The guard at the gate put his left hand up to stop my car. His right hand was on the pistol on his hip. “What’s the nature of your business?” he asked.
“I’m going to McDonald’s,” I said.
“No problem.” He waved me through.
I drove slowly through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Ames Research Center, northwest of San Jose, California, past a vast complex of 1930s Spanish Mission–style buildings. There was a big grassy square with tents and hundreds of people milling about. I stopped, looked inside the tents and saw young men and women standing as if they were in front of their exhibits at a school science fair. They were explaining their areas of expertise to older men.
“Development of Low Frequency Shield Device for Attenuation of Life Process in Space Flight.” “Vintage Protein Modified Carbon Nanotube Electrodes for Biosensors Application.” “Alegin Gene Expression in Clinostat Simulated Microgravity.” I passed an abandoned spaceship hangar with steel girders, an F-18 fighter plane, a U-2 high-altitude plane and an abandoned nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile with a collapsible hose dangling from its belly like an umbilical cord. Behind the ICBM was the McDonald’s, sans golden arches.
I drove past the outside menu signs and the drive-through order window, parked and went inside. I said to the guy behind the counter, “Make mine a Big Mac, with fries and a Coke.” He gave me a wise-guy smile and said, “Right, like we never heard that before.”
The service counter had no cash register, the food warmer no burgers, the deep fryer no fries, the fry griddle no steaming grease, the milk shake machine no cups. This McDonald’s looked as if it hadn’t served a Happy Meal in years—seven years to be exact. It had been reconfigured into a low-rent office space. There were computers everywhere, ancient tape-drive machines like metal high school lockers the size of a man. Hundreds of film drums that looked as if they were from old black-and-white sci-fi movies were stacked on the floor. Everything was old, dusty and in a state of disrepair. Machines were being taken apart, their guts hanging out, decayed wires dangling, duct tape holding them together. In the window was a big flag, the skull-and-crossbones pirate flag. There was a sign: MCMOON’S.
Two men in their 50s sat transfixed at their computer screens in the dining area. A tall lanky man with a silver beard stared at his Skype image while being interviewed. A small birdlike man with glasses stared at endless lines of numbers. Finally the tall man came over to me. I asked him, “What’s with the pirate flag?” He said, “It’s our symbol. We put smart people in a room to work on unauthorized projects in plain sight.”
Dennis Wingo and a small cohort of collaborators* run Skycorp Incorporated, a small group of civilian aerospace scientists who play with the space stuff NASA has abandoned. They call themselves techno-archaeologists. They excavate ancient satellites that are drifting in space, unwanted, discarded by NASA. Skycorp gleans new data from satellites that 30 years ago NASA missed or deemed insignificant, passé or maybe just too expensive to bother with. Skycorp’s raison d’être is data for its own sake. Its members are true believers who worship data like an ancient god, even if at the moment the data has no significance in the modern world. They believe all data will eventually mean something. On this day they were preparing to change the orbit of the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 satellite, better known as ISEE-3, which NASA had abandoned in 1997. It had been orbiting the sun for 36 years, silent and ignored for the last 17 of those years until Skycorp contacted it from Earth in May 2014 and began “talking” to it. What it told them was “I’m alive. I’m functioning. Doesn’t anybody want me?” Skycorp replied, “We still love you.” And in four days, if all went according to plan, Skycorp hoped to coax ISEE-3 into returning home like a prodigal son—first into Earth’s orbit and eventually to Earth itself. Apparently this was a big deal for Skycorp and for ISEE-3, because the group planned to have a big party at McMoon’s for the scientists who had been instrumental in ISEE-3’s launch, including Robert W. Farquhar. At 82, he’s the Muddy Waters of NASA, the rock star who, in 1978, gave birth to ISEE-3.
“NASA said it was impossible to bring it back,” said Wingo. “It would cost $6 million. We told them we could do it for $150,000. So we raised the money from private investors, and NASA turned ISEE-3 over to us.” That was unprecedented.
It was the first time any governmental space agency in the world had turned over one of its satellites beyond Earth’s orbit to a civilian crew.
Keith Cowing, one of Wingo’s occasional collaborators, joined us while Wingo was talking. “By going back to the future we discover missed data,” Wingo said. “In the 1960s NASA didn’t have the technology to get all the data, but we use modern computers to get data from NASA’s old machines.” He pointed to all the tape discs stacked on the floor. He said they were from Lunar Orbiter 3 from 1967.
Cowing spoke up. “NASA told us the tapes would turn to dust. ‘We don’t need ’em,’ they said. ‘All these guys are dead now. Who cares? Go away. No way we can do this; we threw away all the tape drives, all the documents.’ So we found them on eBay, at garage sales, in NASA Dumpsters.” He showed me an old Boeing space pamphlet, yellowed, stained, its pages nibbled by rats. “We restored the drives until our images were clearer than NASA’s.” He pointed to three photos from the moon’s surface from the 1960s. NASA’s original photo was a dark blur. NASA’s restored photo was minimally clearer. Skycorp’s modern resolution was so clear that every rock and pebble was visible.
Cowing led me to an old tape drive as tall as he was. He held up his iPhone and said, “This has more capability than that.” The old tape drive’s innards were exposed. Cowing said, “See that blue capacitor? We bought it at RadioShack. We attract old stuff, then fix it. Everything we do is to look back in history to see how our past shaped our present to show us where to go in the future. Most scientists just go from the present to the future. We study the past.”
Cowing went back to his computer while Wingo introduced me to Skycorp’s young staff. Cameron Woodman, 39, the wise guy at the counter, is as handsome as a male model, and Casey Harper, 18, is a black-haired beauty. She’s been helping out at Skycorp since she was in middle school. “I’m like their golden retriever,” she said. “I fetch things.” Austin Epps, 28, with his brownish beard, is their earnest genius. Marco Colleluori, 29, round and soft with a hoop earring, is their nerd-hipster genius. Ken Zin, the old man of the crew, was in his office.
Wingo led me to two big walk-in food freezers in the back of McMoon’s. The door to one of the freezers was closed and guarded by a snarling boxer. “Ken’s rescue dog,” said Wingo. “I guess Ken’s busy. Don’t want to disturb him.” Zin is 69, the resident curmudgeon. Wingo said Zin doesn’t invent things, “but his skill is to detect flaws in things and repair them. He knows nothing about anything else.”
Late in the afternoon I checked in to Building 19, where I would be sleeping. The woman at the desk gave me a key attached to a metal disc with my room number on it, like a dog’s rabies tag. I went down the narrow, musty hallway to my room. It looked as if it hadn’t been touched in 80 years. There was an old white refrigerator with a 17-inch television on top. Its picture was fuzzy. The garbage pail didn’t work. How could a garbage pail not work? It had a little lever on the bottom that you pressed with your foot to open the lid. The lever was broken. The bathroom was ancient. The towels were stiff and threadbare and the thin little bar of soap seemed to be made of sand. I took a shower in a tiny cubicle. I couldn’t muster up a lather with the scratchy soap that reddened my skin like Brillo. When I dried myself with the towels they became immediately drenched and I could see through them like gossamer.
At six P.M. I went outside to wait for Wingo to pick me up for dinner. I sat on the front concrete steps and stared at the square little lawn that had no grass, just hard-packed dirt. A ceramic snail was stuck in the dirt, along with a plastic zebra-striped parrot, the parrot tilting over as if dying. I felt as though I were in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Everything was old and mysterious, preserved in aspic like all those UFOs in Area 51, insect-headed space aliens in formaldehyde.
Wingo and I drove to an Italian restaurant in his SUV. He drove like a madman, weaving in and out of traffic, speeding through lights as he talked. He told me his crew was idealistic, yet they believed in the reality of space. “The lunar community is obsessed with Mars,” he said, “and the moon, ever since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on it.”
I asked Wingo what he thought about UFOs and Area 51, where UFO fanatics believe the government has sequestered space aliens. (Area 51 is the U.S. Air Force’s top-secret aircraft-development site. It’s so secret, planes are forbidden to fly over it. It’s like a black hole in the sky and the ground whose existence the government has denied for years.) He said, “We’re not like those UFO conspiracy guys. They don’t want to know the truth about space and destroy their fantasies. If NASA knew there were UFOs they’d tell everyone so they’d get money.” But he admitted he liked space movies and TV shows. His favorite was Star Trek. He looked across at me and grinned. “The kids used to call me Spock,” he said, “because I have a pointy ear.” He grabbed his left ear with his thumb and forefinger and pulled it forward to show me its little point. During dinner Wingo told me about his life. He was born and raised in rural Alabama, “just a rednecked kid who thought a bagel was a Jewish McDonald’s.” He was sickly as a boy, and his mother babied him. No sports, lots of sick days. “I couldn’t go outside, so I read the encyclopedia,” he said. “When I got outside I looked for fossils in the woods.”
He first became aware of space and rockets when he was four and China exploded its first nuclear bomb. The radiation fallout was supposed to reach Alabama during a snowstorm, and all the kids were warned not to eat the snow.
“What’s the bomb, I wondered,” he said. When he was six his uncle took him to Cape Canaveral, where he saw the Gemini 12 launch. “I fell in love with space and the future,” he said. “I thought, You can go to the moon. My new heroes became George Wallace, Bear Bryant and Wernher von Braun, who helped build the Saturn 5 in Huntsville. We called it the Redneck Rocket Ship.”
By the time he was a teen, in the 1970s, Wingo had also fallen in love with sex, drugs and rock and roll. He hung out in biker bars because that’s where the action was. “I dated loose women,” he said. “One of them was the prostitute Jimmy Swaggart was caught with. She was 25. I was 17.” He smiled at me. “Then, when I got my degree in engineering physics at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, I learned there were a lot of space groupies out there.” I looked confused. He grinned and pointed to his head. “Brains.” It seems for some women intelligence is just as much an aphrodisiac as money, power and rock and roll.
At UAH he worked on a number of NASA space missions and became obsessed with the idea that the U.S. should turn the moon into an industrial park and way station for manned flights to Mars. The moon is a more convenient jumping-off station for Mars because its gravitational pull is so much weaker than Earth’s. This means spaceships would need less fuel to go from the moon to Mars than they would if they left from Earth. “I thought we’d go to Mars in the 1980s and bring our civilization there, but we couldn’t colonize Mars without industrializing the moon,” he said. “In the 1960s we thought we’d colonize Mars in 20 years, but after all the race riots and the Russians dropping out, the government decided to spend its space money on stupid shit rather than Mars.” Now, more than 40 years later, the possibility of colonizing Mars is at least 40 years away, and Wingo is afraid he won’t see that moment. So what drives him to keep going?
“I want to commercialize the aerospace industry so we can make money,” he said. “What I’m doing now at Skycorp helps build my credibility for future commercial projects, like building a satellite in space instead of on Earth. If you build it on Earth it has to be stronger, heavier, more powerful to escape our atmosphere. If we build it in space it can be lighter, cheaper and need less fuel.”
To build his brand, Wingo chose to put Skycorp in a McDonald’s and not in a NASA barbershop, his other option. “McDonald’s destroys all its restaurants when it decommissions them,” he said. “But NASA owned this one and gave it to us. It’s an American icon. Being in McDonald’s has given us a ton of media play.”
I returned to Building 19 at nine P.M. I asked the woman at the desk if she would do me a favor. “But I’m doing my paperwork now,” she said, flustered. “It will only take a second,” I said. “Could you just go online to check Delta flights from San Jose to Atlanta?” She looked up at me. “Oh, I can’t do that. I’m forbidden to go online.” “By whom?” I asked. She said, “By NASA, of course.”
Cowing fluttered into McMoon’s and went straight to his computer. I went over and said hello. He was talking to himself while he stared at lines and lines of numbers on his computer screen. I said hello again. I waited. Nothing. Five, six minutes passed. Finally he noticed me. “What?” he said. Cowing has a reputation. His website, NASA Watch, has been described as “notorious.” Cowing’s notoriety rests on his habit of caustically berating anyone—NASA, Congress, the global space community—who dares challenge his space assumptions. If Cowing claimed the moon was made of green cheese and NASA refuted him, he would attack NASA as viciously as a predatory bird would a squirrel. He is, after all, according to his personal website, “webmaster, astrobiologist, journalist, former rocket scientist and recovering ex–civil servant.” He describes himself as a “space nut,” which may be one word too many. Cowing fell in love with space in the 1960s when he saw with his own eyes that space travel was real, not a movie. In the 1940s and 1950s space movies were comically science fiction, Buck Rogers and his little gray football-shaped spacecraft wobbling across a black screen with a barely visible string tugging it along. Cowing was unquestioning in his belief in the 1960s that men landed on the moon and not in a movie studio as some conspiracy-minded debunkers had claimed. He was, from the age of five, always a true believer. Now he might be called an obsessive.
I said, “I’d like to ask you some questions.” He yawned at me, tapped his open mouth with the flat of his hand and went back to his numbers.
Just then Wingo entered, trailed by a group of young admirers, nerdy-looking college kids for whom he is the pied piper of space. He led them around McMoon’s, showing the equipment, talking to them about what Skycorp does. They listened to him with rapt attention and beatific smiles. I saw Woodman at his computer, looking at the kids, so I went over to him.
“Dennis’s tour is the most popular tour at NASA,” Woodman said. “It’s real. It’s something these kids can envision themselves doing.” Woodman had joined Skycorp a few months earlier because Wingo had given him “this crazy, fascinating opportunity to unravel the mysteries of the future.” Skycorp is an avocation for Woodman. It has given him something to be a part of. “I was a loner, shy as a kid,” he said. “I didn’t fit in. I never had a place I could latch on to. I never married. I had trouble with relationships.” His father died when he was six and his mother raised five kids by herself. When he was old enough he would go to Moffett Field, the airbase at NASA, and watch the submarine-hunting planes take off and land. The sub hunters are gone now, and so is Moffett Field, but they left a lasting impression on the young Woodman. Flight. The mysteries beyond land. He enrolled at the University of Texas and got his master’s degree in aerospace engineering.
“I wanted to explore the unknown,” he said. “I’m fascinated by mysteries. Working in aerospace gave me a link to that unknown. It’s all about playing around with things that give you a sense of control, power, fun.”
Woodman especially liked that Skycorp used “old stuff” to explore space. All those prehistoric machines that constantly have to be fixed, taken apart, put back together with wires, screws, mechanical things. “I like mechanical things,” he said.
Marco Colleluori and Austin Epps were at their computers. Woodman said, “Austin’s the most important person here.” Epps’s job on ISEE-3 is to control its compulsion system. He uses his software code to figure out how to make the satellite respond to his radio signals. First he had to work backward and decode ISEE-3’s hardware. This is where the term techno-archaeologist came from. Epps researched how the satellite had been built and programmed. The problem was, none of that information was in computer form. ISEE-3’s history was in old handwritten notes and incomplete records, the penmanship sometimes indecipherable, all the codes like ancient hieroglyphics. Skycorp called these “napkin notes.” Once Epps had decoded all the old programs, he had to figure out how to reactivate them from Skycorp and make ISEE-3 respond to their instructions.
Epps was born near Dallas, “a nerdy but competitive kid,” he said. “I built things. Fixed cars. Built a rocket ship. Here, I like to help Ken Zin make parts.” He had wanted to be a military pilot, but his eyesight wasn’t sharp enough, so at 16 he immersed himself in aerospace engineering. Six years ago he joined Skycorp because he liked that “everyone here had to wear many hats. I saw space engineers at Boeing who worked 10 years on a project for NASA. And then, after 10 years, it never got built.”
Wingo’s lemmings were gone, and he was alone at his computer. I told him I’d like to talk to Zin if he was around. Wingo led me back to the two food freezers. Zin was in his freezer with the big metal door shut. Major, his boxer, was on a blanket in front of the door. He snarled at me. I stepped back. Wingo said, “Ken must be working on something.”
Wingo told me he’d brought Zin into Skycorp because Zin had fallen on hard times. His wife had died and he’d lost his house and his job, so Wingo let him live in a trailer home behind McMoon’s, shielded by trees from NASA’s roaming eyes. “Ken’s been acting weird lately,” Wingo said. “The other day his dog attacked one of the visiting kids, and Ken laughed at it. I think he’s losing it because he’s not part of the ISEE-3 project. He feels left out.” Zin would probably not show up for Sunday’s party, he said, so my best bet was to try to talk to him tomorrow, Saturday, when few people would be around.
“What about Dr. Farquhar?” I said. “Will he be here Sunday?”
“Oh yes. He’s flying in. He’s done amazing things in his career. He took a spacecraft not designed for interplanetary flight and got it to land on Eros, an asteroid. He deserves the Nobel Prize.” Wingo paused, as if contemplating whether he should warn me about something. “But Dr. Farquhar is getting on in years. He’s in his 80s.” Another pause, then Wingo blurted out, “He’s a little bit nuts.” I thought he meant dementia. Wingo shook his head. Then he joked, “He’s a pussy hound.”
I went to McMoon’s early on Saturday. From the outside it looked deserted, but the door was open, so I went inside. I heard the sound of galloping feet, sharp claws on the hard floor. Major came charging straight at me, growling and baring his teeth. Before he could leap on me, a gruff voice screamed out, “No, Major! No!” Major sat down, suddenly docile, and wagged his stubby tail at me. I petted him. He purred. A big, disheveled, white-haired man came lumbering out from the back. Zin growled, “What are you afraid of? He won’t bite.” I said, “You know that. I don’t.” He flapped a hand at me in disgust.
He was carrying a big plastic trash bag. He began to go around the room, dumping the contents of little garbage pails into the big bag. Skycorp uses a lot of paper. I asked if I could talk to him. He grumbled, “When I come back from the dump. Someone’s got to do it.” Then he hoisted the big bag over his shoulder and went outside, followed by Major. He waited while Major took his morning piss and defecated in the grass. Then they both went to a white truck and got in. Major sat bolt upright in the passenger seat, looking out the window as they drove off.
While Zin was gone I wandered around McMoon’s, doing my own archaeology. There were old metal filing cabinets crammed with paper files. There was an octagonal McDonald’s dining table surrounded by stools. There were holes in the floor where Cowing had gone down on his knees to saw off the other stools that had dotted the room. On Cowing’s computer space I noticed a black-and-white school composition notebook. It was opened to reveal Cowing’s notes in a perfect and elaborate cursive script in aqua-blue ink.
Behind Woodman’s computer was an old McDonald’s microwave that Zin used to dry out the moisture on the lunar tapes. Beside it was a stack of books and loose-leaf binders. The books were an eclectic mix. Beta Mathematics Handbook. Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man. Linear Systems Theory. The Selected Writings of Herman Melville. A hardware-store stack of shelves was filled with boxes of screws, washers, bolts. There was a gray metal safe from the 1930s.
I decided to go outside to wait for Zin. On my way I almost tripped over a metal box screwed into the floor. It was an electrical outlet box to operate the McDonald’s deep fryer. It was like a tree stump and, like most tree stumps, was too expensive to dig out, so they’d left it there, covered in plastic bubble wrap.
I wandered around outside, staring at the ICBM, and then, behind the McDonald’s, I saw Zin’s mobile home. Small trees hid it from prying eyes. On its rear was written HOLIDAY RAMBLER, ALUMA-LITE TRAILER
Zin came back with Major. The dog galloped toward me but without growling this time. He put his paws up on my chest and wiggled his stubby tail. I petted him, my buddy now. We all went inside McMoon’s.
I followed Zin to the back, where he washed his hands at the sink. He went to the towel rack for paper to dry his hands. It was bare. He grumbled, “Fucking kids couldn’t even put in fresh paper.” He wiped his hands on his baggy jeans. “I feel like a babysitter.” We walked back to his freezer-office. Major lay down on his doggy bed and went to sleep at the sound of our voices. Zin told me that over the years he had worked for Lockheed Martin, NASA, Memorex and Sony. His job description was “demultiplex interceptor equipment repairman.” Most of his jobs were classified, he said, because he worked on machines that eavesdropped on Russian and Chinese communications.
“What did you do?” I asked.
He grinned at me. “I can’t tell you,” he said. “That’s why they call it classified.” He said his father, his daughter and his son-in-law also worked on top secret stuff. I asked him what stuff. He grinned again. “I can’t tell you. That’s why it’s called top secret.”
He told me he began working for Skycorp because it had gotten harder to find work at NASA without a Ph.D. “I was raised on a cotton ranch,” he said. “I learned how to fix things on my own. You know, like that Russian guy, what’s his name?” I said, “Kalashnikov.” He grinned at me again. “Good boy.”
I asked him how he liked working at Skycorp. He said, “Well, Austin and Marco are smart guys. They know how to make things work.” What about Cowing and Wingo? He said, “Dennis knows how NASA works so he can get things. And he tells a good story. Keith is a shit disturber. He opens his mouth and irritates people, and they pull back from us. Dennis gets the money, but he doesn’t tell us what it is. He just spends it on stuff that doesn’t work and I have to fix it. You get the idea?”
He said that Wingo’s modus operandi was to try to drag a job out for as long as possible, the way guys who get paid by the hour rather than by the job do. He said, “He’s like the guy driving a truck with 200 tons of canaries in it and the truck can carry only 100 tons. So he stops every few miles and beats on the side of the truck.” He paused. I bit. “Why?” I asked. Zin laughed. “To keep half the canaries flying.”
I asked him about Sunday’s big day with ISEE-3. What was it all about? He said, “Usable data.” I said, “You mean data just for data’s sake?” He shook his head and said, “Data’s important. Some people think there’s no benefit to space, but everything we did to get to the moon in the 1960s benefited mankind. That’s why ISEE-3 is important. The closer it gets to Earth, the more data we can retrieve. But there’s a problem. No one’s studied the sensors on ISEE-3 to see if they’re accurate after 30 years. It’s like when you think you’re running a car on 97-octane gas but it’s only 70.”
“So what’s Sunday really all about?” I said.
“Bullshit, to publicize Skycorp. But it’s not my deal. I was involved with the lunar tapes. I have nothing to do with this flying saucer.”
By nine A.M. McMoon’s was crowded with people, most of whom I hadn’t seen before. They were an odd-looking lot, scurrying around self-importantly in anticipation of the bewitching hour, 10:30 A.M., ISEE-3’s homecoming. Cowing fluttered about the room like a bird in heat, taking pictures of everyone with his iPhone. He stood on his tiptoes, held it high over his head and aimed it down on groups of people. Wingo was moving through the crowd, greeting people with his amiable smile. He was dressed for this momentous occasion in a yellow T-shirt with a smiley face on the front. The rest of the Skycorp crew were at their computers, except for Zin. He was nowhere in sight.
I went over to a tall, hunched-over man with pale skin and thick glasses who was talking to a little round old man who looked like Elmer Fudd. I introduced myself to the little man, Robert W. Farquhar, the 82-year-old father of ISEE-3 and notorious “pussy hound.” He shook my hand and said, “Want to see a picture of my Russian girlfriend? I have two. One’s 34 and the other’s 26. I had a third one a long time ago, Natasha One. Here’s a picture of Natasha Two.” He showed me his wallet with a photo of a beautiful blonde Russian woman with a fur collar pulled up around her neck.
“I met Natasha Two when I gave a speech to the Russian Space Research Institute in Moscow,” Farquhar said. “After the speech I looked down from the second floor and saw all these girls dancing with each other. I wanted to go down to the floor, but everyone was pulling me back. ‘No, Bob, no! You can’t go there!’ ” All the girls were Russian spies, of course, waiting to get their claws into one of America’s most renowned NASA space scientists.
Farquhar stared at Natasha Two’s photo and said, “We’re madly in love. Oh no, we can’t get married. I’m already married. If I could, I’d marry Natasha Two just so she could get the survivor benefits from my government pension. That would punish Uncle Sam big-time.” Then he said to me with a mischievous smile, “I can’t tell you too much, because you might tell my wife. I told her my Natashas were just good friends. I can’t do anything with them anymore, not even with Viagra.”
He showed me a picture from a distant time of himself in uniform, a young, handsome man at a table with other young, handsome American soldiers. “I was a paratrooper during the Korean War when I was on R&R in Tokyo,” he said. “I was only in Korea for a few weeks before the armistice was signed, but I single-handedly won the war.” This was news, because nobody seems to have won that war, which is still in a state of uneasy truce.
He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a gold medal on a colorful ribbon. He hung it around his neck and said, “The South Koreans gave me this medal. It says Bob Farquhar single-handedly vanquished the entire North Korean Army.” Then he excused himself. He had many people who wanted to meet him. But before he left he leaned toward me and, sotto voce, gave me his best advice for picking up women.
“I hit on women every day,” he said, “the grocery store, the bank. But the best place to hit on women is at a CVS pharmacy. That’s where they go to pick up their meds.” He wandered into the crowd with his medal around his neck. Everyone smiled at him and shook his hand. I saw him reach for his wallet with the photos of Natasha One, Two and Three.
I wandered around the crowded room. A group of men and women in identical black shirts and pants were sitting at banks of computers. They worked for Pixel Corps, which would be feeding Wingo and Cowing’s ISEE-3 interview around the world.
The octagonal dining room table in the center of the room was crowded with young tech people hunched over their computers. They were slim young men with scruffy beards they’d seen on GQ models, as well as a number of Asian women—Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Indian and Pakistani—with furrowed brows, very earnest.
Wingo and a tall, bald albino man were intently studying a chart on a big board. A Japanese man was watching them, smiling and nodding his head. Nearby, Farquhar was showing the girlfriends of Epps and Colleluori photos of his Natashas. Then he posed for photos with them, his arms around their shoulders, pawing them. Cowing stood on his tiptoes, held his iPhone over his head and took their picture.
The tech people were now scurrying around the room with spreadsheets of numbers, showing them to people who didn’t seem to be interested.
Wingo and Cowing went into a small room set up with a camera and a computer screen. They sat facing these while a technician fitted them with microphones. The computer screen showed them as their mikes were being fitted, and Cowing raised his iPhone and took a picture of the screen. Wingo called out to me, “Pat, go find my wife and make sure she brought the lemon pies.”
I went into the crowded main room to see if I could find someone who looked like she’d be Wingo’s wife. Her name was Nikki. No last name, like Cher, Beyoncé and Madonna. Nikki had her name legally changed in California to simply Nikki. The Social Security Administration sued her for that and lost. I saw a big woman in tight jeans who looked like she might be a one-name person and certainly didn’t look like anyone else scurrying around McMoon’s. I went up to her and introduced myself. She laughed and said, “So you’re the one who told Dennis he was an egomaniac. That’s so 1950s.” I told her I didn’t realize the word egomaniac was particularly 1950s-ish.
I asked if she’d brought the lemon pies, and she had. They were laid out on the old McDonald’s service counter with pastries and coffee. We talked for a few minutes. I told her Wingo had said there were a lot of groupies around space scientists because their brains were an aphrodisiac for certain women. “Is that true in your case?” I asked.
“Someone else asked me that, and I said yes,” she told me. “But I got beat down for that, so now I say, ‘The most attractive qualities in a man are kindness and a sense of humor.’ As for intelligence, whatever. Get over it.”
It was after 10:30 A.M. and no one seemed much interested in where in space ISEE-3 was wandering. They were having too good a time taking photos, chatting, making plans for dinner.
I went back to the small room to tell Wingo that Nikki had brought the pies, but he and Cowing were already being interviewed via satellite by a man from England. They seemed to want to talk mostly about how the McDonald’s had become McMoon’s. When the interviewer was finally able to ask them about ISEE-3, Wingo said, “We’re just waiting to receive the data. It’s all good.”
At 11:30 A.M. the party was winding down. People were standing around talking and drinking coffee or beer. I saw Casey Harper standing by herself at her computer, so I went over to her. She wore a blue satin blouse with a thick gold chain around her neck, tight jeans and sandals that showed off her painted toenails. She was, at 18, a riveting beauty. I asked her how it felt to be the only woman at Skycorp. She said it was no longer strange to have a girl in the aerospace industry. “My mother worked with NASA,” she said. “My father worked for NASA and Lockheed Martin. I’ve always been mechanically inclined. As a little girl I took things apart to see how they worked, then put them back together. When we got a VHS tape player I put a piece of toast in it because it was the same shape as a tape. I used to draw a lot too. I drew mostly television remotes. When I went to the hardware store with my older brother and the guy asked him what he was looking for, my brother pointed at me and said, ‘Ask her.’ ”
I asked Harper if guys were threatened by her mechanical prowess. Did it affect her dating? “No,” she said. “I didn’t date much in high school. It wasn’t really my area of interest. You know, all that ‘Everything revolves around you, honey’ stuff. I’m too independent for that.”
Before I left I asked if she was going to get an aerospace degree in college. She said no, that she would get a mechanical engineering degree. She wanted to design prosthetic limbs and hands so people could have the same dexterity and speed they would have with real hands. “I want them to be able to play musical instruments or draw with their prosthetic hands,” she said. “A good friend of mine, a musician, told me he’d be devastated if he lost his fingers and couldn’t play his guitar.”
I saw Wingo talking to his wife. I went over and asked him what had happened with ISEE-3. He told me I should ask Colleluori. I looked around for Colleluori and saw him outside smoking a cigarette. On my way out I stopped at a table piled with what looked like graduation certificates. They were titled “Certificates of Appreciation for ISEE-3 Reboot Project.” They were signed by Wingo and Cowing and had various people’s names on them. None of those people had bothered to pick them up.
I went outside and asked Colleluori about ISEE-3. He told me his Skycorp job title was “altitude and orbit control systems engineer” and his job was “to steer it, like a rowboat.” He said, “It has 12 thrusters, and my job is to figure out how many oars to use, on what side of the boat, so we can change its trajectory from around the sun to around Earth. What happened was, we started rowing, it looked good, we were excited—after all, it hadn’t been turned on for decades—and then it failed. It had lost the nitrogen in the tanks that pushed the fuel out, like a spray-paint can with no air. So essentially it’s back in the same orbit around the sun.” He smiled and added, “But all is not lost. That lost nitrogen is going to be my college thesis. It could be a design issue. In space, you never over-design something. You design it only for what you want it to do at the moment. It’s about the present, not the future.”
Colleluori stubbed out his cigarette on the sidewalk with his shoe and said he had to go in and find his girlfriend. Last he’d seen her she was taking a picture with Farquhar. Colleluori said, “You know, I was so excited to have my picture taken with Dr. Farquhar, but all he wanted to do was kiss my girlfriend.”
I was about to leave when all of a sudden everyone came pouring out of McMoon’s, 30 or 40 people laughing and celebrating as if something momentous had happened that I’d missed. They all assembled in rows on the small grassy area in front of McDonald’s where Major did his business. One man looked down at his shoe and began furiously pawing at the ground with the sole. Cowing stood in front of them like a bandleader. He moved back a few feet, then flapped his arms for them to get closer together. They all bunched up. Cowing stood on his tiptoes, raised his iPhone high over his head and called out, “Now!” On cue, everyone smiled at the clear blue sky and waved their hands as if bidding someone up there good-bye, or maybe hello.
Cowing filmed them for a few minutes. Then they stopped waving at the empty sky. Cowing made a patting motion with the flat of his hand as if he wanted them to get on the ground. He got on his tiptoes again and held up his iPhone. Everyone bent over at the waist and began to wave at the grass as though gesturing at some barely visible creature from a great height.
It was a strange reaction by a group of strange people. They had raised money, twisted NASA’s arm to gain control of a rogue satellite, given up any semblance of a normal life (though it’s unlikely any of them had normal lives to begin with) and spent most of their waking hours in a McDonald’s that couldn’t even muster a decent Big Mac. And more important, they had failed in their mission. ISEE-3 was in no shape to obey their commands. Thousands of man-hours had been wasted (unless through some miracle the data they’d collected and the data they might still collect yield some sort of scientific dividends). It was like a wedding party at which the bride and groom never showed. But the party went on regardless. Far from being broken and depressed, they were happy. Briefly, they had done the impossible. They had connected with ISEE-3. They had talked to it, and it had answered. Their childhood dreams had come true, and they had done it totally on their own.
Off to my right I saw Zin emerge from his mobile home with Major on a leash. He quickly hustled the dog across the parking lot before anyone saw them. Then they both disappeared behind another building.
Editors Note: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized Keith Cowing’s involvement in Skycorp. Cowing neither works for Skycorp nor has an investment in the project. He did, however, collaborate with Skycorp and other companies and government agencies as part of the ISEE-3 Reboot Project.