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.

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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.

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.

Agony of a New Book

Anybody can write a book.  Producing a book is very hard.  It is right up there with producing a new product for a large company such as General Electric.  I have done both and I am not sure which is more difficult.

A new appliance starts with the drawings and specifications.  From these you have tools made and you buy equipment that holds the tools.  You design the tests and find space for the rest of the production facilities including assembly lines.  You make sure pilot models work as they are made on equipment you will use in actual production.  And you assure that the boxes they are sold in are made correctly, fit the product and look good.

Authors would be well-served if they had a mental image of the finished product sitting on their shelves.   They need a rough idea of the plot, but must be flexible.  Characters do not always do what you want them to do.  So plot changes will probably occur.  A new book requires front and back covers, well-edited text, pictures of acceptable quality, readable type size with the correct font.  Covers do sell books, you know.  Chapters must be appropriately ended.  A book is in fact a list of details that must be accomplished before it can be completed.  Tables of contents and indexes must be prepared.  There seem to be no end of concerns for you to handle personally before the book is ready for production.

Finally, each author of a new book is an entrepreneur, trying to sell copies in the face of stiff competition from many other authors with the same idea.  But if he has a good story, he will never be at rest until he has written it and has seen the book on people’s shelves.

In spite of all this, I have completed my last book.  I named it The Insider.  It is a novel about an American doctor who spent nine years flying into and out of the USSR during the Space Race when the US and USSR were competing with each other to be the first to land a man on the moon.   President John F. Kennedy got Premier Khrushchev of the USSR to allow a NASA doctor to visit the USSR’s secret space launch site about 1963 in spite of problems in Cuba and other US-USSR conflicts.   These two world leaders were looking far ahead in the space business.

All the experts say it did not happen.  But it did and the man they sent was a friend.  The few Government records that still exist support the NASA scientist’s story, even though most were hidden from me and any other writer.  It seems that most writer-experts relied on the CIA to tell them the truth, or they relied on people in the USSR to tell them the full story.  You may have noticed that books by and about Khrushchev just did not talk about the space program.   It seems that the US Congress did not know about the doctor, either.  If they did, they would have blabbed about him to everyone they knew.  But they thought there was a serious competition and had no idea we were helping the Soviets.

But that was over forty years ago, almost fifty years now.  Do you think anybody is willing to release the files on this simple doctor who helped keep Soviet cosmonauts alive?  Not in this country.  Perhaps one Soviet cosmonaut is still alive who might be interested in telling what he knows.

Anyway, the pain of producing The Insider is almost over.  The anticipation of the joy of upsetting self-proclaimed “experts” has kept me to the task.  I don’t have any more book ideas now, and this will be my tenth book, so I think I will quit.

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