, trying to change his direction, but of course he can’t—that’s not how zero gravity works.
He sees himself floating horizontally in front of a panel of blinking lights, fingers tapping in rapid-fire against blue and red buttons. Outside, a beacon light on the spacecraft flickers, visible on clear nights from the surface of the Earth in certain places. Below, someone with a telescope will see this. He or she will make a note of the interval between light bursts. This person will recognize it as Morse code, will note the dots and slashes in a dog-eared leather-bound notebook:
.. – / .– .- … / .- .-.. .-.. / .– — .-. – …. / .. –
Milton is sure that then, this person, who is very much like him, will sit down and painstakingly decode his message.