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Von Neumann's War: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Sunday, April 30, 2006 23:21 EDT



    The eight-inch diameter aperture Meade LX90 her father had gotten her for her birthday the previous year more than thrilled Charlotte Fisher. Most fifteen-year-old girls would have wanted something more girly, but not her. The color ccd camera he got her this year might—just might—make up for him missing her birthday again. But ever since the divorce a few years ago when he took that job at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California—to get away from her mom—he began missing things while at the same time trying to make up for it by buying her expensive gifts. In the case of the computer-driven telescope, it did. The perfectly clear evenings in the high altitude at Denver were perfect for stargazing—well, if you could get far enough away from the light pollution of the city. Fortunately, they lived far enough north from the city that a few dark places could be found.

    "I think Mars is more, I dunno, grey colored than red," Tina said as she pointed to the image on the laptop while Charlotte brought the little planet into focus.

    "Yeah, I think so too," Charlotte replied.

    "Hey, maybe we should go over and ask Mikey about it," Tina giggled.

    "I want to do some more observing here," Charlotte fiddled with the altitude-azimuth controls on the telescope.

    "Chicken!" Tina said. "You know he likes you. Just go talk to him."

    "What would I say? I mean he's a jock and just at this star party for the extra credit he needs in science class and me . . . I'm nobody he wants to talk to."

    "Whatever. I'm gonna go see what he's up to."

    "You better not!"

    "Only way you're gonna stop me is to go yourself." Tina flipped her blonde hair over her shoulder and giggled again as she turned away.

    The two had been an unlikely pair since grade school. Tina was a petite and ditsy blonde-hair-blue-eyes cheerleader type who always wanted attention and Charlotte was the dark-haired-sit-quietly-in-the-front-of-the-class-and-make-straight-A's type. The only time Charlotte ever got loud or aggressive was on the girl's fast-pitch softball team. She was only five feet six inches tall, but she had the super athletic ability of being able to knock the cover off a softball. This made her a deadly homerun hitter. The two girls had been best friends since grade school and neither of them knew why—well, that wasn't exactly true. Charlotte's dad John Fisher and Tina's mother Alice Pike had worked together at the Denver Lockheed Martin facility as long as the two girls could remember. That was of course, up until the divorce and Charlotte's dad had taken a promotion and transfer out to California. John was a booster systems designer, a "rocket scientist," while Alice was a physicist working on advanced microprocessor design, pushing the theoretical limits to find smaller and smaller processors that used very little power for space applications.

    "Dingbat." Charlotte shook her head as she went back to work.

    She set the computer to capture a long-term exposure of the little red planet, hoping that she would be able to see the redness that she had seen before. Mars had been the first thing she viewed the previous year when she had gotten the telescope from her dad. She had viewed it a few times since but Saturn was her favorite. She had spent most of her time viewing the beautiful rings of the giant gas planet. But their assignment for class was to view Mars.

    "What are you looking at, Miss Fisher?" Mr. Anders asked his prize pupil.

    "Mars. It'll come up on the screen in a minute. I'm taking a long exposure."

    Mr. Anders stood by quietly as the image on the laptop began to appear. Mars' outline and the larger features like the polar ice cap filled in first, then more detail filled in. The image was slightly blurry because of the layers of Earth's atmosphere being turbulent, but the software had an algorithm to remove some of the fuzziness and enhance the edge features of the image. Finally, the computer dinged, announcing the image was complete and post-processed.

    "Let's blow it up and look at it," Mr. Anders said.

    Charlotte dragged the mouse pointer over to the zoom controls and expanded the view. The little planet filled the screen.

    "Hmmm . . ." Charlotte murmured. "Doesn't look right."

    "Have you got a filter on the eyepiece?" Mr. Anders asked her.

    "Nope, that's an unfiltered image and my ccd is color."

    "Hey, I thought Mars was supposed to be red." Mike said pointing over Mr. Anders shoulder. Tina stood behind him pointing and nodding at Charlotte as they approached the telescope. Charlotte tried to ignore her.

    "That's right, Mike," Mr. Anders said, looking at Charlotte's telescope and computer camera setup. "It should be."

    "Well, unless my brand new ccd camera is broken," Charlotte replied, "Mars is now gray."

    "Well, there's a red light on that tower over there. Why don't you look at it with your telescope and see if it's red?" Mike suggested.

    "Very good idea, Mike." Mr. Anders noted.

    "Yeah, Mike, very good idea." Tina giggled, and moved around to poke Charlotte in the ribs.

    Charlotte slapped at Tina's finger, then dragged the mouse pointer down to the scope controls icon. Charlotte bit at her lip while she cycled the scope to point to the tower. After a second or two of refocusing, the red light from the tower filled the laptop's screen.

    "Shit, I don't understand." Charlotte realized that she had just cursed in front of her teacher and held her hand over her mouth.

    Mr. Anders acted as though he hadn't heard and shook his head. "I don't understand it either."



    Ret Ball: Tina from Boulder, Colorado, you are on the Truth Nationwide.

    Caller: Yeah Ret, oh my God I can't believe I'm on the radio. (giggle)

    Ret Ball: Well, believe it or not you are on the Truth Nationwide with Ret Ball. What can I do for you tonight, Tina?

    Caller: Yeah, me and my buddy Charlotte looked at Mars last night through her telescope and it ain't red at all. Like that Megiddo fellow said. It's gray.

    Ret Ball: Really? How old are you and Charlotte?

    Caller: Well I'm thir- . . . uh . . . eighteen.

    Off-phone, female voice, faint: Dingbat!

    Caller: But we really did see it and it was gray not red.

    Ret Ball: Out of the mouths of babes. Next caller is Tim from Beantown. Go ahead Tim you are on The Truth Nationwide.



    "I'm glad y'all could make it tonight." Roger held up his beer glass while Tom and Alan made themselves comfortable on the wooden stools. "I went and did some checking of my own. Traci was right. There is a noticeable difference in the surface albedo of Mars. This one paper I found by a J.H. Davis, et al., even had some really good Hubble data from a year and a half ago. Interestingly enough, the paper says there will be another run from Hubble on Mars this past year, but I've looked everywhere and can't find it. I even called up to Johns Hopkins and got stonewalled about it. I wanted to discuss the ramifications of that with y'all."

    "You never learn do you?" Traci laughed. Tom had started to pour himself a beer, but Traci appeared as if from nowhere and slapped him on the hand.

    "Yeah, Tom," Alan chuckled, "that's her job."

    "Shift change . . . I just got here and I'm running sooo late tonight." Traci smiled at the three men and finished pouring the beer, then adjusted her T-shirt so it was tighter across the front.

    "Wings tonight fellows?"

    "Nah, just beer, I think," Roger said, sliding his now empty glass towards her.

    "Hey, beer is food," Alan said. "Cheers!"

    "I'll have some curly fries," Tom told her. Traci wrote something down on a piece of paper and attached it to the wire above her head. "ORDER IN!" She smiled, slid the order down the wire, and turned to her other tables.

    "So what gives, Rog?" Alan sipped his beer.

    "I think it's a muster point," he said.

    "What is a muster point?" Tom leaned in to listen better.

    "It's a point or location where forces gather to prepare for further advancement. But that's not important right now," Alan replied with a grin.

    "Be serious for a moment, Alan," Tom said sonorously. "I know it's not in your nature, but you simply have to apply yourself. You can do it. Maybe not doctoral level sobriety, but masters level should be possible."

    "I guess this was the wrong day to stop drinking beer then," Alan said, still grinning as he killed off his beer. He was the only one of the three who had, as he put it, "gotten a real job" after getting his masters. Ergo, he was not a "doctor," simply a lowly schlub engineer with a masters.

    "I think that Mars is being used to muster resources," Roger said. He contemplated his beer glass and seemed more serious than usual. "I did a calculation from some of that data I found on the Internet and the rate of change of Mars' surface albedo is so nonlinear that there is no way this is some sort of natural phenomena."

    "What, you think it's aliens?" Tom asked with a laugh.

    "Yes," Roger said flattly monotone.

    Alan put his beer down, picked it back up as if to drink the last backwash from it, and set it down without drinking. "You're serious, aren't you, Rog?"

    "Okay, you explain how the entire surface of a planet changes color in a year and how come we've lost all contact with any of the probes we've sent there. And why data from the Hubble Space Telescope that always—always—goes on the Space Telescope Science Institute's website is missing. All the other data from the other Hubble runs is there, but not that one. I checked Hubble's schedule. The Mars run was on it. Where's the data? I'll tell you where: It's been classified."

    "All right, let's assume that you are right. What do we do about it?" Tom asked.

    "Well, I think the first and most important thing is intel. We'll need recon of the planet. I mean recon with sub-meter resolution." Roger waited for the implications of his statement to sink in on the other two engineers.

    "Yes, yes, that's what Earth should do. But what do we do about it?" Tom repeated.

    "We," Roger emphasized. "We assume that somebody is looking into it, and that it's the right somebody. Then, as I said, I think the first and most important thing is intel. We'll design a recon mission of the planet. And again, I mean recon with sub-meter resolution. Then, I guess, I'll just have to take the mission design and put it in front of the right somebody." Roger nodded to the two men as if they understood what he meant by the "right somebody."

    "Sub-meter? Alan whistled.

    Wow, we can't do that with any telescope from Earth orbit."

    "And it takes a half of a year at least just to get to Mars," Tom said, shaking his head.

    "Well, I've been thinking about that," Roger admitted. "All we really need is a good old-fashioned spy satellite. Just one that is smaller and lighter and has to go a hell of a lot farther and faster, then stop and deploy itself."

    "Oh, well, if that's all. . . ." Tom laughed.

    "Here is a strawman design for a recon probe I put together last night." Roger ignored Tom's comment and continued by handing the two men each a copy of some block diagrams for a spacecraft design. "It's similar to the one we worked on for—you know." Roger raised an eyebrow and looked around the restaurant, making clear that they couldn't discuss that here. The two men looked back and nodded in realization of what Roger was hinting at. Then he could tell that they both realized who "the right somebody" must be.

    "It's just a block diagram of what we would need, but I think we could build a probe from off-the-shelf parts in no time. Some of the parts we could rob from that new Discovery program Jupiter probe and some from—uh, you know, other sources." He nodded again, implying that of course the other men did know. In fact, the three men had worked on previous classified spy and communications satellite programs for more than fifteen years together. But few people knew that or ever would know that.

    "The problem is the propulsion. Tom, how could we get there faster than six months?" Alan interrupted.

    "Hmmm. That ain't easy or we'd be doing it, right? Let's see, if we assume a Delta IV launch, and COTS engines for the probe, and assuming that Mars is in the right part of its orbit, you might do it in six months, but I doubt less." Tom picked up a Hooters napkin and started scribbling notes on it.

    "What if we made the probe small enough that we could get two upper stages on it?" Alan suggested.

    "That might work, but we would need to know the spacecraft bus size and how much room we would have for the kick stages. And it really isn't a factor of the payload mass as the number of stages, stage efficiency, and thrust needed." Tom drew out a picture of a Delta IV primary payload shroud and drew some boxes of varying shapes and sizes inside it. Then he began scribbling while muttering under his breath.

    "Kick motor1 ~30,000kg, kick motor2 30,000kg, tankage 2000kg, heat transfer100kg, batteries & PCU 1000kg, ACS/RCS 150kg, hi-gain deployable antenna 50kg, low-gain antenna 5kg, main bus 1000kg, GN&C 50kg, IVHM 5kg, science suite 1000kg, structural components 100kg, and pyrotechnics 10kg, braking engine and fuel 1000kg." Then to the side of the drawing he wrote: Total = really heavy.

    "Yep, Delta IV Heavy with strap-ons or an Atlas V with strap-ons. But, I'm not sure that just two upper stages are enough."

    "Hey, hold on a minute. If we're gonna see anything once we get into a closed orbit about Mars we still need a pretty good-sized aperture. So don't start eatin' up my room for the telescope with extra kick rockets. And since we're gonna need at least a half meter telescope or better, you probably ought to add another 500kg for the telescope itself," Roger warned.

    "Hey, now there is an idea!" Tom got quiet for a second and zoned out in thought. The other two men had worked with him long enough to know that they shouldn't interrupt his process, because he usually came up with something brilliant when he did that. They sat patiently, quietly, and drank their beers. Alan had had to refill his because Traci was busy on the other side of the restaurant, but he made sure she was not looking his direction when he did.

    "Let's see . . ." Tom began to mutter to himself. "The C3 for that orbit's . . . right . . . the I-S-P for that engine is four hundred-eighty seconds as near as makes no difference . . . and the asymptotic velocity would be . . . yep!"

    "What?" Roger asked.

    "Why orbit Mars? It's a waste of mass to put the braking engine on there. Let's do a super quick fly-by. Hell, we could even crash into it if we want to. Take data right up to the end although you wouldn't have time to send back the data if you impact the planet, hmmm, better fly-by. If the problem is that the entire planet is changing then we should be able to see the phenomenon wherever we look, so orbiting isn't really needed. Yep, fly-by sounds right," he concluded.

    "And with the right engines and the right trajectory—I want to check my thinking on my computer later, but—I think we could get a spacecraft large enough to do the job there in four or five months travel time—maybe."

    "Can you get me those calculations soon?" Roger asked.

    "What's the hurry, Rog?" Alan cocked his head to the left and looked in his beer glass.

    "Well, first, if it's aliens we shouldn't just sit around and let them continue on with whatever it is they're doing." Roger sipped his beer and wiped his mouth. "Second, I'm headed back up to Chantilly next week for a meeting with the Director of AS and T at—you know. And I thought I could give him a white paper with the reasoning, strawman, mission architecture, and possible data product description. We should put a short bit in there about CONOPS also. Alan, I'd need you to write up the part on the command and data handling. Figure out how we'd get the data back from Mars." Roger tapped a box on the rough strawman drawing on the napkin in front of him marked C&DH. "And the telecom—both spacecraft and ground stations."

    "No problem. We'll probably need a big aperture and a TWeeTA or two. Deep Space Network would be nice, but I'll shoot for some thirty-meter dishes groundside. Who's doing the power generation, conditioning, and distribution systems?"

    "I guess I'll handle as much of the nuts and bolts as I can manage over the weekend. I'm thinking we might be able to grab a spacecraft bus that is already being built for another program. Tom, could you work out the trajectories and such? Figure out what motors and what requirements for the ACS and RCS to hold us on target within say a tenth of a microradian right up until we hit the Martian closest approach point?" Roger asked.

    "Yeah, sounds like fun. Assume a Delta IV or Atlas V, right?"

    "Yeah, or whatever it takes. Just remember that time is of the essence and we want off-the-shelf stuff. I'll copy and paste standard spacecraft fairing and attachment stuff out of one of our previous mission white papers. We should be able to put together a pretty good mission architecture concept." Roger rubbed his chin wondering if he had forgotten anything.

    "What about the cost and schedule?" Tom asked.

    "Oh, yeah, we'll need that too, I expect. I'll do a ROM and a schedule. Hey, you know what, I think I still have that Microsoft Project task and work breakdown structure we did on that last mission. I could change it pretty easy to have a pretty good ROM and schedule for this concept. Let's see, is there anything else?"

    "Hey, Rog." Alan rubbed his chin.


    "What about security?"

    "Oh, yeah, we best not forget security." Roger nodded. "Let's treat everything we write up in the white world as though we're thinking about an idea for a NASA space probe mission. After all, it's always worked in the past. Anything related to the actual mission and components from previous programs, I'll add in at the SCIF at work and take care of the classification then. Let's treat the real idea from now on as if it were classified at special levels, because if you-know-who buys into this you know that it will become that way. And I don't want to have to do a bunch of back briefings and security stuff later."

    "Uh," Tom looked around the room wide-eyed. "Then I guess we shouldn't talk about it here anymore?"

    "You're probably right," Alan said.

    "Can we meet at my office for lunch tomorrow, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday to see where we are with this?"

    "Fine by me," Alan said.

    "Hey, we can pull Project up on the big projection screen in the conference room and y'all can help fix that WBS and schedule up."

    "Suits." Tom scribbled a few more notes on his napkins.

    "Make sure those napkins are unclassified, Tom."

    "Yes, mother."



    Dr. Ronrico "Ronny" Guerrero, the Director of Advanced Science and Technology of the National Reconnaissance Office, listened patiently to the update briefing on one of his many programs. The briefing was business as usual. The scientist in front of the room was smart, precise and had done his homework. What would have been extremely exciting discussions about space-based sparse array antennas now seemed sort of, mundane, because the DAS&T had recently been given another task with a short turn around, which was way more exciting—and frightening at the same time. He was preoccupied. However, Ronny was the ultimate in professionalism and would get the job done—all of his jobs done—to the utmost of his abilities. It was the only way that he knew to do business. It was the only way he could do business. Otherwise he would have never made it to where he currently was. And still be alive.

    At fourteen he had been a peasant boy in Cuba and was tired of that life and that place. He had actually lived in a cardboard-and-corrugated-tin house and his living standards were nonexistent. One day after his mother passed away—who knew, she might have lived with better healthcare—Ronny walked out to the ocean and swam north, hoping to cross the ninety miles of water to the United States. He swam and swam. He swam, floated, and swam again for two days and nights until he could go no further. Ronny could still remember, floating on his back and looking at the night sky, how he thought it would be better to die free in the ocean than as an oppressed peasant. He had done the right thing even if he drowned or was eaten by a shark. The next day—sunburned beyond belief, dehydrated and half dead—he thought he was delirious when he saw land in front of him. He was—it wasn't land at all. Ronny had been lucky that a charter fishing boat out of Key West spotted him. The odds of that having occurred were ridiculous but he was rescued. God had been with him and Ronny would always thank Him for that.

    With a second lease on life, Ronny worked hard to become an American and become accepted by his American peers. A Cuban-American family in Miami took him in and put him into a parochial school where he immediately showed that there was a fine mind in that peasant brain. On his twenty-second birthday—naturalized as an American citizen and with a bachelor's degree in physics—he joined the Air Force. Those years developed a mindset that soon led him into reconnaissance and flight technologies. He enjoyed it and was good at it and used the opportunity to study graduate level physics at the University of the Air Force. Ronny moved up in the Air Force and by the time he was thirty earned a tour at the then totally "black" organization now known as NRO. While at NRO he completed his doctorate in physics at Virginia Tech.

    Ronny retired as a lieutenant colonel, then took a position as a civil servant with the NRO for a second, arguably third, career. He quickly moved up and became the director of AS&T. It hadn't been all easy for him. Being from a foreign background—Cuban no less—his loyalty often came into question by adversaries, and his security clearance investigations always had taken three times longer than normal. But Ronny kept his nose clean and maintained a work ethic that made him the go-to guy for space systems implementation and shut down any of his opposition. Having taken a, provable, chance on swimming to the U.S. also tended to reduce the possibility, in most people's eyes, that he was an agent. In short, when it came to building space recon systems Ronny had always gotten the job done. Now the DNRO had given him the ultimate challenge—get recon on another planet.

    Ronny would get that job done, but he wouldn't let it interfere with his other tasks either. He felt he had to continuously prove he was superhuman, or at least better than the others. So, no matter what the task before him, Ronny always gave it one hundred percent—even if he was preoccupied with a more daunting and pressing problem. Ronny leaned back in his leather conference room chair and placed his hands behind his head while he tried to focus on his multitasking.

    "So you see, Dr. Guerrero, the structural integrity of the antenna booms can dampen out the low frequency platform jitter and the higher jitter the piezo electric system can handle. It's our conclusion and recommendation to you that the Phase 0 design is viable and that the program is ready to move forward to a science readiness review and to Phase 1," the contractor finished in his slow Southern accent.

    "That's very good, Roger. I'll take that under advisement. If there is nothing else then?" Ronny looked at his watch and frowned. The contractor actually had about fifteen more minutes scheduled with him so he'd, apparently, sped his brief. Ronny's support staff took that as a cue to end the meeting and they began closing their notes and stretching.

    "Uh, since we've got a little more time, just one more thing, Dr. Guerrero, if you please. I'd like to show you an unusual concept that I don't know if you would be interested in or not, but my hopes are that you will."

    Roger took four copies of the Mars Recon white paper from his double-locked bags and passed them around the room. He waited for a copy to make it to Dr. Guerrero's hands before he began. Ronny was certain that Roger was trying to gauge the expression on his face. There was no expression. Guerrero had been in the super-secret world long enough to develop a perfect poker face.

    "This may sound a little strange at first, but please hear me through on it," Roger began. "It has come to my team's attention that the bolometric albedo of Mars appears to be changing. It's getting shinier and less red. We have data and references here in the white paper to back that claim up—it's real. The intriguing part is that there is a data run from the Hubble this past cycle that is missing from the public domain. Since the Hubble data is usually white, I find it intriguing that a run on Mars has been made 'black.' "

    Roger looked around the room at Guerrero and his aids for any sign that they had prior knowledge of this. Ronny and his team, again, displayed perfect poker faces.

    "So, given that the surface of Mars is changing on such a massive scale that the bolometric albedo has been altered, then something major is going on there—probably something unnatural. The plot there on page two shows the required increase of certain compounds and metals in kilograms versus time. There are four different good data points and seven from some unverified Internet data. We then curvefitted that data and you see it matches a simple population growth model." Roger paused again.

    "The rate of growth is amazing. We believe that it may be a muster point for some alien force. Whether or not that force is friendly or preparing to attack us we have no idea. Based upon that data, we believe it's advisable to perform reconnaissance of Mars. This is recon that could only be gained by sending a recon satellite configured as a probe. And if it's an alien force preparing to attack, then time is of the essence."

    Roger paused and Ronny could tell from the expression on Roger's face that he had been half expecting to be laughed out of the room. There were no smiles, frowns, or comments. The room remained dead calm—just like before a storm. Ronny gave nothing away but the very lack of laughter at the preposterous idea said volumes.

    "So," Roger continued, swallowing nervously, "we have put together a mission architecture concept that could do the job and be ready for launch in five to six months with a four to five month traverse time."

    "Roger," Ronny began in his thick Cuban accent. "Four months to Mars? I'm not sure I believe that."

    Ronny realized that he had said too much, because Roger smiled in acknowledgement. Roger was a smart guy and the fact that Guerrero didn't believe the traverse time told Roger that they already had been looking at an interplanetary mission. And Ronny was certain that Roger would surmise that since the NRO had been looking at a Mars mission, something must really be going on with Mars.

    "That's the clever part of this concept, Dr. Guerrero," Roger said with greater confidence. "If you want to slow down and orbit Mars, it would take longer. But, why orbit? If whatever this phenomenon is has changed the entire planet's surface, then a fly-by mission is all you need. That allows you to remove the need for braking engines and reduces the throw weight tremendously. Instead of a braking engine, we have two kick motors and therefore we go a lot faster."

    "That's the answer!" one of the aides in Air Force blues responded excitedly. Guerrero looked at him as if to scold him.

    The DAS&T remained quiet for a minute or two longer and flipped through the white paper.

    "Roger," he said slowly "what I am about to tell you is Top Secret compartmentalized codename Neighborhood Watch and doesn't go beyond this room. We'll get you some paperwork to sign after this meeting."

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