Story art by NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC).
From the author: Today, we take America's leadership in space exploration for granted. But the future of outer space may not be American.
One thing they don’t prepare you for in most astrophysics programs is being at the center of an international incident.
I’d been with the White House Science Advisory Board for about six months, the lone astrosciences person in a woefully understaffed department. I hadn’t been told anything except that I was needed down at the old White House Conference Center — a hundred-year-old, 3-story brick building constructed in the style of a pre-Civil War row house on Jackson Place. The front door read my microchip and opened for me, and the hologram in the brick lobby directed me to the Truman room. The eerie hush in the building should have tipped me off, but I walked blissfully unaware through the antique oak doorway only to stop dead in my tracks.
Secretary of State Moen sat at the head of the conference table, arms crossed across his chest, glaring daggers at the other end of the table, by where I had just come in. A hastily-made nameplate identified the man seated there as Ambassador Ling from China. Ling sat on his hands, bouncing slightly, and grinning like a cat who had gotten into the cream.
I introduced myself, suppressing a stammer. “Daniel Blair, from the S.A.B.”
“Sit down, Blair,” Moen said.
I sank into a seat halfway between Moen and Blair. A page scurried over and plopped a glass of water and another improvised nameplate in front of me.
Still, no one spoke.
Ling spun around in his chair to study the grand fireplace behind him, whistling though his teeth slightly.
Ling turned back around and smiled broadly at Moen.
“Blair,” Moen said deliberately, “tell me about the Spitzer Space Telescope.”
It took me a moment before I managed to formulate a thought. “Turn-of-the-century space-based observatory. Near- and mid-infrared, I think. Data’s still in the archives. Caltech, I think.”
Moen nodded slowly, his eyes narrowing at Ling. “The Chinese have it.”
“What?” I said.
Ling bounced so high his butt left his chair. “We’ve been tracking its standby signal for about fifteen years now. America made no effort to contact or control it, so we presumed it derelict. We sent a crew of three in a Peng capsule to retrieve it. It is in Shanghai now. As a courtesy, we informed your government before the public unveiling.”
I rolled down my sleeve and started typing on my cuffconsole. I tied into the building computer network, the holographic display above my left wrist coming to life. I immediately queried everything I could find on Spitzer. Launched August 25, 2003, it wasn’t like most satellites of the day. Infrared telescopes need to be very cold to operate properly, and Earth is too bright in the infrared for the telescope to have worked properly in Earth orbit with turn-of-the-century technology. So, it orbited the Sun instead, in a slightly larger orbit than the Earth’s. It had been designed to operate for two and half years, but it wound up being operational for more than a decade and a half before it became impossible to communicate with it as it drifted farther and farther behind the Earth. But in the past two decades Earth had caught back up with it — having effectively lapped it around the Sun 70 years later.
“Well,” I said, “I’m sure it’s a fascinating relic.”
“Oh, yes!” Ling giggled.
“I mean,” I said, “I don’t think we have any actual satellites from that era.”
“Just replicas,” Ling said. “And flight spares.”
“We used to burn them up in the atmosphere when their missions were done,” I explained to Moen.
“We plan to learn a lot from it,” Ling said.
“The United States of America,” Moen cut in with his deliberate drawl, “wants that satellite back.”
Ling’s smile grew even larger. “Oh, Mr. Moen. I do not think you understand. I am here as a courtesy. Spitzer is Chinese property now.”
The State Department sent my wife a message to pack a bag for me and hurried me off to Bethesda for a series of inoculations before loading me onto an airplane. Moen spent the entire flight berating his underlings, so I never worked up the courage to ask what they expected me to do in Shanghai.
We landed just after noon local time. And the Chinese government had rolled out the welcome wagon. A marching band played, which made Moen look even grumpier. Foreign Minister Bo herself waited for us on the tarmac. I hung behind Moen on the escalator down from the airplane, noting several news cameras hovering around us. Moen’s aides stayed behind me as we stepped onto the red carpet and were led to a fleet of waiting cars.
The spaceport was about a 20-minute drive from the airport. China had never signed on to the Space Elevator project, protesting the fact that it wasn’t going to be approved for carrying people into space. They still preferred the brute-force method of using airplanes to lift their space vehicles to the stratosphere, and then shooting them off on rockets, the crews inside flattened against the aft bulkheads through the process. It never struck me as a sensible way of exploring space. My colleagues over NASA — which only did robotic spaceflight — referred to the Chinese space program as “crewed” (pronounced “crude”) spaceflight.
The caravan parked in front of a sterile hangar near an enormous steel rig that was in the process of lifting one of those crewed capsules onto the back of an old Airbus launch plane. I noted another fleet of news cameras documenting our reactions as we walked through the hangar doors and into decontamination. The window into the bay had been blacked out, no doubt so their cameras could get the best expressions on our faces as the door opened so we could see Spitzer for the first time.
When the U.V. bombardment and the particulate shakedown were done, the door slid open. Moen, arms crossed, stepped into the hangar first.
I wasn’t prepared for how big Spitzer was in person. It had a relatively small, 85-cm mirror, but with its casing and the spacecraft bus beneath it, it towered over us, still covered in a shroud with the Chinese flag printed on it.
“I want that cover replaced with one with the American flag on it,” Moen muttered to me.
“I’ll get right on it, sir,” I said.
Moen glared, but I thought I saw a hint of admiration in his eyes.
News cameras spun around in front of us. Foreign Minister Bo stepped out from behind the satellite, speaking in Chinese, and raised her arms. On cue, the shroud lifted, revealing the telescope itself.
It still had its two-tone paint job, silver and black, the silver side meant to reflect solar energy and the black side to help radiate excess heat away from the optics. There was a fair amount of pitting and scarring, but overall it was in remarkable shape.
The sound of cheers and applause piped in over speakers.
“I think we’ve just been cast in a propaganda reel, sir,” I said.
“Oh, I’m sure of it,” Moen said. “Try not to look impressed.”
That was easier said than done.
It hit the news circuit while we were flying back to D.C. As usual, the journalists had no idea what they were talking about. By the time I landed Spitzer had been conflated with every space-based telescope from IRAS in 1983 to Webb 40 years later. Message boards exploded with citizen response ranging from bewilderment to outrage. Suddenly in a nation that the previous day had never heard of Spitzer, Spitzer was the most important issue — even more important than the wave of preventable cholera deaths that had everyone up in arms last week.
The next day, I caught a brief interview by a citizen journalist with a 97-year-old scientist living in a retirement home in Des Moines. She had done her postdoctoral fellowship in the Spitzer Science Center, and was probably the last person alive with first-hand knowledge of the mission itself. I sent a message to her through the nursing facility requesting an interview. The State Department flew me out the next day.
Dr. Karen Casey was still buxom even at her age. She sat in an oversized recliner tossing a ball for a shaggy, white terrier as the nurse showed me into the day room. I introduced myself, and she shook my hand firmly. “Nice of you to fly all the way out here to meet with an old lady. I’d’ve been happy to Skype.”
“I work for the government,” I said. “We never do for free what we can overspend on.”
“True ‘dat,” she said.
I sat down, and the terrier flopped into my lap, panting appreciatively. “So what did you do on Spitzer?”
“Oh, we all did a lot of things,” Casey said. “But mostly I kept track of the asteroid tracks we picked up. They called me the mistress of the flying rocks.”
I nodded. Back then, the asteroid belt wasn’t well mapped at all.
“So someone went and recovered it, huh?” Casey said. “I’m glad. I said at the time it would be great if we had the technology to do so when it came around again.”
“It’s something of a scandal in D.C.,” I said.
“So what?” she said. “When we launched Spitzer, we were still flying space shuttles. We were the dominant partner in the International Space Station. Human spaceflight. We were, all the way, the leader. And then, we abdicated. So good on the Chinese, as far as I’m concerned.”
“We were actually hoping you might help us convince the Chinese to give it back.”
She laughed. “And what’s in it for them?”
“O.K., think about this one, kid,” she said. “They spent all that money. They took all that risk. Human spaceflight isn’t safe, and we’re still a far cry from having robots who are adaptable enough to pull off a mission like that. They did something we either couldn’t or didn’t. They want the glory for that, right?”
“So give it to them!”
The terrier harrumphed, expressing my thoughts for me.
“Spitzer was always meant to be for the whole world,” Casey said, “not just for America. Half my bosses weren’t citizens. Our sister telescope was officially an international collaboration.”
“So you think we should let the Chinese have it?”
She shrugged. “Finders keepers, losers weepers?”
“The State Department isn’t going to like that.”
She leaned forward, a crooked grin on her face. “And has anyone in the State Department bothered to ask the Chinese what they’d want in exchange for letting us have it?”
I decided she had a point, and I really hated that I was going to have to be the one to bring it up.
The new wing of the Air and Space Museum — stretching out from what had previously been the entryway off the national mall — glowed in the night.
Foreign Minister Bo attended the unveiling. Premier Xie watched on a secure monitor from the official state guest house. I stood next to Secretary of State Moen as the curtain dropped, revealing the Spitzer Space Telescope, surrounded by both American and Chinese flags. The Peng capsule that had recovered it lay beside it, its cargo hold open, its heat shield visibly charred. One display had the story of Spitzer itself. The other four had the story of the glorious Chinese recovery effort. The Chinese element seemed very, very out of place in the Smithsonian, the facility dedicated to American glory.
“Embarrassing,” Moen muttered to me.
“Frankly, sir,” I said, “that may be just what our space program needs.”
Moen turned and looked at me, smirking slightly. “Am I correct, son, that you’re proposing that we treat this as a good, old-fashioned kick in the ass?”
I swallowed hard. “Yes, I am, sir.”
“American could use a good, swift kick in the ass,” Moen said, turning back to look at Spitzer.
I had to admit, Spitzer was beautiful in its new home, Chinese flags or not.
“You ever considered a career as an administrator for a space agency?” Moen asked.
“I was too busy trying to get the next grant for robotic research, sir.”
“Well, then,” Moen said, “I may have to talk with my boss.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“This offer is contingent,” he said, “on you making good with that ass-kicking.”
I felt a wave of adrenaline wash over me. I did, in fact, want to kick some ass. “It would be my pleasure, sir.”
Moen smiled and walked out of the ceremony. I nodded to Foreign Minister Bo, and wandered through the crowd to see if I could find Ambassador Ling. After all, the international incident was over, and I felt like I owed him a drink.
This story originally appeared in Kyle Aisteach's Blog.