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Von Neumann's War: Chapter Five

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



    More than a hundred scientists and engineers had been gathered by the Neighborhood Watch program leaders in the North Alabama town. Only a week after Roger Reynolds had delivered the white paper presentation to the DDNRO, he had been contacted by the NRO and awarded a prime contract for more than a billion dollars. The company Roger worked for had not expected a contract or even known of the white paper, but they were happy to help the NRO spend its money—if they could figure out how to spend more than a billion dollars in less than a year.

    Roger was given the directive from the DDNRO to brief the commanding general of the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama—two-star General Daniel "Danny" Riggs—and the Director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Dr. Sidney Byron. Roger gathered Tom and Alan and spent the better part of the next day with General Riggs and Dr. Byron developing a plan to choose the right facilities and personnel. Most of the facilities were available either from MSFC or Redstone, but they decided to have two local Huntsville space/defense contractors to "volunteer" a fabrication shop and a clean room, respectively. The civil service and military facilities would be funded via government-to-government funds transfers. The rest would be handled through subcontracts to the prime contractor that Roger Reynolds worked for.

    It had taken the better part of the day and most of the night, but a cohesive list of subtask-level team leaders was put together. One of the problems was insuring that each of the members chosen as team leaders had a current Secret security clearance at a minimum. Initially, only people with Top Secret and Special Access or Top Secret and SCI level clearances were considered. The problem that soon became apparent was that although there were plenty of DOD scientists and engineers available with proper clearances who could handle portions of the mission design, most of the NASA employees and contractors that were needed for various aspects were not cleared at any level at all. It was a problem that most Huntsville residents were aware of—the DOD/NASA political dichotomy. Most NASA employees became NASA employees because they wanted to work on public space programs and tended to have the attitude that there shouldn't be secrets. DOD employees on the other hand, held completely opposite philosophies and in many cases the political and philosophical differences created friction between the two groups.

    But Roger Reynolds, Tom Powell, and Alan Davis had been straddling the fence between both communities for a number of years now and personally knew most of the others in town and within the community who were "straddlers". This experience enabled them to pick and choose qualified and cleared people with a bit more ease. However, in the end they just couldn't find a complete list and had to settle for a few handfuls of folks with only Secret level clearance. They had to get a special allowance from the NRO. But when he saw the problem, Ronny Guerrero made it happen.

    After a long and exhausting night of planning, the next morning General Riggs and Dr. Byron, invited the list of Army and NASA civil servants and contractors to attend the kick-off meeting in the Sparkman Center Auditorium, which would occur in three days. The invitation to the meeting was hand delivered or secure faxed to each person on the list and read:

    Your presence at a meeting of the utmost urgency and importance is requested. The meeting will be held at the Sparkman Center auditorium on the Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, this Friday. We apologize for the short notice, but again, this is a matter of extreme urgency.

    The meeting will be at the Top Secret level. If you are not cleared to this level, arrangements are being made to have you cleared in the interim. Please be certain to fill out the forms enclosed and appropriate visit request paperwork and fax it to the number given below, immediately.

    Initial attendance is voluntary; however, all those attendees who decide to remain for the briefing will be reimbursed for their time and expenses. Direct procurement opportunities are also possible.

    Sincerely, General Daniel Riggs Dr. Sidney Byron Commanding General Director United States Army NASA Marshal Space Flight Center Redstone Arsenal, Alabama Huntsville, Alabama

    No invitations were turned down.



    The auditorium on the other hand, posed a problem since it was only rated for Top Secret level briefings and not for Sensitive Compartmented Information or Special Access Programs. A three-day waiver was authorized by the NRO and the Joint Chiefs, provided that the building was monitored for eavesdropping sensors before and after each meeting session and only individuals to be briefed into Neighborhood Watch were allowed into the building housing the auditorium during the briefings. A security specialist team swept the building for transmitters. General Riggs ordered three days of administrative leave for all of the employees who worked in the Sparkman Center building. No cover was created but if your name was not on the invitation list, then you did not get into the building those three days.



    Dr. Tom Powell, Alan Davis, and Dr. Reynolds stood on the stage of the stadium seating-style auditorium as the final attendees of the meeting filtered into the seats in the upper rows. Armed security guards stepped into the room at each door and pulled the doors closed behind them. Roger nodded to Tom and Alan and the two of them left the stage and sat down in the first row.

    "Thank all y'all for coming today. I see a lot of familiar faces here and a few I don't recognize. For those of you I haven't met before, I'm Dr. Roger Reynolds with the local space group office for Space Defense Systems Research, Incorporated. What I would like for everybody to do first is to read the form on the cover of the sealed folders in front of you. Take five minutes and read the nondisclosure agreement carefully and, if you agree to it, sign it." Roger stood at the podium patiently for five minutes.

    "Now, if anybody did not sign the form in front of you please leave now."

    Nobody stood up.

    "Okay, from this point on every person present in this room has indicated that they have signed the documents," Roger asked. "It, legally, doesn't matter if you have or not; you're now covered by the security regulations of those documents and the penalties laid out for failure to comply with the security requirements. Very well, open the folders and turn to the first page. Let's have the first slide on the screen please.

    "So here is an overview of what we plan to put together in less than five months." Roger cleared his throat as the first PowerPoint slide, a picture of a satellite, appeared on the multiple big screens behind him.

    "The reason you are all here is that Mars is being changed by something unnatural. Its surface reflectance albedo has been changed enough so that in the past year these changes can now be detected via small commercial telescopes. We have no idea what is causing this phenomenon, but we suspect that it's not a natural occurrence, Roger emphasized.

    "Our purpose here is to find out what is going on there and to find out fast. We can speculate all we want, but without recon intel we have no means of truly knowing what's going on there." Roger paused and cleared his throat and scanned the darkened auditorium for reactions. The reactions from most of the room were guarded.

    "So, from this slide and from the documents you just signed we see that this information is classified and compartmented. The mission will be referred to from here on as Top Secret codename Neighborhood Watch and our bird will be called Percival, for Percival Lowell who first searched for signs of extraterrestrial life on Mars. I needn't remind y'all of the rules here for compartmented programs. If there are security questions, we'll have the special security officer available after the briefing.

    "With the basic stuff now out of the way, let's talk about how we'll do this mission. Each of you here was chosen for your particular talents involved in either spacecraft design or rapid and large-scale systems engineering and integration. You may or may not be the best in the world at your specific talent, but you are good or you wouldn't be here—the time pressure of our situation also indicates that you were available and perhaps others were not. I mention this for a reason. You are the folks who will do this job. Whether you are the best person for it or not in somebody's mind, or your own, doesn't matter. You're here; it's your job.

    "Each of you will be the team leader for a subsystem or mission task and your particular assignment as we see it now is listed in your specific briefing folder in front of you. You can also see your names listed in front of the headings in the work breakdown structure for each element of the WBS. It will be up to you to put your team together. We'll discuss the aspects of that later this afternoon. For now let's talk about the mission.

    "Starting with the project timeline first, I'll go over the rough draft we have put together thus far. Feel free to jump in here and offer input whenever you think of it." Roger glanced around the room.

    "We'll talk pre-launch activities first." Roger picked up the laser pointer and slide changer from the podium and began to pace the stage slowly. "Prior to launch, the mission team will be busy planning the aspects of the mission timeline, conducting numerous hardware and software science readiness reviews, preliminary design reviews, and critical design reviews, which will lead to building the spacecraft and its instruments, and finally delivering the spacecraft to the Cape for system integration into the launch vehicle, then launch. During the design and build portion of the pre-launch efforts let's try to make use of as many commercial and government off-the-shelf items as possible. COTS and GOTS might help us reduce our build time."

    "The next phase is launch. Our launch phase begins, as you can see from this next slide, once Percival transfers from external power to the internal power on the launch pad. This phase will last until the spacecraft is declared stable, healthy, and ready to accept control commands.

    "Percival will launch in August—that's right, your ears aren't deceiving you, that's four and a half months away, folks—from Space Launch Complex 37 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. We're fortunate in that our launch window occurs within Earth's northern summer and that Mars is not that far away at launch date. The spacecraft will use a Boeing Delta IV Heavy with eight solid strap-on boosters. Dr. Tom Powell will discuss the throw weight and trajectories in a splinter working group later." Roger pointed to Tom sitting in the front row. Tom stood and waved in acknowledgement.

    "Uh, excuse me?" a man in the audience said, raising his hand. He was clean cut and wearing a jacket and tie, in comparison to some of the engineers present who had turned up in polo shirts bearing the names of their firms. The guy was definitely "big corporate" and Roger made a guess at his identity right away.

    "Yes?" Roger paused.

    "I'm Dr. John Fisher with Lockheed Martin. Did you say a Delta IV Heavy, common booster core, with eight solid strap-ons?"

    "That's correct," Roger nodded.

    "Uh, that's never been done before, to my knowledge," Dr. Fisher said. "Can that be done? I mean, structurally speaking, can you stick eight strap-ons onto the common booster core tubes?"

    "If you'll read your spot on the work breakdown structure, Dr. Fisher," Roger said, smiling just a bit, "you will see that it's your job to figure that out. It has to be done, therefore it will be done."

    "I, uh . . ." For some reason, Dr. Fisher's face seemed pale.

    "If nuthin' else, thar's always Bondo an' duct tape," Roger said in his deepest, slowest, drawl, eliciting chuckles from some of the people who knew him and a suddenly firmer demeanor from Fisher.

    Fisher was one of the men in the room who had been carefully chosen. In his early forties, he was from Denver and had been a rocket systems engineer his entire career with Lockheed Martin. Despite his "corporate button-down" looks, he was a noted outside-the-box thinker and damned fine engineer. One of the things Roger had heard about him that he liked was that Fisher was a "tinkerer" at home as well as at work. Get him in a lab and the suit came off, the well pressed lab-coat came on and he started making things. He was even a skilled machinist, having simply picked it up over the years. If anyone could figure out how to get three CBC tubes linked together with eight strap-ons, then boosting, it would be John Fisher.

    "We'll discuss that part of the mission more later in a breakout session, Dr. Fisher. If that is it, we'll continue?"

    "Sure." Dr. Fisher sat back down, his forehead furrowed in thought.

    "Let's see, where was I?" Roger said as he turned back to the screen and read through the chart to himself. "Oh yeah, our launch window is approximately three weeks in duration over the last three weeks of August with at least a daily twenty-seven minute launch window. So, we're bound to be able to hit one of them." Roger clicked the slide laser pointer button and waved the laser spot over several different trajectory maps showing the different launch date, time, and trip-time per trajectory. Twenty-one different trajectories curved out from an elliptical Earth orbit and curved directly into Mars' heliocentric orbital path.

    "Another thing to remember here, folks, is that launch is a whole heck of a lot more than just lift-off. I've taken the liberty to summarize these steps from the SMAD and various previous mission timelines. You'll find the steps on the next page of the briefing. Launch team, I want you to start breaking them down and populating the steps with more detail."

    "Uh, Roger, I hate to interrupt again." John Fisher stood up, again. "But four upper stages on a Delta IV Heavy hasn't ever been done either. I mean, granted I work for LockMart and I know more about the Atlas systems, but they're very similar. I just don't know. And you're showing one of the stages here consisting of three connected and even modified kick motors. How do you think we can pull that off in less than five months? I'm not even thinking design process, bad as that's going to be, I'm thinking man hours here."

    "John, we'll do it because we have to" Roger replied seriously. "This isn't something that we're doing for fun or because of science that we can let overrun the budget and slip in schedule. There is literally something dramatically changing Mars and what if, just what if, Earth is next? I want to get that point across as sincerely as I possibly can. If this is the beginnings of an alien contact, onslaught, or whatever, we need to know and we need to know it as soon as humanly possible. Sooner."

    "We can do it, potentially, but only with dispersed production and every production facility on triple shift," Fisher said, nodding in understanding. "These modifications alone might cost fifty to a hundred million dollars. Do we have that kind of budget?"

    "Yes," is all Roger said. Despite his little pep talk it was apparent that many of them hadn't grasped the magnitude of the problem.

    "Let me make this clear," Roger said, taking a deep breath. "We have the budget. We have the backing. We have anything we want. Any facility, any person, any piece of equipment being produced for the United States government and probably anything being produced for anyone anywhere in the world. That being said, the first company that screws with this program since there's so much money being thrown at it will get reamed a new one and probably broken. But we have the budget. We have any budget it takes to get this done. But we're not funding a welfare program for rocket scientists. This is about using off-the-shelf components to get a mission completed to find out if there is a threat to the world. And we will do it and we will do it on time, budget be damned."

    He paused for a minute for the auditorium to settle then he continued with the briefing.

    "Okay, cruise phase of the mission begins once Percival is in a safe and stable configuration after the control maneuvers at the end of the launch sequence. The best we've come up with thus far for transit time from Earth to Mars is about four to five months—feel free to discuss with Dr. Powell transit time optimization if you wish. The cruise trajectory will deliver the spacecraft to Mars on a southern approach trajectory where we'll begin taking reconnaissance data. In fact, our plan is to passively collect data for the entire trip. Who knows, it might be useful. We also suggest one active sensor, which we'll discuss in a minute.

    "During the cruise phase we'll have time to catch our breath and to conduct some on-board systems diagnostics. We'll have two teams: one for checkouts and calibrations and the other for trajectory optimization and correction maneuvers. Also, at this time the recon operations team will, as I said previously, begin shaking down the passive science instruments and start taking data.

    "As a side note here, we've looked for a space qualified 50- to 100-centimeter aperture diameter telescope that was designed for any previous classified or unclassified mission that could be commandeered for this mission. Unfortunately, we have not found one anywhere. So, in the interim we will, today, develop the telescope design parameters. Then we finish the optical design from these requirements within the next two weeks from this kickoff meeting. The structural design will be complete a few weeks later. We're already talking to CTI, Lightworks, Composite Optics, and Zeiss optics companies with the hopes that one of these companies can complete the task of constructing our telescope to our design requirements, successfully, within the schedule required. We'll give all four companies a contract with the hopes that redundant teams will give us a better chance for success and less risk. Telescope team, we'll break out after this session and get to work. I have some preliminary design characteristics we can start from. I'm wide open for suggestions though."

    One of the optics designers interrupted with a raised hand.

    "Uh, Dr. Reynolds, I'm Carla Watts from Zeiss. I have a question."

    "Yes, Carla?" Roger breathed an inaudible sigh to himself. He knew that he had to take and answer the questions. But they took time.

    "Does the primary have to be a build from super lightweight like other space optics?" She paused for a second, removed her glasses, and rubbed her nose. "Or could we hog one out of a heavy piece of glass or Zerodur or something. I mean, the reason I ask this is that, there might be big blanks lying around in this aperture diameter range that could be ground out. That would be a lot quicker than building the lattice, filling, baking and all the rest."

    "What would that do to our mass budget?" Roger asked.

    "Well," Carla screwed up her faced in thought for a moment. "It might as much as double it. But, and this sounds like a critical but, it would decrease build time by at least a factor of two, maybe more."

    "Okay. Let's keep this idea on the table as an option. During the break could you call around and see if you could locate such blanks?"

    "Sure. I think I know where there might even be one with a hole already in the center for a Schmidt-Cassegrain design."

    "Good, thanks. Back to the cruise phase: the ops guys will train the telescope pointing algorithms on Mars early on so that the pointing and tracking closed loop software will have learned to minimize the pointing jitter by the time it gets to Mars.

    "The final phase will be the approach and the detailed recon phase. Since we don't plan to orbit Mars, our goal is to collect data from a few months out and right up until the spacecraft passes by the planet and views it from the other side. We're open to clever ideas about how to extend the mission operation lifetime, but we have yet to come up with anything brilliant in that regard. The spacecraft will pass by Mars at about fifteen kilometers per second, so close approach dwell time will not be very long. During the final phase, Percival will point its active science instruments, such as the lidar, at Mars. During the active part of the recon phase we'll implement an alternate beam path through the primary telescope objective with a lidar system. Hopefully, we can gather some sub-meter three-dimensional imagery from the laser imaging and ranging system. We intend to take the old canceled and mothballed NASA SPARCLE program's Lidar instruments, dust them off, and update them.

    "Dr. Reynolds," Fisher said, sighing and holding up his hand.

    "Go," Roger said, shaking his head.

    "SPARCLE's not off-the-shelf and has never been successfully tested," Fisher pointed out. "What if it's a dud?"

    "Then it's a dud," Roger said. "If we have active recon, that would be good. If we don't, we can live with it. Continuing . . ." he muttered, looking down at his notes.

    "Although we'll have had months to keep the batteries charged, just in case, we might as well also try and keep the solar arrays continuously tracking the Sun. I originally considered the use of radioisotope thermal generators, but haven't found any available or such short notice. We could buy some plutonium from the Russians, but that might tip our hand and the nuclear power nuts would probably hear about it, increasing the media presence of the launch. So, solar power it is, again, unless somebody comes up with something brilliant in its place.

    "It's our plan that Percival will continue to keep its science instruments pointed at Mars with it in the center of the field of view. We'll use the positions of Phobos and Deimos as part of our GN&C knowledge. The positions of the two moons along with star tracker information should give us extremely detailed attitude determination capability. Once Mars is larger than the field of view of the main telescope system we'll use star trackers for attitude determination and we'll slew the main telescope objective side-to-side via the AD&CS system in order to capture images of various targets outside the field of view. We'll maintain this operation as long as the probe is in range of Mars. Again, if anybody has any clever and lightweight ideas that can be done quickly to increase mission operations time, please let us know."

    And the briefing went on.



    The meetings lasted from eight-thirty each morning until past midnight each of the three days. By the end of the third day a very detailed spacecraft mission architecture and design were completed. Details of the WBS and the task team leaders were complete and each of the hundred or so attendees of the meeting left with multimillion dollar subcontracts and a list of near impossible action items to be completed by middle of the following week. All said and done, the Neighborhood Watch executive committee—which consisted of the DDNRO, the commanding general of the Redstone Arsenal, the director of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, and the project scientist, Roger,—were tired—very tired—but they were also pleased with their progress. The DDNRO had to brief the President by Monday and so the executive committee worked through the weekend developing the presentation for the President's Daily Brief. Guerrero planned to deliver it in person. Roger planned to take a nap.

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