#fridayflash: landing the eagle

"We can walk down to the beach house and introduce you to the astronaut team later. Why don't I show you to your office so you can settle in?"

"Sounds great, Col. Phillips. It's an honour to be here... I'm so glad this project didn't die with the Kennedy assassination."

Col. Phillips didn't reply, but his right eye twitched. Dr. Gallagher noticed, but chose not to rock the boat on his first day at NASA.

They reached the administrative area. Col. Phillips introduced Dr. Gallagher to Patty Smith, the secretary for the team Gallagher would be working with. He led Gallagher into an office a few steps away from Smith's desk.

"Let's talk about what you should start with tomorrow," Phillips said in a voice that was clearly more for the secretary to hear than Gallagher. Phillips closed the door and flicked a metal toggle switch located beside the thermostat.

"We call that the 'cone of silence', from that TV show," said Phillips. "It turns a red light on at Smith's desk so she knows you're not to be interrupted, and it causes a high-frequency sound to be emitted throughout the secretarial and lobby area. It messes up any remote listening equipment someone may have planted here, so you can't be recorded. We don't keep it on all the time because even though the frequency is too high for humans to hear, it makes them jumpy. Besides, the damn electronics burn out if they're left on for more than two hours."

"Good to know, sir."

"It's your office. You may as well sit behind the desk." Gallagher squeezed past the oversized metal desk and sat in the swivel chair positioned behind it. Phillips chose the visitor's chair furthest from the door.

"So," said Phillips, "putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth."

"It will be a remarkable achievement, sir. It'll go down in history."

Phillips snorted. "It'll go down in Hollywood. Do you know the risks of even trying to attempt such a thing? I mean really understand the risks?"

Gallagher frowned. "I was hired to help design the life support systems..."

"Listen up Gallagher, and listen well. You were hired to create the casings for life support systems. We need something that is small enough to look good on television, heavy enough to feel like there's working gear inside if any damn reporter picks one up, and documented well enough that we can show the brass a nice impressive wall of binders when they do their rounds. Fill in that bookshelf behind me first thing, will you?"

Gallagher crumpled into his chair. "So if I'm understanding you, I'm making... what, TV prop life support cases? Who makes the real ones?"

Phillips rolled his eyes. "Those are the real ones. What, did you think we were acting something out from Astounding Stories? You're a fan of that Asimov guy?"

"More into Heinlein if you really want to know, but seriously?"

"Seriously." Phillips stood up. "It's the goddamn moon, Gallagher. We can barely make it across the Pacific without getting goddamned lost, and that's with radio towers. Now spend some time thinking about how to make this place look like a proper engineer's office."

"I am a proper engineer."

"Then it shouldn't be too difficult for you." Phillips crossed to the door, flicking off the "cone of silence" as he exited. "Smith," Gallagher heard him say, "there's not a single ashtray in that office. Get him some, will you? At least the little clear glass ones they have at diners. Hell, steal a couple next time you and the girls go out for sandwiches."

"I'll make a note, sir."

Gallagher slowly pushed himself out of his chair as he heard Phillips' hard-soled shoes clack down the corridor. He made it as far as the door to his office and slumped against the doorframe for support.

Smith turned and flashed him a smile. "Col. Phillips asked me to get you some ashtrays."

"I gave up smoking," said Gallagher. "I spend too much time with oxygen tanks for smoking to be a relaxing habit."

"Well, one for when people stop by your office, anyhow. Speaking of visitors, there goes Marty Schwartz, he wanted to meet you right away.... Marty!"

Gallagher saw a man stop dead in the middle of the corridor, turn around, and head back to the office pod. Schwartz was wearing a short-sleeved white shirt with a thin dark tie. His breast pocket sported a white plastic pocket protector and a handful of pens, and his crew-cut hair made no enhancement of either his horn-rimmed glasses or his pale, trim-but-pasty face. He and Gallagher may as well have been twins.

Patty introduced them, and mentioned Col. Phillips had already shown Dr. Gallagher around.

"I design valve controllers," said Schwartz, shaking Gallagher's hand. "So we'll be working together a lot. Want to have a quick chat in your office, and then head out for lunch, say?"

"That would be swell," said Gallagher, wondering if Schwartz actually knew his stuff, or was just a glorified Hollywood prop guy.

"Did Phillips use this?" said Schwartz, flicking the "cone of silence" switch.

Gallagher nodded as he took his seat behind the desk.

Schwartz shrugged and left it on. "The light still turns on, but we disconnected the speaker months ago. It gives Patty migraines." He threw himself into the nearest visitor's chair. "Phillips tell you this is all fake?"

"More or less."

"Did he tell you why?"

"He said going to the moon was impossible. Science fiction."

Schwartz gave a short laugh. "Sixty years ago, Phillips' grandfather was calling the Wright Brothers lunatics. With NASA, it's a budget concern. The brass think faking it might fool the Soviets but be... cheaper."

"I see."

"You sound disappointed."

"It's not exactly the resume line I was hoping for."

"Ah, but here's the thing." Schwartz leaned forward, tapping his finger on the desk to emphasise his words. "This stuff has to all look good, really good. Good enough to fool foreign scientists. Good enough to fool journalists — most of them are idiots, but the ones that aren't know their stuff cold. So what's the best way to make it all good enough to fool them?" He leaned back in his chair and held out his arms.

Gallagher blinked a few times, then coughed and rolled his eyes. "Best way to fool them all is do it for real. Okay, gotcha on the new guy. You and Phillips really had me going there."

"No gull," said Schwartz. "Not on you. Just Phillips."

"Phillips thinks we're making fake equipment for a fake moon launch."

"Yes."

"But really we're making real equipment for a real moon launch."

"Yes!"

"But why..."

"We tell him it's all fake. It keeps him happy, and it keeps us amused." Schwartz reached over the desk and slapped Gallagher on the shoulder. "Welcome to NASA. Come on, let's grab lunch. I'll drive; you're gonna want a couple of beers. Don't forget to turn off the 'cone of silence' on the way out; the damn thing burns out if you leave it on for a couple of hours."