The Sting

More FBI follies! Instead of rooting out corruption at NASA, Operation Lightning Strike exposed little more than the bureau’s ruthlessness.

THE OUT-OF-TOWNER WHO INTRODUCED HIMSELF AS JOHN CLIFFORD sounded too good to be true—especially in early 1992, which was one of those down cycles that the aerospace industry has learned to expect in election years. Horizon Discovery Group, the small aero-space company operated by Neal and Karen Jackson, was struggling to stay afloat. So were most of the other small subcontractors who orbited the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. The Jacksons, who were expecting their third child in the fall, were about to lose their funding on a long-term project with one of NASA’s prime contractors, GE Government Services. They had talked about getting out of the business, maybe even leaving Houston. Then John Clifford phoned with a proposition that changed their lives and the lives of a lot of people at the Johnson Space Center.

Clifford talked with a Southern drawl and described himself as a good ol’ boy with more money than brains. He and his partner, Joe Carson, owned a number of companies, including Eastern Tech Manufacturing in Maryland and Southern Technologies Diversified in Atlanta. Eastern was developing a unique piece of hardware, and Clifford wanted the Jacksons to represent the product and put him in touch with the right people. The new hardware was a lithotripter, an ultrasound device that smashes kidney stones without invasive surgery. Clifford’s lithotripter was not the standard model found in hospitals, which is so large it has to be transported by an eighteen-wheeler, but a portable model small enough to fit in a spaceship. The hardware sounded right for NASA. In the weightlessness of space, calcium leaches from astronauts’ bones and forms spiny stones that cause immense pain. Clifford made it clear that he was talking about both government and commercial contracts—hundreds of millions of dollars—and that he was offering the Jacksons a chance to get in on the ground floor. He took note of Karen’s pregnancy and guaranteed that by the child’s first birthday the Jacksons would have made at least $1 million. Dazed by the offer, Neal and Karen made a down payment on a lot and hired an architect to design the $500,000 home they had always dreamed of owning.

The Jacksons were typical of the mom-and-pop entrepreneurs who lived in Clear Lake City and the other NASA bedroom communities south of Houston—a close-knit group of scientists, engineers, and business people, well-educated, ambitious, dedicated to the exploration of space. The older ones had arrived in Houston in the sixties, the dawn of America’s space program, but most had hitched their wagons to NASA in the seventies or eighties when they were still in school. Many had dreamed of being astronauts but had settled for positions as support troops. Neal Jackson had ten years of service as an Air Force pilot when McDonnell Douglas hired him in 1983 to train astronauts. Like others in the industry, Neal and Karen moved into a tidy mid-dle-class neighborhood where names like Saturn, Gemini, Apollo, and Chal-lenger seemed painted on every street sign, shopping center, park, or doughnut shop. From their patio gazebo they could look across a vacant field and see the sprawling, campuslike Johnson Space Center complex with the rocket casings of historic missions scattered about like the art of a post-utopian culture.

It was a homogeneous community. People belonged to the same trade organizations, clubs, and churches. They ate at the same steakhouses and drank at the same pubs. They perused the pages of Commerce Business Daily,  a bulletin published every morning by the Department of Commerce listing every potential government contract from toilet paper to space shuttles, and swapped information on who was bidding what contract. Life in the aerospace industry revolved around NASA contracts. When a big-ticket contract was up for renewal, the community came to a rapid boil. Résumés were updated and mailed. People jockeyed for position. Small companies like Horizon networked and formed alliances, and large companies worked the halls of Congress. Eight or ten prime contractors dominated the process and set the agenda, subsidiaries of giants like Lockheed, Boeing, General Dynamics, Rockwell, Martin Marietta, McDonnell Douglas, and General Electric. When a contract moved to a new corporation, the scientists and engineers who had worked for the incumbent contractor simply switched badges and went to work for the company that had won the bid. Switching badges was not so much a sign of corporate disloyalty as it was the method by which NASA maintained continuity. In the end, everyone worked for NASA.

Karen founded Horizon Discovery Group in 1985 while Neal was serving with the Air Force Reserve. Later he became her first employee. She was still the company’s CEO in 1992, when the mysterious John Clifford came on the scene. In the argot of the industry Horizon was a body shop: The company sought support and service subcontracts in fields where it had some expertise—writing, for example, a womb-to-tomb mission requirement document for the space shuttle—then hired from the available pool of “bodies” the scientists, biomedical engineers, or market specialists a job might require.

Blond, pretty, pleasingly plump, the 34-year-old Karen was a hardheaded businesswoman with little tolerance for nonperformers. She was Horizon’s organizational strength, the 43-year-old Neal its technical expert. He was a good front man, an aerospace engineer from Texas A&M, an Aggie’s Aggie, macho, egotistical, a bull of a man with broad shoulders, curly steel-gray hair, and fading good looks. He may have been prone to indecision and too slow with the follow-up, but his twenty years in the Air Force and the reserve and his background training pilots and astronauts made him a natural in the industry, as did his record as an unabashed patriot. When Operation Desert Storm erupted, Neal volunteered. Together, Karen and Neal gave Horizon credibility. You heard that word over and over in the aerospace industry. A company’s most precious asset was credibility, which was one reason John Clifford chose Horizon to represent the lithotripter. But there was another, more practical reason. Because Karen owned and operated

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