STOLEN SPACE

by Michael Cassutt

It’s said that you can find anything in the world somewhere on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley, from vintage autos to clothing of every period – Elizabethan England, anyone? – from several movie studios to a staggering variety of joker bars.

But rockets and spaceships?

Knock on the green door of a modest ranch home in the far western reaches of the Valley, and you will immediately be confronted by:

A six-foot-tall needle-nosed olive drab V-2;

A dark blue pumpkin seed version of the Takisian “Baby” that is too big for one man to carry;

A silvery cousin of “Baby” with U.S. Space Force markings: this is Quicksilver.

A smaller vehicle that is a collection of three different-sized cylinders. It has a Soviet flag on one side and a diamond logo.

“That’s just my living room,” says Robert Pearlman, the 34-year-old owner and spaceflight enthusiast.

Further exploration reveals a den filled with space imagery ranging from planetary landscapes of varying degrees of professional skill to photos of the Earth from space, of the surface of the Moon . . . and even of Takis.

One of the three bedrooms is devoted to more models, more exotic and in some cases mysterious than those in the living room.

Oh, by the way, these models aren’t just for show. You can fly them. Well, Robert Pearlman can.

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“People collect baseball cards and stuffed animals,” Pearlman says, though he is more defiant than defensive about his mania. “I just happen to like space flight.”

He is not just a collector, of course. He has a job, and an ace. Many of us would envy either of them.

The job is consulting for a dozen architectural and engineering shops in Los Angeles.

He qualifies for that unique position, of course, due to his ace:

Pearlman is known as “POV”; when the moon is full, or when the mood takes him, he shrinks from his default height and weight of 5’8”, 225, to a fraction of that.

“It means I can walk around inside models for buildings,” he says. “There’s always some detail that gets screwed up or confused, some step that’s the wrong height or a view that’s obscured. I go POV and tell the designer what it’s really like.”

Being POV may pay the bills, but Pearlman’s real love – his second forty-hour week – is devoted to his hobby.

It’s allowed him to meet and become friends with such legendary figures as Cash Mitchell, one of the first humans to visit the Moon, and retired Space Force general Marcus Meadows. “There are a few autograph and memorabilia shows around the country every year,” he says.  “We all sort of band together.”

And share stories, apparently. Pearlman knows a hell of a lot of human space history. In fact, he may know more than any other individual.

As a tour of his collection demonstrates.

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The first item is a classic needle-nosed vehicle that resembles the tail fins on a 1947 Chrysler – the German V-2 rocket that bombarded England and parts of Europe from 1944 to the end of World War II.  “This is where it all began,” Pearlman says.

It was so long ago, the summer of 1946.  Harry Truman was president and there was no vice president. ENIAC had just gone on-line. Dr. Spock published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.The Lost Weekendwon the Academy Award for best motion picture.

A new home cost $5,600. A gallon of gas, 15 cents.  The first bikini bathing suit was sold. The St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox were battling for the pennant in the National and American Leagues.

America was on the verge of what was believed to be a post-war boom, a Golden Age.

“No one knows this any longer,” Pearlman says, “but out at White Sands, just north of El Paso, the U.S. Army had stashed von Braun and a couple of dozen of his Nazi rocketeers and something like twenty captured V-2s.

“And nobody knows this, either, but the Soviets had their own collection of V-2s and they were doing the same thing – launching them so they could modify and improve the design, and make an orbital spaceship.

“They were halfway through the first launches when the Wild Card turned.”

Everything changed that September 15, of course.  Politics, society, families, human bodies. The World Series was cancelled. The American Golden Age died an early death.

But nothing changed as definitively as the nascent space program. “Families still existed, human beings were changed, but they still existed,” says Pearlman.

“Human space flight was annihilated by the Wild Card.”

Well, why would America, post-Wild Card, have any interest in a native space program when confronted with the proof of alien life – hostile alien life to boot? We didn’t have to spend billions of dollars to discover whether there was life on other planets .  . . aliens came here and ruined us.

According to Pearlman, after a gap of several years both programs came back to life. “There were small steps and even giant leaps, but many were accomplished in secret. “ Or just not interesting to a public consumed with aces and jokers.

After Wild Card Day, American and Soviet programs were devoted strictly to defense: how to scale up and improve the V-2 to create missiles that could carry an atomic weapon around the globe – or, should there be more alien invasions – into space.

 

A major and high-secret effort was to re-engineer alien technology. The Takisian spacecraft Babywas taken to White Sands – naturally – and examined by von Braun and dozens of American experts.

“The Soviets also wanted to reverse engineer Baby,” Pearlman says. “But they didn’t have a vehicle, so they had to rely on spies.”  A group of German researchers helped the Soviets and were caught, and executed after the infamous Trial of Willy Ley in 1956.

Nevertheless, perhaps spurred by this game of spy versus spy, both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. eventually fielded small-scale human space programs.

“The Soviets did built bigger and better versions of the V-2,” Pearlman says. “Those were the basis of their missile army.

“In 1959 they put a man inside a kind of capsule on top of the missile and fired it into space.  It wasn’t powerful enough to reach orbit, but it did fly something like 200 miles downrange. The first attempt blew up and the pilot was killed.

“But the second pilot, an engineer named Feoktistov, lived through it, though the story is he wasn’t much use afterward.”

He displays a dull green cylinder with what Pearlman calls a “capsule” on its nose, a vehicle shaped like an automobile headlight and labeled “Sever” – the Russian word for “North”.

The U.S. took a different route, hoping to send a piloted vehicle into Earth orbit by using a carrier aircraft as the first stage rather than a missile.

That program suffered its own early failures, of course. But Pearlman proudly displays the X-11A, powered by a real small-scale solid-fuel rocket, and its mother ship, powered by model airplane engines.

 

“When we’re out in Sepulveda Basin, this is the one we fly most.”

“What’s it like, riding up to an altitude of a thousand feet in this thing?”

“Fantastic. Makes me wish I could have flown the real deal.”

Another favorite is the American knockoff of Baby, the Space Forces Quicksilver.

“Three humans made a flight to the Moon in December 1968,” Pearlman says proudly. “Cash Mitchell, Eva-Lynn Roderick and Mike Sampson, with Cash lifting Quicksilver with his ace.”

The American moon flight was made in secret. The same trio repeated the trip, with the same craft, a decade later, but both voyages remained little discussed until 1987, when the Soviet Union revealed that it had placed a team of five explorers on the lunar surface – creating the first “permanent” off-world human settlement.

“Three of them were jokers, of course,” Pearlman says. “One not only didn’t need much air, he actually exhaled oxygen.”

“That must have been useful.”

Pearlman shrugs. “None of them survived. And no one really knows what killed them all.”

“You should go there and find out,” I suggest.

He shakes his head. “I don’t have a technical education. I’m not connected to any of the new programs. And I was born in the wrong country at the wrong time.”

Surely the U.S.A. made use of “space aces,” I say.

“Hell, no!” Pearlman’s face gets red. “For most of the 1960s and 1970s, they were purging jokers and aces in the military – didn’t matter how useful they were, how loyal. They were hounded!  It was a terrible time.

“It was one of the reasons why Americans went to the Moon, then gave up.” Pearlman says. His whole posture is a mixture of resignation and surprise.

The Soviets had other adventures, or mis-adventures. “In February 1979 they put a small lab called Almaz [“Diamond”] in earth orbit,” Pearlman says, displaying a collection of Russian-language articles and accompanying photos.

“It was powered by a nuclear-thermal plant and had a crew of two space aces who could live in a highly-radioactive environments.

“They did military surveillance for months until the plant failed. They both got killed trying to fight it, and then this giant hunk of radioactive gear fell out of orbit.”

Most of Almaz burned and broke up in the atmosphere, but several pieces rained down on Australia one night in July 1979, triggering a nasty spat between that nation and the Soviets – and a United Nations resolution forbidding the use of nuclear power in orbit by governments.

“Which was a bad idea,” Pearlman says. “It kept the U.S. from really trying to build interplanetary spacecraft.”

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The one era that is under-represented in Pearlman’s collection is the mid-1980s, specifically the years of the Swarm Invasion and its painful aftermath.

“I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky,” Pearlman says, his gaze fixed firmly on the floor between us. His voice quavers and his hands shake. “Our neighborhood was right in the middle of an Army attack on the aliens. I lost my mom and my sister and, I don’t know – half a dozen of our neighbors. All gone when the bombs landed.

“My dad was never the same. Wound up in the Leestown V.A. and never came out.”

Pearlman isn’t the only American who has amnesia about that event. Those cruel months in which a dozen different elements of the hostile Swarm battered humans across four continents, killing close to a million, are rarely written about and almost never dramatized. (A quick library search reveals fewer books about the Year of the Swarm than there are about the D-Day Invasion in World War II.)

As for books, on one lonely shelf in a closet inside Pearlman’s home are several dozen dating back fifty or sixty years.  “Science fiction about space,” Pearlman says.

He shows me hardcovers with titles like FIRE DOWN BELOW and THE SOUND OF HIS WINGS by Robert Anson Heinlein. An English writer named Arthur C. Clarke wrote about space, too, in PLANET SENTINEL, though his most enduring work, AGAINST THE BREAK OF DAY, was set in the far, far future when the Wild Card and its effects are gone and forgotten.

There was one long-running SF series for teens titled TAK WORLD, by Leonard Knapp, that Pearlman dismisses. “I only have these because they were popular and I got a good deal on a complete set.”  Why?  “They were garbage, totally made-up. You’ve got humans flying to Takis in about a week… in a rocket ship.

“Nothing else makes much sense, either.”

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Two Sundays a month, or more frequently if weather and schedules permit, Pearlman and three friends go to the open fields of the Sepulveda basin six miles away. There, with great but practiced effort, they erect one of several launch platforms, depending on which of Pearlman’s models is to be fired into the sky.

The Soviet R-7 and its Sever is a particular favorite. “It looks like you’re blasting a teapot into the sky,” says Denny Newkirk, an LAPD officer and fellow space enthusiast.

Everyone else in the basin is flying model aircraft. There is even a group of tiny jokers who fly World War II fighters in mock combat.  (The morning we were present, the sound of small arms fire could be heard and a model Messerschmitt spiraled into the ground not far away. So perhaps the combat was not so mock.)

Pearlman’s rocketeers receive some stares, but are usually left alone in their corner. Pearlman aims for four “hops” every time; by the fourth there is usually a handful of spectators lurking nearby with cellphones.

Occasionally there are famous visitors. Pearlman’s most cherished memory is having Cash Mitchell present at one of the Sepulveda sessions. “He launched Quicksilver for us,” Pearlman says. “Actually got me so high that I wound up in the approach for Burbank Airport.”

And, as it turned out, a fine from the F.A.A.  “I was happy to pay it.”

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Thanks to his collection, his doggedness and connections, Pearlman has become one of the world’s foremost authorities on human efforts in space.

Yet there are some stories that have proved elusive.  “Those who know won’t talk,” Pearlman says. “And those who talk don’t know.”But Pearlman persists in collecting data, some of it locked in a sturdy filing cabinet in his garage workshop flagged with “Special Access” stickers – a gift from General Meadows.

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In the last fifteen years, humans of all stripes – nats, aces, jokers – and many nationalities have moved off the planet in god knows how many vehicles . . . and given ace or joker bodies, in some cases with no vehicle at all.  “Must make it difficult to create models for your collection,” I say.

But Pearlman toils on. In his workshop — part aircraft maintenance, part artist’s studio — a new vehicle is taking shape, one Pearlman is building with less confidence than he had with earlier models.  “This is a lunar lander that Theodorus Witherspoon has been flying in some version for the last fifteen years,” he says.  “It’s based on a dozen pictures and even a couple of videos.”

Witherspoon is a mysterious Southern venture capitalist who has made no secret of his wish to expand humanity’s reach to the Moon and other worlds . . . but who cloaks his efforts in secrecy.

He’s just one high-roller playing in the private space business. “There are at least two others in the U.S.,” Pearlman says, “though neither has been as active as Witherspoon.  And there’s a guy from China, too.”

There is something about these raw new worlds that seems to attract men with money.

In the early 1980s, a German wheeler dealer named Kaiser created a consortium of nations led by Switzerland and featuring the Bahamas and others who shared one trait: all were in the business of sheltering financial assets.

“Kaiser literally bought some Soviet rockets and one of their prototype space labs with the idea that he could create an off-shore financial hub – in space! He had some poor joker signed up for a year’s tour up there, but something went really wrong. No one knows who he crossed, but someone took exception to this scheme, and not only did it never get launched, Kaiser and his rocket and his lab just vanished.”

“There are so many players these days that you need a scorecard.”  In addition to billionaires turning the Moon into a private playground, you have the Space Forces with their network of Earth orbit stations, and now a lunar outpost. “They know everything Witherspoon is up to,” Pearlman says, clearly wishing they would share the information.

“Isn’t this incredibly exciting to you? A fulfillment of a vision?”

“At some level,” he says. “Most of what’s being done now doesn’t interest me as much.” He forces a smile.  “The early rockets and spacecraft are about pioneers. Building a base on Mars or the Moon is all about settlers.”   He shrugs. “Maybe I’m just getting old.”

There’s another factor at play here – bitterness at opportunities lost, or stolen.  Robert Pearlman sits on his San Fernando Valley patio on summer nights, looking up at the Moon through the L.A. smog, at the bright light at L-5. “Yes,” he says, “humans live there now, but how much further would we have gone without the Wild Card?”

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