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Of course, space travel isn’t all about adventure or science. Like everything else, it’s also heavily laden with politics. Here Jack McDevitt has a reporter investigating a curious past dialogue when he uncovers a secret no one wants discovered, the secret of . . .


Jack McDevitt

The Snowden revelations had been out for several years, dumping one major story after another into the news cycle. But the bombshell didn’t show up until Gordon Kerr, who was working on his seventh book, a history of the space agency, noticed that one relatively insignificant report showed a conversation in which someone at NASA commented that “Bancroft says it’s a go. Get it moving.” Bancroft at the time was one of NASA’s senior operational directors. The intercept was dated August 28, 1989. Gordon had been surprised to discover that the NSA was scooping up communications of government agencies. But he would have thought no more of this one except that the date rang a bell. He needed a minute to put it together: Voyager 2 was passing Neptune and leaving the solar system.

Bancroft, unfortunately, had died two years earlier.

“Did it have anything to do with Voyager?” he asked Tom Morrison, his long-time friend and the director at the Jet Propulsion Lab.

“How would I know?” asked Morrison. “What difference does it make? It’s almost twenty years ago.” Morrison was a tall, take-charge guy who was usually easygoing. Gordon had known him since his days as a cub reporter for the Pasadena Star-News. At that time, Morrison had been a NASA radio operator . They’d met at a party, where Gordon had arranged an interview, and written a story for the Star-News. It had been his first by-line.

Morrison seemed annoyed by the question. But he immediately relaxed, smiled, and sank back into his desk chair.

“So there’s nothing?” Gordon asked.

“No.” Morrison was laughing now.

Gordon trusted him, but he was after all a government guy. Sometimes stuff got classified. He’d learned from the Snowden releases that sometimes they weren’t even allowed to admit that material had been classified. “Did the Russians get there first?” he asked, intending it as a joke.

Morrison’s dark brown eyes clouded. “You’re kidding, Gordy, right? Disney would get there before the Russians.”

“Well, Tom, to tell the truth, we’ve been pretty much going backward ourselves. I haven’t checked recently, but aren’t they still taking us to the space station?”

Tom’s office was decorated with pictures of Morrison’s wife Janet and his three kids, and framed photos of him with senators, the governor, the vice president, and one depicting a very young Morrison talking with Richard Feynman. He took a deep breath. “I know. Not much you can do when the money’s not there. We’re probably lucky we can keep the lights on.”

The conversation dissolved into one they’d had numerous times before, how funding was being poured into armaments and the Middle East while the space agency stumbled along. It was only after he’d ridden down in the elevator and was headed across the parking lot that Gordon realized his old buddy had neatly steered the conversation away from the NSA intercepts.

Gordon wasn’t sure why he’d agreed to work on the project. NASA needed all the publicity it could get during those despondent days, and he owed Morrison a lot of favors. The director had pointed him to solid stories over the years. And his career had soared as a result. He’d won the Bancroft Prize and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for his observations on the state of the culture. Without his help, Gordon might not have had a career at all. Maybe he’d still be the sole reporter for The Holton Tablet, the small-town weekly he’d started with.    

But he was looking at a story that did not have a happy ending. He didn’t even like his working title—NASA: Eye on the Stars. The agency had been stopped dead in its tracks. The voters had long since given up on it. When NASA had reached a point that we couldn’t even get to the space station without help, it had simply been too much.

Gordon knew a lot of people at JPL. He liked them, and they were of course rooting for him to pull something off with the book. Something that would direct popular attention to the importance of the space agency. But that wasn’t going to happen. He knew it, and they knew it.

There’d been an odd tone in Morrison’s response. Moreover, he hadn’t asked anything about the context of the intercept. He hadn’t even asked who’d been speaking. It had been Bancroft’s operational assistant.

Molly, Gordon’s wife, thought he was frustrated about the lack of progress he was making on the book. “Just back away from it,” she said, as he came in the door and dropped onto the sofa. “Nobody over there is going to hold it against you. They know you’ve done your best with it, and that it’s dead. We can’t repair roads and bridges, and there’s no money for public schools. How could they possibly justify billions for space travel? Anyhow, Gordie, if you want the truth, even if they provided some funding, where would we go?”

Certainly, he thought, nowhere if we don’t try.

Gordon specialized on the human side of space travel. He didn’t get involved much with the rockets. Rather, he portrayed the radio operator waiting for a vehicle to renew contact when it came out from behind the Moon. Or the astronaut sitting atop a launch vehicle in the scariest moments of a mission, those immediately preceding liftoff. His readers would know how it felt to be a manager when there was a hitch in the countdown, caused perhaps by a warning from one of the calibrators. He wondered what it had been like when the Challenger exploded, or when Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee had died during a launch sequence rehearsal.

There were powerful stories to tell. But he needed a conclusion, not a dead end. He wondered how Jack Kennedy would have reacted had he known what was coming.

That evening, Gordon settled back in to work on the book. His deadline was only three months away, and he was running behind. But it was hard to get his mind away from the NSA intercept, Bancroft, and Voyager’s Neptune passage.

It was ridiculous. There could be no connection. The truth was he was hoping for something that would open a door. Not a way to do serious journalism. Still, it stayed with him, and he found himself hunting through the vast collection of archival material that NASA had provided as background for Eye on the Stars.

And something else did turn up. In 1993, NASA had launched Arkon 1 on a twelve-year voyage to explore the Kuiper Belt. It was curious because even short-range missions were complicated and inevitably involved decades-long planning. But the archives showed no indication of anyone even mentioning such a mission before September 1989, a few weeks after Voyager 2’s approach to Neptune. Moreover, on its way to the Kuiper Belt, Arkon would receive boosts from the sun, Earth, and Neptune.

The planning routinely involved scientists outside NASA who had requested help with specific projects. In this case, three physicists had been part of the consultations. But the records indicated little in the way of preparatory discussions.

Of the three, only Maria Delmar, at Cal Tech, was still alive. She’d retired, but remained in the Pasadena area. Her website indicated she was working on a book about the Kuiper Belt. She was precisely the person Gordon wanted to talk with.

He set up an appointment, and connected with her on Skype. Maria was in her sixties, but she looked considerably younger than he’d expected. Brown hair speckled with gray, cut short. Animated green eyes. And an expression that suggested she’d welcome talking about the Arkon mission.

It was perfect timing,” she said, allowing a touch of frustration to creep into her eyes. “We were just in the process of discovering the Kuiper Belt when they called.”

They being NASA?”

“Yes. They’d included me in some of their earlier missions. Anyway, they explained they wanted to go out past Neptune and do some exploring. Try to get a feel for what the Kuiper Belt was about. And did I want to become part of the operation.”

“And you did?”


“So what happened?”

“They asked me to make recommendations, and to set up some specifics as to what we should be looking for. They really didn’t seem to have much of a handle on things. But considering we hadn’t even known for certain there was a Kuiper Belt a year earlier, it wasn’t exactly a shock.”

“And what did you ask for?” said Gordon.

She laughed. “I can send you a copy if you like. Basically, we were trying to establish that it really existed. The reason for the apparent emptiness of the outer solar system had never been clear. Once you get beyond Jupiter, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of asteroids or comets. We weren’t sure why. Maybe the gas giants simply swept the area clean. Or maybe it was a factor of sheer distance that we just couldn’t make out small objects that far away. Then, as the technology got better, we began to get indications that there were objects out there. A lot of them, and mostly beyond Neptune. What we wanted from Arkon was simply discovery. Go tell us what’s there.”

“Were you satisfied with the results?”

“Oh, yes.” She lit up. “Arkon 1 was a complete success. We had to wait eleven years for it to reach the area, but it was worth it. We found out there were tens of thousands of large objects in orbit beyond Neptune. The ones we had a chance to see were, for the most part, not the rocky asteroids of the inner solar system, but were instead composed primarily of ice.”

“How big is large?”

“Diameters of sixty miles or more.”

“Maria, was there anything unusual about the operation? Anything different?”

“Not that I’m aware of.” She looked thoughtful. “Other than the windup.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, usually, when they ran a mission like that, we were invited to JPL at the end. There’d be presentations, conferences, and generally a chance for all of us to get together and compare notes. They did a presentation with Arkon 1, took us to lunch, and that was about it. It almost seemed as if, as far as NASA was concerned, the mission hadn’t really been consequential. But I can understand that. To them, the Kuiper Belt was just a ring of ice.”

Gordon put it aside as a waste of time and went back to writing his history. His intention was to demonstrate what the nation had lost when the government had diverted funding as the national debt soared during the early years of the twenty-first century. And he probably would never have gone back to the Bancroft issue had he not come across another coincidence.

NERVA, which was to have designed a nuclear reactor that would power space travel, was abandoned in 1972 because of a combination of funding issues and concern about nuclear reactors in orbit. NASA tried to resurrect the idea in 2003 with the Prometheus Project. Gordon checked the Arkon 1 schedule: That would have been about the same time that the vehicle was getting its final boost from Neptune.

They put everything they had into it for two years, before the project was defunded in 2005.

“Something was going on,” he told Molly.

“Why? Because Neptune was always involved? It’s a coincidence.”

Gordon had spent time with a substantial number of astronauts over the years. He’d had some over for dinner. Had played bridge with others. And even vacationed with Cal Bennett and his wife. He’d specialized in writing human interest stories about the NASA experience, and the smartest thing he could do was get close to the people who rode the rockets.

One of them —he didn’t recall which—had commented that NASA was looking for volunteers to train for a long-range flight. That had been at about the same time that Prometheus was going forward. But he’d gotten nothing more on it. And when he’d asked, everybody just shrugged. Never heard of it.

Cal had been at the Cape when the Prometheus Project was launched, the all-out effort to create a nuclear reactor to power a space vehicle. He was a Navy commander, recently retired, now living in Glendale.

Gordon called him. “Be passing through your area tomorrow,” he said, making it clear he would be traveling without Molly. “I was wondering if I could treat for lunch?”

They met at the Cheesecake Factory, exchanged greetings, ordered their meals, and talked about politics for a while. Cal was tall and lean. He still looked as if he was on the happy side of forty. “How the hell do you do it?” Gordon asked.

The commander grinned. “You have to get enough chocolate,” he said.

“Yeah,” Gordon said. “I know the formula.” For him, weight was a constant battle. “What are you hearing from NASA these days?”

“Not a lot. I don’t think there’s much going on.” He looked frustrated. “We were supposed to be on Mars by now.”

“When I was a kid,” Gordon said, “we thought we’d have been on our way to Alpha Centauri by the end of the century.”

“You watch too many movies.”

“I guess.” The food came, a turkey sandwich for Gordon, pizza for Cal, iced tea for both. “You know,” Gordon continued, “I got my hopes up when they restarted the reactor research.”

“That was a long time ago, pal.” Cal shrugged. “I hate to say this, but I don’t think we’re going anywhere. Not now, or ever.”

“I hope you’re wrong.” Gordon bit into his sandwich.

“You know, I let myself get optimistic when they started Prometheus. But in the end it was the same problem: The government talked, gave us assurances, and then decided they had no money.”

Gordon nodded. “I even heard they started a program to train astronauts for long-range flights.”

Cal laughed. Or maybe it was more of a sneer. “Excalibur,” he said.

“Is that what they called it? Excalibur?”

Cal needed a minute. Maybe to finish chewing. Maybe to decide what he wanted to say. “Yeah. They were running it at the same time as Prometheus. It was classified at the time. But I can’t believe it matters now. Not after all these years. They were talking about a manned flight to Mars.”

“Why would they have wanted to keep it quiet?”

“They said it was because they didn’t want to get into another space-race competition with the Chinese.” He looked around to be sure no one was listening. “That made no sense, of course. They knew in the end they weren’t going anywhere, so they just didn’t want to call attention to it.”

“You think that’s why they resurrected the nuclear program? For Mars?”

“Sure,” he said. “It was the old dream. One last try—” He took a deep breath, and bit off another piece of pizza.


Gordon could find no record of an Excalibur Project in the archives. “What,” he asked Morrison, “is going on? What was NASA hiding?”

Morrison grunted and rolled his eyes. “Excalibur was a project that went nowhere. Lack of funding, right? The usual reason. We didn’t keep a record of it because it never got past the talking stage. Come on, Gordon, do you really have time to waste on this nonsense?”

“NASA was starting to think seriously about a Mars mission?”

“The White House was interested, Gordon. In fact, I think it was the president’s idea.”

“But we’d been hit on 9/11 and then got involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“Right. And that was the end of it.”

“Why did you —did NASArush the project?”

“Excalibur? We didn’t rush anything—”

“No. Arkon 1. Usually a major deep space launch needs at least ten years of preparation. This one got four.”

“How do you know?”

“The first time it’s mentioned is just after Voyager 2 passes Neptune. Before that, there’s nothing.”

“For God’s sake, Gordon.” Morrison was seated behind his desk. The Feynman photo hung just behind him. The director had just gotten started at JPL. He’d told the story numerous times of the great physicist’s visit, and how Morrison desperately wanted the photo but was embarrassed to ask until he realized that he might not get another chance. So he accepted the embarrassment to get the picture. Do the right thing, regardless of consequences. His maxim was displayed later on management awards he’d signed off on. “What are you trying to say? That we saw Martians out there? Even if we had, why would we keep it secret?”

“I don’t know, Tom. I have no idea. But all my instincts are telling me this is not a series of coincidences.”

“Well.” He checked his watch. “I hate to cut this short but I have to get to a meeting.”

“Since there’s nothing to this, I assume you won’t mind if I put together a story?”

He shrugged. “Do what you want. Before you go any further, though, I hope you can come up with a reasonable theory as to why we’d keep quiet about all this.” He laughed again. “Gordon, you’re going to ruin your reputation.”

“Maybe. But I just can’t pass on this, Tom. I won’t suggest an explanation, but some people might conclude that there’s a fleet of alien warships gathering out there. Voyager 2 only got a glimpse and nobody was sure. That’s why they launched Arkon, right? To find out what was going on.”

“Nobody’s going to buy that kind of story.”

It was a bluff, of course. Gordon’s editor would never print it. But Morrison couldn’t know that. In any case, Gordon had a blog. He could post it on that. “Maybe not.” He got up. “Somebody might have a better idea what was going on at the time, though. Anyhow, you can look for it in the Sunday Star-News.” He started toward the door.

As he reached for the knob, a chair squeaked behind him. “Wait a minute, Gordon.”

He stopped. Turned.

Morrison came around and stood in front of his desk. “We’ve been friends a long time. More than twenty-five years. Can I ask you to forget this whole thing? For me? For the good of the country? I’ll find a way to repay you.”

Gordon simply stared back.

“I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important.”

“Are there really invaders out there?”

“No,” he said. “Will you forget this?”

“I’m sorry, Tom. I’m a journalist. And this feels like the story of a lifetime.”

“There’s nothing I can do to persuade you?”

“You can tell me what it’s about.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Then I’ve no choice.” He opened the door and paused.

“Close it.”

In the outer office Morrison’s secretary was watching him. He pulled the door shut.

“I’ll tell you if you promise it goes no further.”

Gordon shook his head. “I can’t back off. But you know I won’t reveal my source.”

“You won’t have to. There’s no way management won’t know where this came from.”

“I’ll hand it off to somebody else.”

“Gordon, this is a matter of national security.”

“Tell me what it’s about and then, if I can see that revealing it would constitute a threat, I’ll bury it.”

Morrison pointed at the chair Gordon had been using.

He sat back down. Morrison stood quietly for a moment. “You’re right,” he said. “The Voyager did pick up something.” He chewed on his lip. “It looked as if there was a metal object with a smooth surface in orbit around Triton. We couldn’t get a good look, which is why we had the rush operation for Arkon.”

“One of the moons?”


“So the Kuiper Belt mission was a cover?”


“And it confirmed the sighting.”

“It did. There’s something out there, an artificial object. A big one. The size of a space station.”

“Did Arkon pick up an electronic signature of any kind?”

“If you’re asking whether the object has power, the answer is yes. No lights or anything like that, but it’s got functioning electronics on board.”

“Holy cats.”


“I’d think we would kill to get a look at the technology.”

“Of course. That’s why we started Prometheus. We needed a way to get out there that wouldn’t take ten years.”

“And they didn’t want China or somebody turning it into a race.”

“Exactly. Which is why it’s essential that you say nothing.”

“But we found out about this thing —what?—fifteen, sixteen years ago, and we still haven’t done anything. Do you by any chance have a secret mission en route as we speak?”


“So when—?”

“I don’t know, Gordon. We don’t have the funding.” He closed his eyes and took his head in his hands. “They were talking about it last month, but they went back into Iraq instead.” He was staring at Gordon again. “So what are you going to do?”

“You’re saying that we can’t put together a Neptune mission because we have to go back into Iraq. Do I have that right?”

“Yes. So what are you going to do?”

“The story will be in tomorrow’s paper.

“You know it’ll ruin me, Gordon—.”

“I’m sorry, Tom. It’ll be a rough ride for a time. But we’ll give you whatever support we can. Nobody wants to go back into the Middle East. This should be all we’ll need. Just keep your head down and you’ll come out the other end a national hero.”

“You sure you’re doing the right thing?” asked Molly.


“So what do you think is out there?”

“Nobody knows. But it’s time we found out.”

* * *

Jack McDevitt has been described by Stephen King as “The logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.” He is the author of twenty-one novels, twelve of which have been Nebula finalists. His novel Seeker won the award in 2007. In 2003, Omega received the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel. McDevitt’s most recent books are the Priscilla Hutchins origin adventure Starhawk, and Coming Home, an Alex Benedict mystery, both from Ace.

A Philadelphia native, McDevitt had a varied career before becoming a writer. He’s been a naval officer, an English teacher, a customs officer, and a taxi driver. He has also conducted leadership seminars for the U.S. Customs Service. He is married to the former Maureen McAdams, and resides in Brunswick, Georgia, where he keeps a weather eye on hurricanes.

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