Saturday, September 10, 2011

Burn Before Reading

This never happened. It’s just a silly story made up to link together some pedestrian actual events in a way so as to make a story out of it. There was actually a third party involved but, just for fun, I’ll pretend it was me.

In the middle 1970s I was employed at the University of California, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory as an independent nuclear research scientist. I loved my work and I was thinking about accepting an invitation to go abroad for a year, to Germany or maybe France. At the time I had just separated from my wife and was enjoying life as a newly minted middle aged bachelor. I was probably as physically fit as I had ever been in my life. I had just won the Intramural Gymnastics Championship at UC Berkeley, I was doing a lot of long distance running, running a circuit training course and doing some distance swimming almost every day. I went mountain climbing and skiing in the winter and I had just bought one of the first hang gliders. Clearly, I was itching for new challenges.

Just then, the phone rang. It was my brother, who is 5 years younger than me and who was working for the Air Force at Wright-Patterson Airbase in Ohio. About all I knew about his work was that it was highly classified. I think it was concerned with the liaison necessary to help contractors to gain access to secret information that they needed in order to design military defense systems.

His first words were, “What have you done now?” His boss had directed him to one of their conference rooms and told him to cooperate completely with the civilians who were waiting for him there. They never identified themselves but he guessed they were CIA. They wanted to talk about me, and the session lasted a couple of hours. He was told not to reveal any of the content of the meeting, or even that it had taken place. But brothers are brothers.

At the time I didn’t have a clue about what was going on but I was a little worried. Earlier I had been an officer in the Navy and I had had a few interesting assignments. My primary responsibilities had to do with nuclear weapons but I was also involved in communications security and cryptography. I had served as a courier in some situations where I was told that I would be on my own if anything went wrong. The Navy would just disown me. I never had a problem but you never know when things like that can come back to haunt you.

A couple weeks later I received a “form” letter whose stated purpose was to request that I update my contact information for the “Naval Reserve Officers Personnel Department”. The letter went on, in what appeared to be routine “boilerplate”, to remind me that I belonged to the US Navy and could be called on to serve if I was needed. Looked pretty routine. On the other hand, I had not had such a reminder in more than ten years, so a kind of sixth sense started to kick in. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it because it might be nothing, but I started to be a little more aware of my surroundings.

Somebody somewhere was apparently in a big hurry because two or three days later I had some visitors. No suits this time, but these guys were so clean cut it made my skin crawl. There were just two but I could see casual passers by on the street beyond that didn’t ring true. They said they represented the United States Government, presented identification and asked if they could come in. After some preliminary small talk aimed at establishing beyond a doubt that I was who I claimed to be, they got to the point. I was being asked to undertake an unprecedented mission somehow related to national security. They were not authorized to elaborate. A lot of time was spent emphasizing that it would be best if I entered this undertaking of my own free will, but there was an undercurrent in the conversation that suggested that I could be ordered to do it if necessary.
I wasn’t really reluctant since most of my “off the books” activities were interesting when I was on active duty in the Navy. None the less, I was tempted to drag my feet a bit just to see if I could learn more about the project. However, bravado won out over caution and even before they finished their spiel I interrupted with “Sure. No problem. What can I do for you?” At the time I suspected that it had something to do with the upcoming visit of a Russian colleague of mine, V. M.Strutinsky. Maybe they wanted me to plant a bug in his luggage or feed him “misinformation”.

They told me that some training (testing) would be required before the actual nature of the task could be revealed, and that I should put my affairs in order and prepare for about one month’s absence. They clearly had been anticipating my agreement because a lot of machinery was already in place. I was told to expect an invitation to visit a nuclear research center in Germany. I was to fast track it through the laboratory administration where I was working, make all my travel plans and fly to Germany.

When I got to the airport five days later I was met in the waiting area by another agent who asked to see my ticket and passport, which she kept! Then we boarded with the first class passengers. Things were looking up. Well, not exactly. Just before we entered the plane she spoke to one of the flight attendants, and we exited the ramp down the steep stairs that the ground attendants use and she passed me on to what looked like a baggage handler. He motioned me to join him on one of those small tractor like vehicles that are used to move baggage wagons, and off we went.

At this point it became clear that I had completely underestimated the upcoming assignment. I felt a wave of excitement and anticipation pass over me. In later life I came to associate this feeling with the decision to hoist a spinnaker even when there was clearly too much wind. I’d guess that “base jumping” must produce a similar effect.

Maybe this is a good time to backup a bit and look at how we came to this point. Most of what I’m about to recount leaked out during the training or I’ve made educated guesses. It all started when the Soviet Union launched a huge spy satellite with dangerously good photographic resolution capabilities. As often happens in these cases, we couldn’t complain about it without compromising our sources. Any attack on it would be an act of war and unthinkable. It was badly destabilizing and something had to be done. These are not easy decisions but it was finally decided to attempt a “stealth” attack that had a good chance going undetected but that would none the less render the satellite ineffective. Quite a bit was known about the design. For example, it was known that some of the critical components were shielded so that they could withstand micro-meteorite bombardment and even solar proton excursions. It would be difficult to disable. But it had a soft spot in that the security shields were concentrated on the earth facing side. The back of the satellite was undefended, so we could sneak up on it from above.

One of the NASA-DOD contractors had been developing an “anti-satellite”  defence system that utilized new and existing stealth technology and they were eager to give it a try on what looked like an easy target. It consisted of a “A Task Module” that was about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. The engineers called it “the bug”. There was a detachable “Manned Maneuvering Unit” for the pilot, and when it moved away the ATM looked more like a convertible Beetle with the top down.

The MMU was bigger than the maneuverable spacesuit outfits that you see photos of, because it wasn’t tethered and was designed for fairly long range independent activity. It was shaped sort of like a computer mouse. There was space for a pilot and folding arms for performing tasks requiring dexterity. Otherwise it was packed with computer and communications systems and fuel for the thrusters. Both of these components were distinguished by cutting edge stealth technology. The shapes that I have described suggest rounded egg like appearance, but actually they looked more like cut gemstones covered with facets. There was almost no metal used in the construction. They were made of plastic, fiberglass and various composite materials. I was told that they had almost no radar signature. What little return there was would be erratic and blend in with the background noise.

Since the astronaut program in the US was known to be infiltrated it was not going to be possible to assign one of the existing cadre of pilots to this project. Their absence would be noticed. So a search was mounted, using a number of government databases some of which don’t officially exist. They wanted someone from outside the system that had the necessary skills. One search was for a high enough level security clearance. At one point I had had a clearance that didn’t even have a name, so I showed up on that list. Another search was for someone, a PhD Physicist for example, who could understand and employ the flood of information involved in orbital dynamics. I was on that list. Then there was kinesthetic
awareness. Since I had competed in springboard diving, had trained with the Penn State gym team and had metals from tramboline competitions, I was on that list as well. There was another list having roughly to do with psychological factors deemed essential for the task. (I don’t want to go into it.) I was on that list. Finally, there was the fact that I could ordered to go on if I decided to back out.

Not to say that there weren’t many people on these lists. However, only a select few were on all the lists. In the final filtering things like physical and psychological fitness entered as did family considerations. I was really single at the time. And my brother had apparently painted a glowing picture of my abilities, along the lines of “the crazier the better”.

So back to the main thread of the story. We were on a baggage tractor at the airport. It ended up at a rather small unmarked private jet. Four or five hours later we landed at an airbase and taxied into a big hanger before unloading. I didn’t see much daylight for the next week or so. In fact I think that they twisted my time sense around so that I was sleeping during the day and most of the training took place at night. That meant that the normal operating crews at many of the facilities were unaware that the program was in progress.

The training was wonderful. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I had people around me pushing all the time. Not like in boot camp, but friendly and supportive. I remember once being too tired to lift my arms to eat and someone had to make me something to drink. There was an interesting pattern. At the beginning of an exercise it was all physical but as I started to tire the level of decision making and problem solving went up and up. Finally, at the end, I’d burn out physically and mentally at about the same time.

The training was mostly physical. I already knew a lot of the physics, so the mental training had mostly to do with ATM and satellite familiarization and drills on emergency procedures designed to automate certain responses and reduce reaction times. We spent a lot of time on a specially equipped “vomit comet” and in a huge under water pool that was used to teach weightlessness.

Some of the insiders had misgivings about the brevity of the training, but there was a launch window that wouldn’t wait and a launch vehicle already sitting on the pad at Vandenberg.

Toward the end the training took on a dark feeling since we were practicing for end game strategies that would get the job done even in the event of unforeseen problems that would make it into a one way trip.

The big day arrived in a flash. I had breakfast in Texas (special no bulk no residue) and by the afternoon I was solidly locked in waiting for someone to push the …....5,4,3,2,1 button. No straps or belts, since the MMU was so small the “pilot cavity” had been formed by pouring in foam around a dummy with my dimensions. I didn’t move again for more than 12 hours.

The Russian satellite was in a relatively low polar orbit with an orbital period of about 1.5 hours. Because the earth is spinning along underneath these orbits there are roughly eight separate tracks that lie under the satellite and some of these pass over the US and can not be seen from Russia. It was our plan to insert the ATM above the satellite orbit and then let the satellite catch up. (The higher a satellite the slower is it’s ground speed.) There was a noisy phony satellite inserted at a lower altitude to justify the launch and divert attention.

It worked like a charm. We were basically invisible to Russian surveillance and the distance was slowly closing. I had visual contact at 5 miles, so I separated the MMU and went in for the kill. Pretty dramatic language for what actually happened.

It had been decided, at the last minute, that damage to the satellite would give us away. So my task was to degrade the satellite performance in some subtle way. The solution the “big brains” came up with was a stroke of genius in my opinion. The MMU was equipped with a little spray nozzle on the end of a thin flexible tube that I used to paint a thin film on each of the lenses of the cameras that were aimed down toward the earth. This film consisted of an organic substance that would slowly darken with time. It would be weeks before they noticed any change. The whole job took about 10 minutes so I had time to spare and since the MMU was filming everything I backed off and got some better camera angles. In retrospect, things might have gone quite a bit differently if I had just headed straight back to the ATM.

As I turned away and began accelerating to move the orbit up there was a sudden sharp pain in the middle of my back that felt like someone had pushed a hot needle through me from behind. My first thought, since I had my back to the satellite, was that I had triggered some sort of bobby trap and I was being attacked. I hit the manual override and made a hard burn for home. No sense saving fuel if someone is shooting at you. A sweet female voice was giving me a list of medical options prominent among which were pain killers and coagulating agents. At first I thought I was going to make it but my reflexes were slowing down and the injected adrenaline and other uppers weren’t doing the job. The last thing I remember was the ATM approaching (probably too fast).

Apparently we came together hard but good enough to do the job. In the absence of any commands from me the ATM started the reentry profile. This was not a simple thing since we had to back away from the satellite and wait until we were not visable from Russia to initiate the reentry burn. 

I had not been informed ahead of time about the possibility of ground control helping because it was a delicate business and they didn’t want to have me yelling”Help!” But they were able check orbit parameters and figure out where I was going to come down. The original plan was to come down in the Caribbean where a fleet of US ships was (conveniently) conducting exercises. Because of the rough reentry I came down nearer to Flordia and even though there was a scramble to get under the ATM I ended up spending about half an hour in the water before being picked up by a Coast Guard buoy tender. Since they were not authorized to open the capsule another hour passed before a helicopter showed up to transfer the capsule to an aircraft carrier where there was a welcoming committee.

It was another 10 hours or so until they decided to wake me up. I had been put to sleep by the medical program once it decided that I wasn’t doing anything useful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as beautiful as the battleship grey walls of that operating room, but I did feel bad that I had missed all the drama of the reentry prosess.

They were only able to find some tiny cinder like chips in the wound (and some plastic from the MMU shell.) The MMU canopy had a tiny clean hole melted through it, so the missile was probably a micro-meteorite that I just managed to get in the way of. The hole in me was a little bigger because they were hunting around for pieces. Subsequently I have been telling people, even my Dermatologist, that it was a melanoma and that I am lucky to be alive. Part of that is true. Even though the story is something that I just made up.