All Things Considered
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EXCERPT FROM TRANSCRIPT: "All Things Considered", WOSU 89.7, 28 Jan 2013 16:05

ALISHA CLARK, HOST: While the President works to stem unrest in the Middle East, NASA is talking with people from an entirely different world. Since Project Gateway went public last November, all eyes have been on the conversation going on through the Hartle Anomaly. This afternoon, NPR's Stephen Fleischer took a closer look.

STEPHEN FLEISCHER, BYLINE: The mood in this antechamber to NASA's Gateway Contact Center is surprisingly ordinary, considering the literally out-of-this-world activities going on inside. Analytical equipment lies ready on the long countertops, but most of the lab's contingent is gathered around one of the laptops against the back wall. Dr. Andrea Tang types a few more words into the bare-bones terminal program, nodding and chuckling at the reply.

TANG: Syrti says they're ready any time. David, are we done compiling?

FLEISCHER: One of her assistants holds up a small metal tube.

TANG: Great. Send that through decon, and let's suit up.

FLEISCHER: Tang is the head of the Gateway Contact Center's Direct Hartle Exchange Team, the scientist in charge of sending packages back and forth through the Hartle Anomaly. She and her team stay in constant contact with their counterparts on the other side through a specialized telegraph line, but they've also exchanged thousands of packages since the project went public last November.

TANG: When the anomaly first opened, all our communication was on paper, and we passed it through by hand. The terminal's faster for a lot of things, now that they've learned English and we speak Stola, but there's still great value in sending physical items.

FLEISCHER: Full-sized books won't fit through the anomaly, but Tang's team has sent and received hundreds of thousands of rolled-up pages. They've traded photographs, maps, biological specimens, art objects, and many stranger things. Richard Goldstein, sociologist with Tang's team.

GOLDSTEIN: Once, we opened a message tube and found something that looked just like a taquito. Fresh and hot, full of this spiced vegetable hash. (LAUGHTER) It looked delicious. I'd like to have tried it.

FLEISCHER: The researchers on Hartle are enormously interested in Earth's culture, and vice versa. The teams have traded books on everything from theoretical math to pop culture.

TANG: We have so, so much we can learn from each other. With what Hartle's physicists have taught us about space travel, my colleagues at Johnson say we'll make Mars by 2020. In return, we've taught them about vaccines, and they're already halting a pandemic in its tracks. And if you've checked the Top 40 charts lately, you know what the cultural exchanges are doing for us both.


FLEISCHER: Not everyone is as excited as the exchange team, though. At a press conference Thursday, Indiana Senator Adam Wright urged caution.

WRIGHT: I'm just saying, maybe we should be a little more careful. Maybe we should find out what they're really going to want from us, in the end, before we just give them everything. If we teach them about germs, are they going to cure cancer, or are they going to build bioweapons?

FLEISCHER: Others are less concerned with what the Hartleites will do deliberately and more worried about the Anomaly itself. Dr. Turner Velasquez, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, urges caution.

VELASQUEZ: According to absolutely everything we know about physics, the Hartle Anomaly should be impossible. A wormhole that size, unless it's at the bottom of a black hole, should require a truly enormous energy input to keep it open, and it should be releasing all kinds of exotic radiation. We have no idea how the Hartleites created the Anomaly, or how they're maintaining it, without either of those things happening. For all we know, it could be quietly destabilizing local space-time, or even hastening the heat-death of our universe. Whatever else we do, we need to make it our very top priority to learn how we can close the wormhole permanently.

FLEISCHER: While Tang doesn't dismiss those concerns, she argues that her team is taking plenty of precautions.

TANG: Our physicists are studying the Anomaly constantly and intensively. We run every exchange by the NSA officials working here with us. We have strict decontamination protocols in place. We've never sent anything that even looks like a weapons design. Besides, it's awfully hard to really hurt one another through such a tiny aperture.

FLEISCHER: Back in the lab, the team scrubs up and climbs into bunny suits to enter the clean room surrounding the anomaly itself. It looks like nothing so much as a hole in the air, barely an inch wide, with cables running through it and disappearing. Glimpses of green walls are just visible on the other side. Tang picks up the sterilized message tube and carefully pokes one end through.


FLEISCHER: She lets go, and the tube is pulled through the hole. A moment later, another one is pushed back towards her. The exchange is finished.

Before leaving the lab, though, Tang kneels to look straight through the Anomaly. On the other side, her counterpart does the same. From what's visible above his own sterile suit, he's a very ordinary-looking man.


FLEISCHER: Astronomer Syrti Koll, lead scientist for the Earth Exchange Study Group.

KOLL: Much better. He'll be back at school tomorrow.

TANG [THROUGH TRANSLATOR, SPEAKING STOLA]: I sent a little something extra through for him. We all know how he loves comics.

FLEISCHER: When they've finished their brief conversation, Tang raises her forefinger to the anomaly, and right through the hole between worlds, the two scientists touch hands.

From the Gateway Contact Center in Terre Haute, I'm Stephen Fleischer. This is NPR.

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