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Today's Story by Mike Tuggle

We're survivors. We crave challenges. A superhuman challenge will make us superhuman.


At 07:23:08, October 25, 2023, when an Atlas 5 rocket rumbled away from its tower at Cape Canaveral, control of the Moon-bound craft shifted to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. At that moment, responsibility for the most ambitious project in human history fell into our hands.

I still laugh about it.

Who could fail to appreciate the irony? Every person at Goddard, from the Flight Director to the guy who wiped trays in the cafeteria, imagined space exploration to be the pathway to a glorious future. I, on the other hand, was a pessimist, a cynic, and, according to my second wife, a misanthrope.

Before NASA, I’d created computer models of blast propagation for the old Department of Defense.  That job made sense to me.  It was a more honest use of the technology I knew would one day destroy us. Nevertheless, I appreciated what I had. I’d been lucky to find something in my field after the Pentagon closed its last overseas base.

Not only did I need the money – for basic survival, a few luxuries here and there, and of course, three alimony payments – the job did provide intellectual challenge. After all, I was in charge of seismological data for the Armstrong Project, which would prepare the south lunar pole for the first permanent base.

It would be an historical event, they said.


It was at 71:17 Ground Elapsed Time when the Flight Director announced, “THIS IS THE FINAL STATUS CHECK BEFORE SEPARATION.”

The Director called each team by name, and the team leaders responded.  Flight Dynamics, Software, Maneuver,Minot, all reported “Go.”

Then she called out, “SEISMO.”

The seismometers at the Moon’s antipodes were online and flat. But the unit in the Peary crater registered weak S waves which quickly vanished. It was typical of a micro-meteor impact.

“Go,” I said.

At that moment, Joni Lingg entered the control room, and the voices of the controllers and engineers became a distant hum to me. As I expected, Joni’s face was lit with expectation.

I could not help but stare.


It was in Moffett Field, California, that I met Joni. She’d been at NASA’s AmesCenter a year when I arrived. When I first interviewed her, I was amused by her child-like enthusiasm. But she meant it. Space exploration, she said, had the potential to, as she put it, “elevate humankind to the next level.” I found her idealism both droll and captivating.

She got the job. I needed team members who knew NASA’s culture. Besides, I felt Joni Lingg possessed an ability I lacked: how to win hearts and minds to get things done.

I was right.

Joni applied a manic energy to the project, working ungodly hours and calling in favors throughout NASA, academia, and private industry. Thanks to my Pentagon connections, I got her the security clearances and access she asked for. She accomplished miracles, but she had help. I often saw her with a group of specialists from various departments, people who not only did favors for the Seismo Team, but were unusually loyal to her.

I once saw her chew out an Air Force major.  I was in the next room, and could hear nothing, but could see them clearly through a window.  Joni, a short brunette with the face of a child, was enraged, jabbing her finger and thrusting her tiny chin at the major, her blue eyes blazing in fury. The major took it like a confused, whipped puppy.

Not only did she exude unusual strength of will, her scientific interests and knowledge were nothing short of astounding.  Once, lunchtime conversation touched on NASA’s research in global warming.  I and two other scientists were intrigued by Joni’s assertion that climate change could have beneficial effects on humankind.  She rattled off names and titles of scientific literature arguing that homo habilis transformed into homo sapiens two and a half million years ago due to a period of climate disruption.  Her eyes lit up as she explained how, buffeted by sudden ice ages and warm spells, small-brained specialists died out, while intelligent generalists learned to adapt.

“We’re survivors,” she said.  “We crave challenges.  Risk, adventure, danger – those things made us human.  And a superhuman challenge will make us superhuman.”

Inside, part of me laughed at her optimism. And another part –


The mission engineers sat on the edges of their seats as their eyes tracked the tumble of data on computer screens.

There was good reason for the tension that flowed in the room.  Inside the Atlas was a Centaur rocket. In the Centaur was the one device that made it possible for a cash-strapped nation to attempt the construction of a lunar base.  If the Separation stage worked, if Maneuver Design had calculated the correct time for it, and if all the aging, ornery systems held together, then in eleven hours and twenty-three minutes, NASA’s unlikely and marvelous new tool would smooth the jagged, treacherous areas just north of the Cabeus crater, uncover the most promising sources of water and raw materials, and create a shock wave that would enable NASA’s seismic array to plumb the interior of the Moon.

All from one nuclear device, courtesy of Minot Air Force Base.

Naturally, when NASA announced its plan, the nitwit public howled.  But reassurances from an army of astrophysicists finally convinced most Americans there was no way the Moon could be knocked out of orbit. A lunar base, many argued, would kick the economy back to life.  And the romance of it, the project’s sheer audacity, and the total absence of any other ideas for restoring the prestige and power of the United States convinced most Americans to embrace the project.


At that moment, more than 300,000 miles away, relays fired on the Atlas, and powerful springs pushed against the Centaur.  Once the two crafts decoupled, the craft’s sensors would signal a successful Separation.

But the signal did not come.  All eyes remained fixed on the main monitor.  Everyone knew what we faced.  If Mission Control did not receive the signal in fifteen seconds, the Flight Director had only one minute to decide whether to terminate the command sequence, effectively killing the Armstrong Project.

I wondered what that would do to Joni.


For nearly ten seconds, mission personnel clapped, shouted, and slumped in relief.

I expected Joni to cry, or jump, or something.

Instead, she glanced at the board and said, “Okay. I’ll take over. Have a good night’s sleep.”

I thought I heard a tremble in her voice. But that made no sense. There was nothing to worry about now. The device was on its way.

I returned early the next morning to relieve Joni and monitor the detonation. When I took her place at the Seismo station, I couldn’t help but notice she was wound up just as tight as when I left her.

Hours later, the control room had filled with NASA personnel and guests. Everyone wanted to see the fireworks. Thanks to vid feeds from the International Space Station, the whole world could see the show, but the control room here at Goddard was the place to be.


Joni stood at my side and gazed at the main screen, a white fist raised to her lips.  She kept glancing at the Minotstation. I did not see the major she’d locked horns with, but did recognize some of her other associates in the room.

And while everyone else was in a celebratory mood, Joni’s clique was as jittery as she was.

The tension ratcheted when the Flight Director said, “TEN SECONDS TO DETONATION.” She continued the countdown.

Then, three seconds before impact, white light flared across the Moon’s southern pole.  The brightness spilled outward until it covered a third of the lunar surface.

A stunned silence filled the control room. It took at least ten seconds until the Director announced, “DEVICE HAS DETONATED 2,000 METERS ABOVE TARGET.”

I checked the seismometers, which confirmed we had not created the seismic shock wave we expected. Then I looked up at Joni. Her eyes were shut.  I saw her mouth the words, “We did it.”  When she opened her eyes, she looked directly at me.

Then I knew.

Since the device did not strike the surface, all of its energy had transferred into heat. And since there was no air to slow down the fireball, it filled a larger area than planned.

But it was still too massive for a 10-kiloton explosion.

“What have you done?”

She smiled at the screen. “Look.”

As the fireball burned itself out, long glowing arcs whipped toward the Moon’s equator. Then, a grey mist billowed out from the edges of the Moon into cold space.

“Joni, what is this?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Think of it as the beginning of the next phase of human evolution.”

I stared at the huge clouds flying from the Moon. “What caused that?”

“The original load was a W76 with a lead tamper. That made it a 10 kiloton device.  But we – we sent up a W87 – a 500 kiloton device.”

We? I recalled the strange clique she had worked with the past few months. And the phrase “superhuman challenge” echoed in my mind.

As I peered into her eyes, things started to click. The Moon’s south pole held 35% of the Moon’s water, most near the surface. And we’d just witnessed a massive amount of super-heated water vapor escaping the Moon’s low gravity.

It occurred to me that if the Moon lost enough mass, its stabilizing dance with the Earth could be thrown off-balance.  But enough to alter the Earth’s tilt, and the seasons?

I got it. And I laughed.

Postscript:  I have to conclude Dr. Joni Lingg’s bizarre plan failed.

Not only is there no indication human capabilities have accelerated, I’d say they’ve regressed. Take myself, for example. I’ve always been known for finishing tasks promptly.  Yet, I began this memoir under the balmy skies of summer, and when I completed it, winter snow had piled up at my door.


Mike Tuggle is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has written for several political journals, including American Spectator, Taki’s Magazine, and Lew Rockwell.


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