Crossing the Red
The inspiration for my first novel, Crossing the Red, came in December, 1979 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. That was an important year for NASA, marking not only the de-orbit of the space station SkyLab, but also the tenth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.
So, how did working at NASA relate to writing a novel about a Comanche family’s struggles amid a terrorist plot to blow up the Houston petroleum complex? That's a long story... 37 years long.
I had left my Lawton, Oklahoma newspaper job the previous year to accept a position in NASA Public Affairs as Supervisor of Information Services. Our office processed an average of 10,000 public requests a month for information on the space program, which made our office a pretty busy place. To take a daily break I would walk from NASA's Building 2 next door to Building 1, the NASA headquarters and astronaut office. They had a coffee machine there and a short mid-morning walk would do you good.
One particular afternoon, I met one of the NASA security guards there. He was waiting in line to buy a coffee so we struck up a conversation. Remember, this was 1979, and I had been following recent terrorist incidents with a newsman’s interest.
Just that year there had been a spate of killings by the IRA in Ireland (including the successful assassination of Lord Mountbatten), the failed attempt to blow up American Airlines Flight 444, and the seizure of Islam’s holiest site in Mecca by the Wahabi group Ikhwan, demanding the overthrow of the House of Saud and the implementation of an Islamic state. This event in particular involved a two-week siege that captured headlines around the world and ended in a death toll of 250.
In the context of these terrorist events, there was obvious concern by some in the U.S. that this growing trend of violence would eventually explode in the Western Hemisphere (which it did in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s). This was obvious grist for the news mill and since I was still following my newsman’s instincts by habit, I started my conversation with the Security Guard as I poured myself a cup of coffee.
"So, how many of you are on duty today?”
“A couple,” he replied in a friendly manner, explaining that this number included himself and another guard who was on access control at the two entry gates.
“We have backup available from the local police if we need it,” he added.
Amazed at his responses to my question, I watched in silence as the armed guard put a lid on his coffee and strode out of Building 1 enroute back to his post.
This seemingly innocuous event was indicative of the innocently secure feeling that all of us at NASA had about our facilities and people. This false sense of security was felt nation-wide, with the exception of some federal government offices and high-value military installations.
Alarmed by our collective ignorance, I wondered to myself, "What if we were attacked here at NASA? At Mission Control? The hub of command and control for our manned spaceflight program?"
These simple questions and their prospective answers gelled in my mind, eventually forming the bare bones plot of my first book. The story's plot continued to evolve in my mind and on paper over the next 20+ years, and suffered a tragic validation when the events of 9/ll finally focused our collective attention on our Nation's homeland security.