It Came From Outer Space

When scientists at the Johnson Space Center thought they had found signs of life in a Martian rock, it was good news for NASA, Bill Clinton, Hollywood, the tabloids–and even Dick Morris’ favorite call girl.

be written about before publication.

For most scientists, such confidentiality is a minor problem. For the JSC team, who worked on the public payroll, it was a little more complicated. Once Blanchard had been advised that Science had set a publication date—legitimizing the JSC team’s work as good science—he sent news of the discovery up the chain of command to Johnson Space Center director George Abbey, who hopped a plane for Washington to deliver that rarest of gifts, good news from NASA.

It was the last week in July 1996. The secret life of the Martian rock had come to an end, and its public life was just beginning.

ON JULY 30, JUST AS MCKAY WAS TAKING OUT THE GARBAGE, he got a call. It was his ever-protective secretary, Yvette Damien. The White House was on the phone, she said. Could she give them his home number?

The callers were Wes Huntress, an associate administrator for the Office of Space Science, and Dan Goldin, none other than the head of NASA. They praised the scientists’ work and discussed the contents of the paper. Then Goldin asked one last question: Were they sure this news could be kept quiet for two more weeks? Science’s publication date, it turned out, was highly advantageous to the White House. NASA could schedule a press conference that would compete with Bob Dole’s acceptance speech as the Republican nominee. The rock was no longer just an object of science. It had entered the world of politics and would soon enter the popular culture as well. It had taken on a new characteristic whose identification did not require a team of scientists: currency. Rapidly escalating currency.

Dan Goldin was a man who understood currency, which may be why, a few hours later, McKay and Gibson got another call, ordering them to Washington immediately. The two men flew up and the next day met with NASA’s public affairs division to orchestrate the rock’s debut before the American public. Mindful of the Hubble telescope problems, the PR types grilled the scientists carefully, as did Goldin, who took 27 pages of notes during a subsequent three-hour meeting. At the end of the session—heading off to brief the president’s chief of staff, his national science adviser, the vice president, and after he was awakened from his nap, the president himself—Goldin had an unusual request. “Can I give you a hug?” he asked McKay.

A trim, De Niro—esque political infighter with a tough, outer-borough accent, Goldin knew that this discovery could mean salvation for NASA. More money, better morale, a restoration of prestige. But he also knew the risks. Looking into McKay’s eyes, he asked one more question: “Are you guys sure of this?” (When Al Gore heard the news from Goldin, he would react with the same mixture of ecstasy and insecurity: “Wait a minute—our guys, government scientists, did this?”)

Flying back home, McKay began to worry. The White House, he’d been warned, was notoriously leaky, and on Saturday he was scheduled to leave town for a family vacation in Garner State Park. Mary Fae had been looking forward to this trip for a long time, and nothing—not even the possibility of life on Mars—was going to get in the way. McKay calmed himself with the knowledge that he would have a NASA pager for emergencies. What could go wrong?

DICK MORRIS WAS ALSO A MAN WHO understood currency. He understood it in politics, where as Bill Clinton’s closest adviser he had engineered the president’s resurrection after the Democratic debacle of 1994. And it is safe to say that he understood the value of currency in his own life. He had, after all, begun to release bits of secret information in an attempt to impress the rather diffident prostitute he had begun meeting regularly in a $420-a-night suite at Washington’s Jefferson Hotel. He told Sherry Rowlands he was Clinton’s political strategist. He let her listen in on phone calls with the president. And, on August 2—just days after Dan Goldin’s meeting with McKay and Gibson—he told her she was one of seven people who were privy to a top military secret: Scientists had discovered life on another planet. The hooker, like most people, found the notion difficult to grasp. “Is it a bean?” she asked Morris, straining to understand the life form he was describing. “It’s more like a vegetable in a rock,” replied the man responsible for teaching the president to reduce complex issues to their simplest components.

Rowlands understood the value of currency too. Leggy, with a past that was beginning to show in the hardness around her eyes and mouth, she longed to retire from her career as a prostitute and open a house-cleaning business. When Morris came along, she saw in him an opportunity to fulfill her dreams. And so, after every session, she rushed home to make entries in her diary. The night Morris told her that life had been discovered on another planet, she garbled the facts—“He said they found proof of life on Pluto”—but she knew what she had. Even so, it wasn’t an easy sell. Rowlands called the London tabloids, and she called a reporter at the Star by the name of Richard Gooding. He was noncommittal; having just finished a story about UFOs and the movie Independence Day, he thought Rowlands was just another space case, especially when she couldn’t remember which planet Morris had told her about.

Well, what are we exploring now?” she demanded of Gooding.

I don’t know,” he replied. “Jupiter?”

In fact, it was not until Tuesday, August 6, that Gooding realized Rowlands had been telling the truth. That was when he, along with most Americans, learned that NASA scientists had discovered evidence of life on Mars. And, more important for his purposes, it was when he discovered that he had proof of a White House scandal.

ON HIS VACATION, DAVID MCKAY hadn’t been too worried when he didn’t hear from anyone over the weekend. But by Tuesday, when his

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