John P. Meehan, MD: Scientist and Diplomat to the USSR

President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR not only had their red telephones so they could communicate on a moment’s notice, but also were “pen pals” of a sort.  They scribbled notes to each other that were probably taken to their offices through diplomatic pouches.  This was most likely the means by which Kennedy convinced Khrushchev to share information about space medicine, although people in both nations were assured that no such agreement was ever reached.


It was in 1962 that Dr. John P. Meehan was asked to fly to the USSR to meet with Soviet scientists who were working on the USSR race to the moon.  Dr. Meehan, known as Pat to his friends, endured many uncomfortable flights through the black night skies from Southern California to Moscow or Baikonur (Siberia) during the next nine years.  It was his job to share his knowledge of space medicine with the Soviets in order to keep cosmonauts alive in space.  Soviets got ahead of the US in rocketry engineering but lagged far behind in medicine.  When Pat was in the US he worked with NASA to do the same thing.  When he was not doing either, Pat was a professor of physiology at the University of Southern California.  He retired as chairman of that department.

And, when Pat returned from each flight to “the other side,” he was interrogated separately by two US intelligence agencies.  NSA admitted that Pat was a contractor to them for the years 1962 to 1971.  He was able to add large amounts of information to what the US already knew about the Soviet space program.  The Soviets did not know that Pat was well versed on rockets as well as space medicine.

Pat was not allowed to be seen on public air liners, so special arrangements had to be made to get him inside the USSR without being seen.  These flights were sometimes dangerous, but his most fearful experience came when Premier Khrushchev was removed from office and Premier Brezhnev took over.  Pat did not know for certain whether he would be arrested or welcomed on his next flight to Moscow.  This all took place during the Cold War.  As it turned out, he was welcomed and Brezhnev, who was said to never talk with the West, did.  Historians might wish to reconsider their positions on this point.

Over the years Pat made many friends with Soviet scientists and also with Soviet  cosmonauts.  He was fairly close to Yuriy Gagarin (possibly the first man in space) and Alexei Leonov who made the first space walk.

Pat’s clandestine trips to the USSR ended in 1972.  But in 1975 he went back to the Baikonur space program station to receive a “hero’s welcome” for his contributions.  Now that the US and Russia are cooperating on many more space projects it is easy to credit the groundbreaking work that Pat did to ease tensions between the two super powers.

My book The Insider told Pat’s story as part of a novel.  However, it is now possible to reveal the name of the real man who was so very brave and patriotic when his country needed him.  While he did not get to fly the rockets as some did (and get much deserved glory), he was a hero in every sense of the word.

Pres. Kennedy’s Joke on the American People

After at least four years of research and writing, I completed a book about President Kennedy’s joke on the US people.  He truly did send a space medicine scientist, one of the few the US had, to the USSR to help keep their cosmonauts alive.  JFK did not live long afterwards, but Presidents Johnson and Nixon carried on the program.  Apparently, they did not tell Congress.

Premier Khrushchev of the USSR had to be in agreement, of course.  He was ousted in 1964, so Premier Brezhnev had a choice to make.  He chose to keep the program intact.  The scientist secretly flew back and forth to the USSR for about nine years, while the US was competing with the USSR to be first to send a man to the moon.

I knew the space medicine scientist, who died a few years ago.  After I wrote the book, I sent a letter to one of his children, also a scientist, saying that the book was on the market but that I had altered the scientist’s name and home city.

A few weeks ago I got a letter from a child of the scientist.  It was very informative.  He did not know I had written the book and he did not know what his father had been up to.  Here is what he said, in part:

Dear Mr. Fiske,

On the advice of my sibling, I have read your book The Insider.   Needless to say, the content left me floored.  I had no idea that my father led a double life as our country strove to put a man on the moon.  My next reaction is to thank you for helping to fill in some of the blanks of my father’s life.  He was remarkably careful in what he would tell us about his work and it was clear that he had a lot more to say.  Without your patient and persistent interviews the story would have died with him. I am very grateful that you were willing to take the time and personal risk and write your book.  A couple years prior to his death I had arranged for a physiologist working on the history of space flight to interview Dad.  His health was already failing and his Parkinson’s (disease) made communication difficult.  Dad refused to meet with the physiologist and I always regretted the opportunity missed.  I should have known that Dad would have arranged for an interview on his terms.

The interview was with me.  I am not a physiologist, however.  Nor did I intend to write about the scientist.  While I got a crash course in physiology from the scientist, little of it “took.”  I am an MBA and more of a student of management and an economist that a medicine man.  I never liked biology and its off-shoots.  Once the scientist had told someone about his adventure, he said nothing to anyone else.  I was working under the theory that his children knew what their father had accomplished, but the letter tells me I was wrong.

It appears that his wife knew and I knew.  She was also my friend.  But in this country, we three knew alone knew of the very brave things the scientist accomplished.  Of course, two Intel agencies knew, but it all took place over forty years ago, and most of them are dead or retired by now.  Newer staff doesn’t care and is busy working on other problems.  Still, no one in our Government is giving up any information, willingly.  The Russians know and have long memories.   They would rather not let the world know that they had important assistance from the US when they were setting all kinds of records in space.  It is not a time of ease at my house.

I called the book The Insider: NASA’s Man at Baikonur. It is available at the usual dot com book stores such as Amazon.

Unintended Consequences

Congress often passes laws that have unintended consequences.  The sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote a paper about the subject as early as 1936.  Some of unintended consequences are serendipitous, but others are negative or perverse.  It seems that Congress has a way of introducing negative or perverse consequences.

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 was designed to increase revenues for America and protect American jobs, but it almost single-handedly destroyed the world’s economy.  And was it President Clinton’s administration that caused taxes to be raised on luxury boats?  The result was that the poor guys who made boats were suddenly out of work.

Individuals can cause unintended consequences as well.  When I began to write my book, The Insider I had no ill will against anyone.  Yet, as the book is about to appear on the market, I found I have caused damage to a great American astronaut.  I had no such intention.

It was in 2002 that General and astronaut Thomas Stafford produced his book, We Have Capture.  It is a good book and I recommend it.  The General is an American hero.  Unfortunately, Stafford thought he was the first American to reach the secret Soviet launch station called Baikonur in April of 1975.  He said so in his book.

General Stafford was not at all the first American to reach that space launch station.  If it were not central to my book, I would have said nothing, but my book is about the guy who did get there first, and why he went there.

The Insider is about Tad Benson, MD, a space medicine scientist.   President Kennedy got him to agree (through Hugh Dryden) to go to both Moscow and Baikonur to share ideas on space medicine.  Oh, I know there are lots of people who said Khrushchev and Kennedy never reached an agreement on this subject, but they are wrong.  Benson spent almost nine years traveling back and forth to the USSR, doing what he could to keep both cosmonauts and astronauts alive in space.

I knew Benson.  He was a serious man a good friend who died too early.  I checked with various agencies of the federal government to find out what he was doing during the years 1962-1971, and found that Benson had been a contractor to the NSA, CIA, NASA and other groups.  I found that he also got an award from the USSR for his work.

There was a stranger on Gen Stafford’s plane to Siberia.  He was on the bus when it arrived at the launch station.  Stafford did not mention that Soviet scientists hugged and otherwise ganged up around the stranger, slapping him on the back and ignoring the other Americans.  Tad told me about it, and the story appeared elsewhere in the Internet.  Tad said that the other scientists wondered, “How did the Soviets know this guy?” but they were never told.

So I told the story in my book The Insider, with as much detail as I could.  Tad was dying as he told me and we did not have a whole lot of time.   I did not set out to take any of the glory that General Stafford richly deserves.  But I did want to tell Tad’s story because I am one of the few in the world who knows it.  And my health isn’t all that great.

The really sad part of the story about Tad and his heroic adventures is that I am not allowed to use his real name.

DNA Tests and Reality

(This is an edited post of May 31, as corrected by Kent Pryor, to whom I am very grateful.)

I just call it the Fiske curve because I don’t have any other name for it. Others may have found it and named it something else. In any case the curve sets out principles worth remembering about DNA findings in Genealogy. I got the data from conversations of several people on the Internet this week.

Several people on a Rootsweb List were discussing their strange findings from DNA tests and seemed to be laying down information we could all use.

One person wrote, “the 12 marker test is of almost no value, as many unrelated individuals can match at the 12 marker level.” I suspect that many people on many Lists are finding the same result, once they have obtained information from the 12 marker studies and then, encouraged, have gone on to the next step or two. This particular subject went on to the 67 marker test and found no one related who should be related, and then found four with the same DNA on all 67 markers who were not related at all. It is information like this that led me to think about some kind of a curve that would fit these data. Admittedly the evidence is anecdotal, but the facts real and have to be dealt with.

Another person wrote, “I have 180 names on my 12 marker (tests) on Ydna on my mother’s side all different names. I have the same thing you have on the 25 and 37 marker names that are unrelated and three different ones. . . I thought DNA had gone Crazy.”

With Ydna, you are following men’s DNA which would involve few name changes. But why is it that the more markers one uses, the less useful has become the data? Why is it that more detail seems to lead to more uncertainty? That is, adding markers tends to exclude relatives. This is counter-intuitive.

It appears that the curve is saying that if you have 0 marker tests that you could be related to everybody.  If you have the minimum number of markers tested, you could be related to not all, but many people.  And if you have many markers tested you are related to very few people,  even in your own family.

This could mean several things:

1) DNA tests are not testing what we think they are testing.

Very simply put, DNA testing may not be valid in a scientific sense. It would be interesting to combine results of thousands of tests to see how much uncertainty is introduced to established, documented lines. Perhaps DNA tests are reflecting epigenetics, a condition that is not yet proven, but which is considered possible by some experts.

2) Family names and records are not a good indicator of genuine relationships.

This is the opposite of 1 (above). Essentially, it says there is little true paternity in family lines.

3) DNA closeness can be more due to ancient cultural habits than anything else.

Before the industrial revolution, there seem to have been few travelers. That is, one seldom traveled more than seven or more miles from his home in a lifetime. The result had to be inter-marriage of cousins, and DNA tests today are simply reflecting those intermarriages. However, in America, where Swedish immigrants married Italian immigrants, the gene pool swelled and would have made an abrupt change from, say, 1800 on. This change should be apparent in some DNA studies. (I am a six foot tall, blond and blue-eyed American who is in small part American Indian).

Maybe all the above is a result of poor labeling. But I think it is telling us something that we didn’t especially want to know. And that is that our precious DNA marker tests are not doing what we wanted.

Maybe O. J. didn’t kill his wife, after all.

Beating Ploughshares into Swords

It’s over. My ninth book is on the market and I can turn to more important things, such as my tenth book. And Ham radio. And maybe, politics.

My ninth book, Ploughshares into Swords, is about WWII—how civilians and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) helped win the war. A friend of mine was also a friend of several Caltech physicists during and after the war. She supplied part of the information I used. One of her special friends was physicist Carl Anderson, who discovered anti-matter.

My friend and I were talking about scientific achievements that she knew about almost first hand. She observed that I understood what had been accomplished and that perhaps I could have kept up with these Nobel scientists had I been in their fields. I knew this wasn’t true, but I certainly wasn’t going to say so. Anyway, as I was writing about the physicists and discovered what they did as kids, I realized I had done many of the same things. But I also had become a licensed Amateur Radio (Ham) operator at an early age.

So as I wrote, I thought about being a Ham again and wondered if it were too late. I had not been licensed since 1954. In January of 2008 I took all the tests and passed them. Now Ham radio is cutting into my writing time.

Writing Ploughshares was work, but it was also fun, remembering the past and the hardships and comparing people’s attitudes then with attitudes today. I concluded that we are among a lot of dainty whiners in America.

Choosing the title from the Bible, where it talked about beating swords into ploughshares because it was a time for peace, I found of course WWII was a time for doing the opposite—taking scrap metal and forging it into guns, tanks and ammunition.

Writing Ploughshares was a trail of discovery as I learned new things about the atomic bomb, about the way that Caltech became a rocket factory and how Caltech built the China lake facility. No, I am not talking about Jet Propulsion Laboratory, either. I am talking about dry powder rockets fired from airplanes. There was enough fuel for those rockets stored around the area to blow Pasadena, CA off the map.

It is not my practice to write about the commonplace. I have no capacity or patience for it. So I wrote about secret or little-known facts that only friends of physicists at the time could know. In the process, I came to admire Caltech and its growth from rags to riches. I came to admire the practical physicists and administrators who shared a common vision and caused that growth. Now Caltech is synonymous with rocket science, cosmology and many other exotic fields. In a way I saw it happen.

While writing about world politics leading up to WWII, I had the opportunity to revisit the foreign and domestic policies of President Franklin Roosevelt. As writer with a background in economics, I found myself critiquing the seven lean years of the Roosevelt administration when he compounded the economic misery of the United States. In these days, I am seeing a new edition of the Roosevelt plan unfolding, so when I get back to writing on this web site I am very likely to comment on repeating mistakes of the past. But right now, I have to sell a few books and finish my tenth book.

“What is my tenth book about?” you ask. Well, during the Space Race with the USSR, the US had a space medicine scientist in Russia at its secret Baikonur launch site, courtesy of Premier Khrushchev (& Brezhnev). It is a deep, dark secret in both countries, but with reluctant help from NSA, CIA, NASA, and the Department of State, I am slowly putting the story together. Many “experts” have written that this did not happen, so my tenth book will be controversial. But I knew the NASA scientist who spent almost ten years going back and forth from the US to the USSR, making friends with Soviet cosmonauts and Soviet scientists, and helping them stay alive in micro-gravity conditions.

There is a great deal to write about, and the Agony of Writing continues despite adventures in a very vibrant hobby called Ham Radio.

Before I forget, Ploughshares is a paperback, 6 X 9 inches, with about 324 pages including an index.  Amazon and most dot com book stores sell it eagerly.

Tom, AA6Tf

NASA’s Man at the Baikonur Cosmodrome

Almost no one knows today that  the space race with the USSR during Cold War conditions was not much of a race. NASA had a man stationed in the Soviet Baikonur Cosmodrome from about 1963 through 1971.

NASA’s man was a space medicine scientist whom Premier Khrushchev allowed to enter the USSR to consult with his Soviet counterparts. He was a very good scientist who was aware of much that went on around him. And he made strong friends with several Soviet scientists and cosmonauts. Colonel Yuriy Gagarin, the world’s first cosmonaut, was one of the American scientist’s friends.

The American NASA scientist made frequent trips to the USSR for at least eight years. In October of 1964 when Khruschev was deposed the American scientist kept going back to the USSR, not really sure that the next Premier, Brezhnev, was going to be as friendly as Khrushchev had been. NASA’s man was a hero.

Now, fifty years after Sputnik, and a great deal of cooperation with the USSR, the American scientist’s brave efforts are still being kept quiet. I wrote to Sergei Khrushchev, son of Premier Khrushchev, and asked him if anyone in Russia today would care if they found out about the US-USSR cooperation in space medicine. Mr. Khruschev was very courteous but his response was not reassuring.

So for a while, NASA’s American Scientist in the USSR will have to remain anonymous.

Secret Scientist

What’s amazing to me is that even today no one knows.   NASA actually had a scientist in and out of Russia from 1962 to 1971 during the space race and the Cold War.  Yes, Mr. Krushchev actually allowed a space medical scientist from the US to help keep alive the Russian cosmonauts.

My research on the subject showed that after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Krushchev softened his stand against America.  But I had no idea that he was so soft he would allow an American scientist to observe the take-offs and landings of Yuriy Gagarin.

Yet, the scientist and Yuriy were pals.  In fact most people on the Russian space team from Chief Manager Korolev to the first woman cosmonaut, knew this man and liked him.

He was a big friendly Irishman, but he was also a consummate professional and what he said, you could make book on.  Not long after the scientist’s first trip to Baikonur, the secret launch site (that wasn’t a secret after all), a US government memo went to NASA, saying in effect, “I want you to make plans to cooperate with the USSR on outer space projects.”  It seems like the result of personal diplomacy to me, from the scientist who was fast becoming a fixture in Russia.

Does the CIA have a thick file on the scientist?  They sure do but will not give it up.  So does another intelligence agency.  So does NASA, of course.

Why is it such a big secret about our space medicine scientist who helped the Russians?  I don’t know.  But it does appear that those clever Russian engineers who beat us in the early stages of the space race were weak in knowledge about keeping their cosmonauts alive.  Maybe the bosses in Russia just do not want to let the Russian people know that they needed help.  Maybe there was a quid pro quo I haven’t found yet.

But one thing I do know is that the scientist was a good friend.  Also he was an American hero for taking the chances he did by flying secretly into the far reaches behind the Iron Curtain.  I am writing about him now and hope to have a book about him finished this year.

I only wish I could use his name.

Great Time to Be Alive

A friend called me today and asked if I wanted to go for a cup of coffee.  I did, because I have been researching the Soviet space program all day for the Cold War period.  It is background for a book I am writing.

Always unpredictable, I had an iced tea instead of coffee.  While we were consuming our beverages, we got to talking about modern technology.  I recalled the rapid changes we humans have been going through.

In our ancient human history, mankind was said to have doubled its knowledge every thousand years.  That knowledge was stored in people’s heads, for the most part. Some was on the walls of caves.  Then books were invented and mankind’s knowledge doubled every hundred years.  That knowledge, good and bad, was stored in libraries.  The computer was invented and soon mankind’s knowledge doubled every ten years.  That knowledge was stored in libraries and on tapes and CDs.  Next, the Internet was created and mankind’s knowledge is said to double every year.  That knowledge is stored on CDs, DVDs and on hard drives all over the world.  No libraries or collection of libraries could hold it all, if it were written in books.

Then we talked about the future.  I think that the really big events of the future will concern themselves with health and energy.  I wrote about these things in book about time travel called Time Out of Joint.  In it I emphasized the role of energy.  I have the notion that when energy is more equally distributed, international tensions will ease.  No, religious differences will still be important.  But many “religious” differences are spurred on by economics, the battle between the haves and the have nots.

Whatever the case, some ass will first have to write a book about how awful everything is—stagflation and the disappearance of the quality of life as we know it.   Several books of this type were published around 1970, just as the computer age appeared.  I am waiting for the next such book, because the timing of the doom-sayers is almost universally 180 degrees out of phase.

And I will have an iced tea in the writer’s honor because something good is about to happen.

Writing Fast

The humorist Calvin Trillin was quoted as saying, “In modern America, anyone who attempts to write satirically about the events of the day finds it difficult to concoct a situation so bizarre that it may not come to pass while his article is still on the presses.”

Calvin was not especially interested in science.  But if he were he could say the same thing about this field.   I wrote a story that had a lot to do with time travel and other scientific feats.  Between the time I began the story, Time out of Joint, and the time I ended the story, some 350 pages later, there were important developments in science that made part of my story obsolete.  So now I am doing a sequel.

Time was when we kids would have done almost anything to own a two-way radio that was ten times as large as a cell phone and full of delicate vacuum tubes, but such a thing was impossible with the current technology.  Within forty years many people had tiny, rugged two-way radios in the form of cell phones that worked almost every time they were tried.

When I taught in middle schools maybe three years ago, I told students many times, “This is a great time to be alive!”  The technology available to everyone, including kids, would have stunned the average person in the 1950’s.

From a technological standpoint, it is a great time to be alive.

But you have to write fast.

Needed: Global Cooling Off Period

It is amusing to watch and read the Media reporting on Global Warming.  The latest position is that we should all believe in “Warming Caused by Humans” because of scientific consensus.  That is, a number of scientists have agreed that the earth is warming, that the warming is caused by human activity and that the warming is bad.

They are laboring under the notion that consensus = fact.  Some of us think, no, we know, that consensus = groupthink.  Groupthink is seldom a good substitute for fact.  Groupthink is not even scientific.

Can 50,000 Frenchmen be wrong?  Of course they can be wrong.  The history of Science is full of episodes about the lone individual who recognized truth when he saw it, and paid the price when he faced the wrath of groupthinkers.  James Clerk Maxwell, for instance, was almost universally sneered at by scientists when he connected light with electromagnetism.

No doubt some scientists are convinced that global warming is caused by humans and that it is bad.  One can rightfully ask, “How many of these scientists are meteorologists?”  And the answer is not many.   Few real meteorologists are so dogmatic as to make such dire predictions that show up in the Media. In fact, some meteorologists have dared to question groupthink.

So there are two sides to this question, after all.  One is groupthink and the other is heresy.   There are always more groupthinkers than heretics, so consensus is always going to be powerful.

What is the answer?  Will groupthink finally be found to be correct?

Clearly the average man is due a cooling-off period while each side searches for very hard to obtain facts.    It is too early to conclude anything.