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.

Khrushchev Lied and an American Spied

As I was writing yesterday’s post to this blog, I wondered who would be upset when my book, The Insider comes out. This is the actual story of NASA’s man who spent nine years flying into and out of the USSR during the Space Race and the Cold War. He was a space medicine scientist who was successful at keeping Soviet cosmonauts alive. He was a physician, a scientist, an inventor, and a serious man. That is why I believed my friend Tad when he told me about his adventures.

Seriousness aside, I checked his story. He had told me that on his return trips he had to be debriefed by two US Intel agencies. I found that he was attached to the NSA and the CIA for those nine years, according to their own records. The Department of State had absolutely no information on Tad except for one small document it had forgotten to purge. NASA had piles of information on Tad about his medical work in micro-gravity conditions, but it had no information about his travels to the USSR.

Tad had been a guest of the USSR at the invitation of Premier Krushchev. I wrote to authors of various books and articles about the Space Race and about “inside” information on the NSA and CIA, and I also wrote to one descendant of Premier Krushchev who knew a great deal about the USSR in those days. To date no one has told me that I am nuts. Most have said, “I didn’t know. Give me more details.” A copy of a letter from the NSA usually convinced them.

So now, as I finish my book on Tad, I wonder about the people I am going to offend. At least two countries are involved, of course: the US and Russia. Let’s look at Russia first.

Apparently, the Russian people know almost nothing about any assistance from the West. It appears from what I have read that the Russian people do not know about America’s Lend Lease program of the early 1940’s. In that program America supplied the Russians with aircraft, guns, ammunition, food and other supplies with which to fight the Germans. The Russian people do not know they were assisted in “The Great Patriotic War,” even sixty or more years afterward. The Russian people were not told the name of their space program manager until about 1985, when he died. His face was never shown on any Soviet TV, his name was never mentioned. Certainly, the Russian people do not know they were assisted in their space program by their chief competitor, the United States. Once the Russian people find out we helped them, they might be angry at their own leaders.

What about America’s allies? They might be offended when they find out we helped the USSR and didn’t tell them. More than that—we lied to our allies about what we knew. I doubt that we have come clean because no one seems to know about Tad. Of course authors of books and magazines and news articles in other countries will feel duped.

And in America, itself, there may be problems. President John F. Kennedy began this program a few months before he was killed. President Johnson and President Nixon continued the program and did not tell Congress. Those presidents lied to the US press and to the Congress in order to keep funds flowing for the space program. It may not have been a space race after all. Congress consists of the biggest bunch of blabbermouths in the US. If Congress people had known about Tad the world would have known about Tad, right after the Congress people were sworn to secrecy. There is no reason to think that NASA ever knew that Tad, formerly one of their own, had been in the USSR.

Several, if not all US Intel agencies knew about Tad. People in those agencies are all retired now and many have died. Newer members of the agencies don’t care about something that happened forty years ago. They have enough trouble with today’s problems.

Well, US Intel agencies might care to this extent: Tad’s trips to the USSR during the Cold War era were an intelligence coup. When my story is printed and people realize what the Intel people have done while claiming they didn’t even know where the Soviet secret launch was, they should have more confidence in these shadowy agencies.

Of course, there are American authors and former Soviet people in this country who write articles and books—they are sure to be embarrassed when the truth comes out. They have already commented on President Kennedy’s offer to share information on space medicine and have said that the offer was refused. Too bad for them.

But the people who really care the most about this story probably are those who make up the US president’s office. I suspect (but do not know) that President Kennedy promised Premier Khrushchev that the US Government would never tell the Soviet people that we helped them in the Space Race. There is, according to the CIA, a file on TAD that has a presidential seal on it. That means the file is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act laws.

Also, it may be that the US President does not want the US Congress to know that a previous president failed to report to Congress that we had a man in the USSR during the Space Race.

I sure would like to see that file. I have written to two presidents and asked to have a look. I even asked my congressman to ask the President. The President has not honored my request.

When Tad told me his story, he was dying. He has been gone for almost seven years. To my way of thinking he was a great American hero, a brave man who ventured into the Soviet Union without protection. He did it not once but many times during the Cold War, even when there was a sudden change in Soviet leadership in 1964 and he did not know whether he would be arrested. But by then he had many friends among the Soviet scientists and cosmonauts, and maybe they had enough pressure to protect him. We will never be certain about that, only that Tad went when he was called.

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