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.

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 beeper remained mute, he had grown anxious. “I’d better call in,” he said to Mary Fae. What McKay learned, in short order, was that his government-issue pager didn’t work in the countryside. Worse, the story had leaked. Publicists at the Johnson Space Center had gotten calls from ABC, CNN, the BBC, and other major news outlets around the world. The CBS Evening News was threatening to report the discovery without official confirmation. Reporters, believing themselves to be on the trail of the story of the century, began interviewing each other, basing their opinions on a brief statement released by Goldin. Science had graciously capitulated by putting the article on the Internet ten days in advance of publication. On the first day, the World Wide Web site received 1.2 million hits.

To control the story, NASA had wanted to hold the press conference immediately, without McKay, but Gibson had refused to participate without him. Now it was scheduled for Wednesday, and McKay had less than 24 hours to get to Washington. “It was out of our hands,” Gibson would say later, his eyes still wide with awe. “It was being determined at higher pay scales than ours.” Mary Fae and the McKays’ three daughters drove McKay to the airport in San Antonio. He wore his Apollo tie. At a rehearsal for the press conference, McKay told the anecdote about his daughter’s discovering the “bacteria.” The public affairs people winced. They were afraid the story would make the scientists look foolish.

Since the end of the Apollo program, attendance at NASA press conferences had shrunk to a handful of reporters. This one was different, though; at one point, Gibson counted 31 cameras. He and McKay sat down at a long table with other team members, and a section of the rock was placed in front of them. The photographers descended like a swarm of bats. And then Goldin got up to speak.

Once, NASA’s successes had been easy to convey—brave astronauts went into space, and then they came home safely—but the importance of this story was harder to explain. After all, it was only a story about the possibility of life on other planets, and the main character was a rock. But Goldin had to make it work; he had two Mars missions coming up, budget meetings, a president running for reelection. At least he had the popular culture on his side: The hottest movie in the country was Independence Day, and TV viewers couldn’t get enough of The X-Files.  Instead of fantasy, Goldin could offer the real thing. He began by sounding the requisite notes of caution—the results were still inconclusive, there was no scientific consensus, NASA would still love these scientists no matter what—but then Dan Goldin took a breath and stepped into the sun. “We are now on a doorstep to the heavens,” he began. “What a time to be alive…”

THE ROCK WAS AN OVERNIGHT SENSATION after four billion years, allowing just about everyone to bask in its glory. President Clinton, setting off for three days of campaigning, proclaimed that the rock “speaks to us across all those billions of years and millions of miles…If this discovery is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered.” Al Gore called a space summit for November. Carl Sagan weighed in (“If the results are verified, it is a turning point in human history…”), as did the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who claimed that scientists would never find intelligent life anywhere beyond Earth. On the Internet, one scholar suggested that colonizing Mars could be the answer to

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