Marjorie Tench fell silent, as if reeling from that last punch.
The CNN host prompted, "Ms. Tench? A reaction?"
The woman finally cleared her throat and spoke. "I guess I'm just surprised to hear that Mr. Sexton is willing to establish himself as so staunchly anti-NASA."
Sexton's eyes narrowed. Nice try, lady. "I am not anti-NASA, and I resent the accusation. I am simply saying that NASA's budget is indicative of the kind of runaway spending that your President endorses. NASA said they could build the shuttle for five billion; it cost twelve billion. They said they could build the space station for eight billion; now it's one hundred billion."
"Americans are leaders," Tench countered, "because we set lofty goals and stick to them through the tough times."
"That national pride speech doesn't work on me, Marge. NASA has overspent its allowance three times in the past two years and crawled back to the President with its tail between its legs and asked for more money to fix its mistakes. Is that national pride? If you want to talk about national pride, talk about strong schools. Talk about universal health care. Talk about smart kids growing up in a country of opportunity. That's national pride!"
Tench glared. "May I ask you a direct question, senator?"
Sexton did not respond. He simply waited.
The woman's words came out deliberately, with a sudden infusion of grit. "Senator, if I told you that we could not explore space for less than NASA is currently spending, would you act to abolish the space agency altogether?"
The question felt like a boulder landing in Sexton's lap. Maybe Tench wasn't so stupid after all. She had just blindsided Sexton with a "fence-buster"-a carefully crafted yes/no question designed to force a fence-straddling opponent to choose clear sides and clarify his position once and for all.
Instinctively Sexton tried sidestepping. "I have no doubt that with proper management NASA can explore space for a lot less than we are currently-"
"Senator Sexton, answer the question. Exploring space is a dangerous and costly business. It's much like building a passenger jet. We should either do it right-or not at all. The risks are too great. My question remains: If you become president, and you are faced with the decision to continue NASA funding at its current level or entirely scrap the U.S. space program, which would you choose?"
Shit. Sexton glanced up at Gabrielle through the glass. Her expression echoed what Sexton already knew. You're committed. Be direct. No waffling. Sexton held his chin high. "Yes. I would transfer NASA's current budget directly into our school systems if faced with that decision. I would vote for our children over space."
The look on Marjorie Tench's face was one of absolute shock. "I'm stunned. Did I hear you correctly? As president, you would act to abolish this nation's space program?"
Sexton felt an anger simmering. Now Tench was putting words in his mouth. He tried to counter, but Tench was already talking.
"So you're saying, senator, for the record, that you would do away with the agency that put men on the moon?"
"I am saying that the space race is over! Times have changed. NASA no longer plays a critical role in the lives of everyday Americans and yet we continue to fund them as though they do."
"So you don't think space is the future?"
"Obviously space is the future, but NASA is a dinosaur! Let the private sector explore space. American taxpayers shouldn't have to open their wallets every time some Washington engineer wants to take a billion-dollar photograph of Jupiter. Americans are tired of selling out their children's future to fund an outdated agency that provides so little in return for its gargantuan costs!"
Tench sighed dramatically. "So little in return? With the exception perhaps of the SETI program, NASA has had enormous returns."
Sexton was shocked that the mention of SETI had even escaped Tench's lips. Major blunder. Thanks for reminding me. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence was NASA's most abysmal money pit ever. Although NASA had tried to give the project a facelift by renaming it "Origins" and shuffling some of its objectives, it was still the same losing gamble.
"Marjorie," Sexton said, taking his opening, "I'll address SETI only because you mention it."
Oddly, Tench looked almost eager to hear this.
Sexton cleared his throat. "Most people are not aware that NASA has been looking for ET for thirty-five years now. And it's a pricey treasure hunt-satellite dish arrays, huge transceivers, millions in salaries to scientists who sit in the dark and listen to blank tape. It's an embarrassing waste of resources."
"You're saying there's nothing up there?"
"I'm saying that if any other government agency had spent forty-five million over thirty-five years and had not produced one single result, they would have been axed a long time ago." Sexton paused to let the gravity of the statement settle in. "After thirty-five years, I think it's pretty obvious we're not going to find extraterrestrial life."
"And if you're wrong?"
Sexton rolled his eyes. "Oh, for heavens sake, Ms. Tench, if I'm wrong I'll eat my hat."
Marjorie Tench locked her jaundiced eyes on Senator Sexton. "I'll remember you said that, senator." She smiled for the first time. "I think we all will."
Six miles away, inside the Oval Office, President Zach Herney turned off the television and poured himself a drink. As Marjorie Tench had promised, Senator Sexton had taken the bait-hook, line, and sinker.
Michael Tolland felt himself beaming empathetically as Rachel Sexton gaped in silence at the fossilized meteorite in her hand. The refined beauty of the woman's face now seemed to dissolve into the expression of innocent wonder-a young girl who had just seen Santa Claus for the first time.
I know just how you feel, he thought.
Tolland had been struck the same way only forty-eight hours ago. He too had been stunned into silence. Even now, the scientific and philosophical implications of the meteorite astounded him, forcing him to rethink everything he had ever believed about nature.
Tolland's oceanographic discoveries included several previously unknown deepwater species, and yet this "space bug" was another level of breakthrough altogether. Despite Hollywood's propensity for casting extraterrestrials as little green men, astrobiologists and science buffs all agreed that given the sheer numbers and adaptability of earth's insects, extraterrestrial life would in all probability be buglike if it were ever discovered.
Insects were members of the phylum arthropoda-creatures having hard outer skeletons and jointed legs. With over 1.25 million known species and an estimated five hundred thousand still to be classified, earth's "bugs" outnumbered all of the other animals combined. They made up 95 percent of all the planet's species and an astounding 40 percent of the planet's biomass.
It was not so much the bugs' abundance that impressed as it was their resilience. From the Antarctic ice beetle to Death Valley's sun scorpion, bugs happily inhabited deadly ranges in temperature, dryness, and even pressure. They also had mastered exposure to the most deadly force known in the universe-radiation. Following a nuclear test in 1945, air force officers had donned radiation suits and examined ground zero, only to discover cockroaches and ants happily carrying on as if nothing had happened. Astronomers realized that an arthropod's protective exoskeleton made it a perfectly viable candidate to inhabit the countless radiation-saturated planets where nothing else could live.