Slingship Sam the Asteroid Man
Nadine Stallard was an intern at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and it wasn’t going as well as she’d hoped. Her work at the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility was humdrum and routine. And now today, just as she was going to lunch, Tom the Senior Lab Assistant approached. He was carrying a standard clear plastic storage tray. Inside it she saw an iPad with a Sample Request Fulfillment form showing, and two eight-inch stainless steel cylinders–vacuum containers from the lab’s storage area. “There’s a discrepancy in the sample you cored from FFRAR-2-0938,” Tom said. “Do it again.”
“What was wrong?” Nadine said. FFRAR-2-0938 was a pebble retrieved from an asteroid by a space probe back when Nadine was in middle school.
“Your sample was no good. Take another core from FFRAR-2-0938, I’ve already fetched it from storage.” He pushed the tray into her hands.
“Tommy! What do you mean, no good?”
“Cal Tech says it was outside the acceptable error-bar limits. They say the integrity of the sample must have been compromised.” He looked over his glasses at her. “By you.”
“What? No way.” She shrugged. “Okay, I’ll do it first thing when I get back from lunch. My teammate Francesca is in town and–“
“Cal Tech is antsy to get the fresh sample. I want it out of here stat. Now.” He saw the look on her face and said, “I’m sorry, they’re really on my ass about this one. I’ve accessed the forms for you already, just take the core and let’s get it out the door. I’m sorry, I really am–tell you what, how about if I take you and Francesca for dinner tonight, I’d love to meet her.”
“I’ll tell her. But what was wrong with the asteroid fragment I cored?”
“They think you sampled the wrong rock . They were expecting a carbonaceous chondrite. But your sample is mostly iron, they say, although the density came out more like tungsten, so it doesn’t fit into the parameters of their research project. The size of your sample may have been in error. This time, I’ve retrieved FFRAR-2-0938 from storage myself, to make sure it’s the right one. It’s in one cylinder, and they returned your previous sample in the other one. Make sure your new sample is exactly six millimeters.”
“What are they in such a rush about?”
“Maybe it’s Flexible Demeanor breathing down their neck.” That was the SpaceX mission that brought back a hundred kilos of rocks from an Earth-crossing asteroid last month. Its cargo was going to a European laboratory for immediate release to researchers instead of going into NASA’s traditional vaults in Houston.
“Yeah, probably,” Nadine said. “Okay, but you’re going to owe me for this one.” She put on a lab coat and wrapped her long blond hair into a bun to fit inside the bouffant cleanroom cap. She carried the plastic tray into the cleanroom. She took a micro core sampler out of a cabinet and put it and stainless steel vacuum cylinders into the airlock of a vacuum glovebox.
The airlock pump started chugging. She looked out the window past the NASA Disc Golf Course and the Gilruth Sports Park, and beyond that the Armand Bayou, the largest urban wilderness preserve in the U.S., protecting 2500 acres of natural wetlands, forest, prairie, and marsh.
She called Francesca, who had been her teammate on the Stanford softball team.
“Hey, Frankie, sorry, I can’t make it for lunch, they dumped some hot project on me, how about dinner tonight? The boss is buying.”
“No can do, we finished up early at Minute Maid Park and now our plane is leaving at four o’clock for the Kauffman Stadium photo shoot in Kansas City.” Francesca was on the marketing staff for Vivax Sportswear’s trendy graphene-fabric sports clothing that fits like a second skin. You gotta be fit to wear it. Wearing it proves you are fit. “We’re going to every MLB stadium, and it’s wearing me out.”
“At least you’re out in the world. I’m stuck in this backwater,” Nadine said, looking out at the bayou. “The Apollo astronauts brought back 842 pounds of moon rocks sixty years ago, and those are still the major assets here in the Lunar Sample Lab.”
“I thought you were working on that asteroid stuff.”
“Yeah, but the moon-rock old guard resents us asteroid staff, and it’s all pissing contests between departments around here. The asteroid folks are reluctant to let more than a small portion of rocks out of the lab. Plus, the FFRAR samples have been here since you and I were in middle school. Old stuff.”
“Don’t give me that acronym shit.”
“FFRAR–Flora Family Rendevous and Return mission. They’re still arguing over who owns what. We’re not doing any of the real work, we’re just librarians checking out smidgeons and dustmotes of stuff to researchers.”
“But you’re handling actual objects from another world,” Francesca said.
“Yeah, wearing triple-layer gloves in a vacuum box. Right now I’m taking a sample of an asteroid fragment and sending it to Cal Tech, yeah, super cool, but the important thing is complying with CAPTEM.”
“The guidelines set up by the Curation and Analysis Planning Team for Extraterrestrial Materials. Sorry, it’s all acronyms, all the time here.
Francesca said, “What are they going to do with it?”
Nadine picked up the iPad and swiped. “Let’s see, they’re trying to pin down how long ago the asteroid Flora broke apart, that’s right. I did this one a month ago and now they want me to do it again. They’re working on a theory that the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs was part of the Flora family,” Nadine said.
“When the asteroid broke up, that started the clock on fresh surfaces in the broken fragments. They’ve been exposed to cosmic rays since then. When a cosmic ray hits the fresh surface, it can transmute matter into different elements. And the longer they get exposed, the more those elements form. This gives us exposure age data.”
“So that’s what you’re doing in outer space, huh?”
“No, I’m not doing the mass spectrographic analysis of the fragments. That’s what the research labs are doing, and they’re finicky about doing it themselves,” Nadine said. “This place is a dull backwater of dead storage, and I’m not good enough for them.”
“Girl, you got picked over 43 other candidates.”
“He told me, quote, your master’s isn’t worth shit here, unquote. If I want to continue after the internship, I need a PhD in cosmochemistry.”
“Why did he pick you for the internship, then?”
Nadine shook her head. “He saw me pitch.”
“You mean your no-hitter in the quarter-finals?”
“No, the semi-finals where we lost. Turns out it was his sister who pitched for Northwestern against us in that game. I got selected so he could taunt me,” Nadine said.
“He picked you because you have a nice rack,” Francesca said. “I thought you said you were going out with him.”
“Yeah, we’ve gone out for beers a few times,” Nadine admitted.
The airlock on the vacuum glovebox pinged.
“What was that?” Francesca said.
Nadine said, “Oh, the machine tells me it’s ready to go. I’d better get going on this super-rush project,” she said, rolling her eyes. “See you next time, Frankie.”
The asteroid rocks were stored in vacuum. The moon rocks were the long-time king of the lab, but they were stored in a nitrogen atmosphere. The non-lunar samples required vacuum storage. The old hands at the Johnson Space Center had a resentful feeling toward the asteroid samples intruding into the long-time temple of the moon rocks, especially now that so many asteroid and comet samples were arriving, so Nadine was working in a re-purposed lab with a view of the bayou.
She put her hands into the gloves of the glovebox and reached around inside the vacuum work area behind the glass and opened one of the stainless steel containers and unscrewed the lid and the asteroid fragment tumbled out into her other glove. It was a black lump the size of a baby’s fist. She saw the hole she’d drilled in it last time.
It didn’t look much different from any rock on Earth. It was one of the largest rocks among the ten kilos of rubble and dust that Flora Family Rendezvous And Return brought back.
Flora was discovered in 1847, the 8th asteroid to be identified. It is 94 miles wide and is the biggest asteroid in the inner Asteroid Belt. It is the biggest fragment of the Flora Family, a group of 13,786 remnants descended from the breakup of a larger asteroid one or two hundred million years ago. She used the calipers from the array of tools inside the glovebox and measured the hole: exactly six millimeters. So there, Tom, she thought. Dead-on to the specs. What was Cal Tech bitching about? But, she shrugged. She was just an intern without a PhD. She was here to do what she was told: take another core sample.
Nadine clamped the coal-black lump of FFRAR Item 2-0938 into the borer and adjusted it to the spot Cal Tech requested the new sample be taken from, and turned on the borer. It would take half an hour for the diamond-tipped borer to complete the job.
Nadine opened the other, smaller vacuum cylinder and dumped out the previous sample. It was mangled and burned from Cal Tech’s tests.
She picked it up, hefted it. Heavier than it looked. It was dense, all right. But, tungsten? She pulled her hands out of the gloves and swiped the pad through the charts and graphs of the various tests the Cal Tech lab was doing. The file showed results of physical and chemical tests. Tests showed the previous core sample was pure iron, but the density was almost the same as tungsten. The mass spectroscopy had not detected any tungsten.
One of Nadine’s degrees was in electrical engineering. She noticed there was no mention of the previous sample’s conductivity. She paged through the report and found no electrical tests. Iron’s conductivity is 1.04×10^7; if the sample was actually tungsten, it would be 1.82×10^7.
She grabbed a Megger hand-held ohmmeter off the bench and put it into the glovebox airlock. When it was cycled through, she touched the ohmmeter’s probe to one side of the pebble, and when she touched the other probe to the other side, BLAM. The glass front of the glovebox imploded. She pulled her hands out of the gloves and looked down and saw a hole in the front of her lab coat with blood spurting out. She opened the coat and saw her Milano silk blouse soaked in blood. Her ears were ringing from the loudness of the explosion. She fell to her knees and tried to reach for her phone but sprawled to the floor and passed out in a growing puddle of her own blood.
Nadine faded back into awareness and stirred around and felt deep nausea. Her belly was a huge lump of numbness. She tried weakly to reach to feel it but her arms were restrained somehow.
She heard a TV news broadcast muttering. She struggled to open her eyes, and saw blearily that she was in a hospital bed with IV drips in each arm. Tom was sleeping in a chair. A uniformed policeman in another chair was watching the TV.
She heard her name mentioned on the TV. “Nadine Stallard is out of surgery but still unconscious in critical but stable condition.”
MYSTERY DEEPENS IN SPACE CENTER SHOOTING, was the CNN chyron, but they were playing the video of the last out of Nadine’s no-hitter, not this again, she thought. That day she wore her jersey tied off for a bare-midriff look, and her long blonde hair burst out from her cap in a swirl as she struck out the final batter of the game. Her hair tumbling loose was her trademark when delivering one of her ultra-fast finish-’em-off pitches, only this time her tied-off jersey burst open. She was never going to live down that video, dammit. The CNN video switched to a view of the lab window overlooking the bayou: a bullet hole in the window. Then a montage of the recent anti-NASA demonstrations with “Lunches Not Launches” signs, then back to Nadine’s jersey spilling open.
Her automatic instinct was to reach for her phone. Where was it? She said, “Hey, where’s my phone?” But it came out like “wrmmfoe.”
“She’s awake,” somebody said. A nurse.
“Wha happen?” Nadine said.
“You’ve been shot,” the nurse said.
Tom’s face came into view, unshaven, a three-day stubble, “You’re going to be okay,” he said.
“Why am I on CNN?” she said. “They keep showing replays of the celebration at the end of my no-hitter.”
“You’re a hot babe sports star who was shot in a NASA incident. They have video of you, and they’re running it. There’s no video of you in a lab coat.”
She heard the cop muttering into his cellphone. “What’s the cop for?”
“Nobody knows if they were shooting at you in particular, or NASA in general, or maybe it was just a stray shot from some good ole boar poachers in the Bayou. But they’re not taking any chances.”
He leaned down close to whisper in her ear, “It was some kind of coordinated attack. They hit the lab with an EMP.”
There hadn’t been any recent mass demonstrations or riots against NASA, but NASA was in a decline of its reputation. Nothing but a money pit, billions and billions spent on projects of no use to anybody except the aerospace contractors in league with the politicians, while school lunch programs were being cut back for budgetary reasons.
The cop was standing by her bed. “Ms. Stallard, can you tell us what happened? Did you see anything out the window before you were shot, did you see a muzzle flash?”
“No, I had my back to the window, I was working. I was…unh…” A wave of nausea overcame her and there was a series of beeps from one of the machines she was connected to.
The nurse moved in and adjusted the machine and palpated Nadine’s abdomen. “I know you have to talk to her, but make it quick.”
The cop stepped out of the room.
“What happened to me?” Nadine said.
Tom said, “The bullet struck a rib and splintered it and sent fragments everywhere into your gut and lacerated the hell out of your spleen and intestines.”
“What about video from the lab?”
“The recording devices in the glovebox and the vacuum lab were destroyed by the electromagnetic pulse,” Tom said. “What were you doing when the bullet hit?”
“All I did was apply a voltage to the previous sample, to check the conductivity.”
“So that’s why the ohmmeter was in the glovebox, aha,” Tom said.
Nadine started to say something but things became hazy and she faded out.
When she woke again, Tom was gone and there were three police guards. She lapsed in and out of consciousness, barely aware of procedures being done to her.
At one point, a man was at her bedside. “Hello, Ms. Stallard, I’m Sid Frank. I’m from the NASA Office of Inspector General. I’m investigating your unauthorized procedure that resulted in the destruction of FFRAR-2-0938, the glovebox, and a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of recording equipment.”
“Are you saying somebody told you to conduct this procedure?”
“Well, no, I was taking initiative,” she said.
“You were not hired to take initiative. You were hired to perform the required asteroid sample disbursements. Your “initiative” did not include adequate safety precautions, resulting in the loss of two million dollars of NASA property.”
Nadine’s belly started hurting again. “You can consider yourself terminated from your internship, as of this moment,” the NASA inspector said. “Your medical treatment will still be covered by NASA until you are certified as recovered. As for the damages, I suggest that you retain a lawyer.”
She faded out again. Then she woke as a nurse was changing the dressing on her wound. “Ouch,” Nadine said.
“Sorry,” the nurse said. “We had to do some more work on your spleen. Things should be going better for you now.”
Nadine said, “Can I get my phone? How long has it been? I’ve got to call my mom.”
“Let me see,” said the nurse. One of the three police guards was talking to a doctor. He nodded at the nurse’s request.
Her phone had a weeks’ worth of messages from friends and even one from her mother. “Hi, doll, hey, I only just found out that you were the girl that got shot, they tell me you’re out of danger now and as soon as I can rearrange my schedule I’ll be right there to see you in Dallas.”
Nadine called her back but Mom didn’t pick up. She left a message–“I’m in Houston, Mom.”
Then she called Francesca, who immediately said, “Nadine, are you okay? Is it true what Tom is saying on his podcast?”
“You’d better look at it. Right now.” Francesca sent her the link.
Tom was on camera in his home lab surrounded by electronics test equipment. He looked haggard and unkempt, like he’d been in the same clothes for a week. “You’ve probably heard about the softball girl who was shot at the Johnson Space Center lab. She didn’t get shot, it was an accident in the lab. “I was the supervisor at the lab. I’m taking full responsibility for that. But what we’ve discovered is so important that I had to make this public.”
He raised his hand to display a clear jar containing a small cylinder of metal. “This is a core sample from an asteroid fragment that the lab was working on. It’s not like anything ever seen on Earth before. It’s pure iron, chemically, but it’s a lot more dense, almost like tungsten. The thing that we’ve discovered is that it enables a direct electromagnetic interaction with gravity. Watch this.”
He poked tongs into the jar and pulled out the core sample. “The core sample that went through the softball girl was about the same size and shape as a bullet, so that’s part of why everybody was fooled at first.” He inserted it into a little gray box on the desk with sprouts of wires leading away from each end into an array of electronic test equipment. “I’m going to send an ultra-microscopic amount of electricity through the sample.” Tom adjusted a few dials, and the box rose up in the air dragging the wires. “Whoa, gotta dial it back more,” he said, and the box slowed and hovered.
“The initial experiment used too much electricity,” he said. “The core sample completely decoupled from Earth’s gravitational field. And the spinning Earth left it behind at 890 miles an hour–as fast as a bullet. People at the disc golf course said they heard a gunshot–it was a sonic boom.”
He turned a dial and the box settled back down on the desk.
“There’s a lot about it that we still don’t understand. But NASA wants to disappear this stuff into Area 51. I’ve liberated one asteroid fragment, serial number FFRAR-2-0938, and we’re exploring its capabilities at an undisclosed location. I’ll have another report later.”
Francesca was still on the phone. “That’s all I am, “softball girl,” Nadine said bitterly.
“I think he’s trying to protect you, to keep you out of it,” Francesca said. “There’s a lot of anti-NASA protest since you got hurt, it’s like they think you deserved it.”
Then the doctor and the nurse were arguing with one of the guards. “It’s too dangerous, it’s not medically necessary,” the doctor was saying.
“It is vitally important that we retrieve that particle,” said the man in a suit.
“It’s microscopic,” said the doctor. “It can’t do any more damage where it is. It will take a lot of damage to get it out.”
“It’s unfortunate that it’s stuck in Ms. Stallard’s spine, yes. But we must get it out.”
He turned his attention to Nadine. “First responders assumed you’d been shot. You had a bullet-sized hole through your belly and there was a bullet-sized hole in the window.
“But we couldn’t find a bullet among the debris. And the shattered glass from the hole in the window was outside.” He looked her in the eye. “Tom Flandern says he told you to make this test. We expect you to testify about this after we capture him. He’s stolen the space rock you were testing.
“So it is important for national security that we recover the asteroid fragment lodged in your spine.”
They were beginning to prep her for still more surgery when an agent came into the room and said, “Flandern’s on the move. We’ve got an alert from KHOU that they’re about to put a Zoom interview with him on the air.”
“Tell them to keep him talking,” said the agent in charge. “Turn on the TV.
They turned on the hospital-room TV. Tom was talking from inside his car as he was driving. “We could pick him up for Zooming while driving,” said the agent. “Ms. Stallard. What kind of car is he driving?”
“He has a beat up old ’22 Cadillac, dark blue,” Nadine said.
Two of the Green Berets abruptly the room. A little later Nadine heard a helicopter take off.
The sound came up on the TV. “This is Sherri Dean on the scene with breaking news about the NASA lab shooting. We’re talking with NASA’s Tom Flandern. Tom, you’re a supervisor at the NASA lab here in Houston?”
“Well, it’s probably “former supervisor,” now, Sherri,” Tom said. “I’m on the run. There’s a lot of people who want to keep this secret.”
“What’s the secret?” said Sherri Dean.
“The secret is that the softball girl–I mean, the NASA intern Nadine Stallard–was not shot,” Tom said.
“Witnesses at the disc golf course reported hearing a shot.”
“They heard a sonic boom,” Tom said. “It was an accident inside the lab. She was making an electrical test of a piece of a space rock–and it exploded out of the lab. It accelerated so fast it generated a sonic boom. It went right through her. And the window. And into outer space.
“They’re telling you the search in the bayou is for those boar poachers. There were no poachers, there was no stray bullet. They’re not going to find anything in the Bayou. They’re searching for the fragment. They won’t find it.
“What Ms. Stallard did was to apply a voltage to the asteroid fragment. I recovered the main sample she was working on and tested it very very carefully.
“I discovered what happened. The voltage completely dissociated the sample from Earth’s gravity. It didn’t explode. It stopped–and the surface of the Earth at Houston kept turning at 890 miles an hour. I’ve been experimenting, very carefully, and what we have here is anti-gravity controlled by electricity.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Sherri Dean said. “Anti-gravity is not possible according to our basic theories.”
“Maybe the theory is wrong. This is fact, not theory. Einstein struggled with the challenge of unifying his theory of gravity — general relativity — with the electromagnetic forces involved with electrons and light. He believed in the essential unity of the gravitational field and the electromagnetic field.
“This sample from the asteroid belt converts electromagnetic energy into gravitational energy–and vice versa! It’s going to change everything. NASA wants to hide it from you. They’re going to whisk it away to Area 51.
“I’m calling this stuff “corium,” because the only place it could have been created is in the innermost core of a dwarf planet. There’s evidence of a big smashup in the asteroid belt about a hundred million years ago, and this stuff could be the remnants from the core of a destroyed planet. It’s not like any stuff we’ve ever found on Earth.”
“So you’re saying this ‘corium’ is a new element?” said Sherri Dean
“No, it’s an allotrope,” said Tom. “An allotrope of iron. The best example of an allotrope is diamond: carbon formed under high pressure deep in the earth, and then it remains stable at normal pressures. We think that this kind of iron formed deep in a small planet’s core under extreme pressures–that’s why I’m calling it “corium.” The dwarf planet was broken up long ago by collisions in the asteroid belt.”
“In the lab, iron converts to a denser form, called hexaferrum, at pressures above 10 giga-pascals. We don’t know much about its properties because it can only be created in microscopic amounts between diamond anvils.
But this stuff is compressed into an even higher density and with a much different crystalline lattice than ordinary iron. It’s an interface between electromagnetism and gravity: it converts electromagnetic energy into gravitational energy, and vice versa. And it is stable at normal pressures.”
“Mr. Flandern, I’ve seen your podcast with similar wild claims. My sources say there could be criminal charges against you and Ms. Stallard regarding destruction of government property .
“I have a secret plan to prevent her from testifying against me. And meanwhile, I have a surprise for you. I’m coming to your TV studio. Send your cameraman down to the parking lot.”
We’ve been seeing Tom inside his car. Now we see him turn the wheel. He gets out of the car and leaves us with a view of the unoccupied interior of the car.
Then a hand-held-camera view of Tom standing next to his 2022 Cadillac CT4. “I rolled a smidgeon of corium into foil and put it under four corners of the frame of my car.” He held up an Xbox Elite game controller. He twiddled with a game-control unit and the car lifted ten feet into the air and hovered. “We don’t have jet packs yet, but maybe aircars are on the horizon.” He manipulated the controls and the car jerked and joggled up in the air and rotated. “Obviously there’s a lot more work to be done,” he said, “but this 3,500-pound car is being lifted by two AA batteries–the actual power is the rotational velocity of the Earth’s magnetic field.”
A whacking noise grew louder and drowned out Tom’s voice. The camera tilted back to show a pair of black helicopter jets touching down. A Special Forces team sprang out of the helicopters and set up a guard around the car while two men grabbed Tom and dragged him away into a chopper. He yelled, “Nadine, will you marry me?”
The screen went black for a moment before returning to the Channel 11 newsdesk.
Within two days, researchers testing rocks from the SpaceX retrieval replicated Tom Flandern’s results, and the stampede was on. NASA’s attempts to hide the discovery washed away instantly.
It was amazing how fast the private sector launched into asteroid exploration missions after Nadine showed there was something valuable in the asteroid belt that was worth going after.
In fact, by the time Tom and Nadine flew into Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize, they rode from the airport to the Stockholm Concert Hall past cheering crowds in the first demonstration model of Tesla Air, a corium-powered anti-grav aircar.
Their seven-year-old boy Sam rode with them.