The Man Over the Far Side of the Moon

Apollo 15

Photo of the Apollo 15 command module above the Moon piloted by Al Worden – Photo credit: NASA

Air Force Major Ezekiel “Zeke” Johnson watched the LEM drop away from the Command Module as he approached the terminator that would take him over the far side of the Moon.

“Hey, Zeke. You hearing what I’m hearing?” Colonel Clay Philips, the mission’s commander sounded like a kid on Christmas morning when anyone else would have at least been a little bit worried.

“I sure do, and I remember the briefing. It’s just interference.”

“That’s right.” Captain Brian Osborne, sitting in the LEM’s number two seat chimed in. “It’s caused by VHF radio interference between the LEM and the Command Module. Really does sound like alien music, though.”

Zeke laughed. “I’ll try to keep that in mind when I’m out of radio contact with you and Earth for the next hour or so.”

“Not scared of those nasty old BEMs, are you Zeke?” Philips was laughing with him or was that at him?

“Not anymore than you are, Colonel.” Zeke checked his course ahead. “I’m about to cross the terminator. Be talking with you gents again in sixty-six minutes.”

“Acknowledged, Command Module. This is Phillips aboard the LEM. Out.”

“Johnson acknowledging. Out.” There was static in his headsets and then only the “music.” Previous Apollo missions reported the noise stopped sometime after crossing the terminator when the VHF signals were too far apart, if that’s what they were.

There wasn’t much for Zeke to do for a while. His orbit was stable and only rarely did he have to fire his maneuvering thrusters to make minor course adjustments. He turned on the automatic cameras which would photograph what he flew over.

He hadn’t been deaf to that “friendly” jab Philips took at him. He wasn’t supposed to know, but Zeke found out that Philips objected to his assignment as the Command Module pilot and had quietly filed a formal protest. Zeke Johnson was the first Afro-American astronaut to fly in space and to the Moon, although he’d never be able to set foot on it.

At forty-four, Zeke Johnson was the oldest Apollo astronaut and had been qualified by NASA to fly in space for the past ten years. But the military and NASA didn’t think the American public would accept a black astronaut going up alongside the other white officers, that is until President Nixon needed the black vote to win his re-election. He pulled the necessary strings and tightened the required screws, and then once it was officially announced that Zeke would be one of the three men on the last U.S. manned flight to the Moon, there was no backing out.

Osborne acts like he doesn’t care one way or the other in public, but he’d pulled Zeke aside more than once and told him it was about time a black man flew in space besides on “Star Trek.” Of course “Oz” would never say that in front of the TV cameras because he didn’t want to piss off Philips or screw up the rest of his Air Force career. Never mind that Zeke got three times the fan mail than the other two combined and not just from the black folk either. The whole world was rooting for him to fly in space. Only the country he served wanted to keep him grounded.

He was only sorry that the Reverend Martin Luther King wasn’t alive to see it. It’s what he’d suffered and finally was killed for, the dream that all men were born equal, not that Afro-Americans really were equal, not yet, but this was definitely a step in the right direction.

Zeke adjusted his headphones and fine-tuned the Module’s receiver. The interference was still there. “Should have dropped off by now.” Then he realized what he was doing. “Who you talking to, Zeke? No one can hear you, not even the aliens.”

He started listening for patterns, not expecting any, but he didn’t have anything better to do. Zeke had two university degrees, a Bachelor’s in Mathematics and a Master’s in Astrophysics. He wished he had recordings of those other interference events (oh yes, they could be recorded) so he could make a comparison, but the equipment on board the Module wasn’t set up for it anyway.

Zeke’s chronometer said he’d crossed the terminator sixteen minutes, six seconds ago and the “signal” was getting stronger as if he were getting closer to the source. “That can’t be if it’s interference.”

He didn’t want to adjust the high gain antenna. It was continually updated by the on board computer to point toward Earth so he could maintain contact with Mission Control. But he could change the direction of the secondary antenna and channel the signal through his primary communications panel.

“That did it. Reading you loud and clear.” The source was ahead of him. He’d pass directly over it thirty-two minutes into his transit of the far side. Zeke was out of communications with the LEM and Mission Control so there was no one to ask permission. He clicked on his transmitter.

“This is Major Ezekiel Johnson on board the Apollo 18 Command Module. If you are reading me, respond, over.” He switched to receive. At first, the “space music” sounded the same, and then it increased in pitch and amplitude. It was still no more understandable than it was a minute ago, but at least it was all being recorded for later analysis.

“I say again, this is Major Johnson on the Apollo 18 Command Module. Can you understand me, over.”

He listened. There seemed to be a sub-signal below the primary one. It was almost like static but he thought he could make something out.

“Thi…kiel…board…Com…Mod..lo…reading…ver…”

“They’re feeding my own signal back to me. It can’t be a natural phenomenon. That means…”

“…say ag…is Maj…on the …ninet…and module…understand me, over.” It was getting clearer.

“This…jor Ezekiel John…board the Command…for Apollo 18…you are reading…pond, over…again, this is Major…on the Apollo…le. Can you…over. This is Major Ezekiel Johnson on board the Command Module for Apollo 18. If you are reading me, respond, over. I say again, this is Major Johnson on the Apollo 18 command module. Can you understand me, over. This is Major Ezekiel Johnson on board the Command Module for Apollo 18. If you are reading me, respond, over. I say again, this is Major Johnson on the Apollo 18 command module. Can you understand me, over. This is Major Ezekiel Johnson on board the Command Module for Apollo 18. If you are reading me, respond…”

It came in faster and clearer with each iteration and then stopped. Zeke was ninety-three seconds from passing over the source.

Fifty-two seconds from source, Zeke’s radio came back to life suddenly in a burst of static that almost deafened him. Then the message repeated, “Major Ezekiel Johnson Major Ezekiel Johnson Major Ezekiel Johnson Major Ezekiel Johnson Major Ezekiel Johnson Major Ezekiel Johnson Major Ezekiel Johnson Major Ezekiel Johnson…” for forty-one seconds and then another burst of static…

…and then another voice. Source was directly beneath him now.

“…do you read, over. This is Darcy Elizabeth Ferris at Lunar Base Five calling Major Johnson, do you read, over.”

Zeke was ecstatic and astonished. He made contact. There was an intelligence out here on the far side of the Moon, but it sounded like the voice of a young woman speaking English. What was Lunar Base Five, a secret Soviet installation? No, that was crazy. Neither the U.S. or the Soviets had the resources to build a base on the Moon.

“This is Major Johnson. I’m reading you five by five. Please identify yourself. What’s your nation of origin, over”

“It’s me, Poppy. I’m Clarise’s granddaughter, over.”

“Wait. You’re who?” Zeke was stunned. Clarise was his oldest child, his daughter. She was a Junior at UCLA. She’d never been married and sure as hell didn’t have any children. But when Clarise was very young and learning how to talk, she called him Poppy. There weren’t half a dozen people in the world that knew that, and they were all family.

“This is Lunar Base Five. Poppy, I know you’re confused. I was told to expect that.”

Zeke checked the chronometer. He had a little over half an hour before he crossed the terminator again and was over the near side of the Moon. He had that long to solve the mystery of this voice.

“Poppy, we went back to the Moon in the early 21st century. Our first four bases, they’re all multinational, are on the near side but this one was constructed on top of the phenomenon.”

“How do you know about Poppy?” He was staring out the windows in front of him knowing the person or thing he was speaking with was now below and behind him.

“I know on your calendar it’s Thursday, April 19th, 1973 but where I am right now it’s Monday, September the 11th…” She paused and took a breath. “Poppy, it’s the year 2045, seventy-two years into your future. I can tell you the exact date Grandma got married, who she married and the names of her children. One of them is my Mom.”

“Sender at Lunar Base Five whoever you are, how do I know this isn’t some sort of hoax, which is a lot more likely than a telephone call across almost three-quarters of a century?”

“I know your Dad died four years ago from your point of view. It was before you had been selected to fly aboard Apollo 18. You only told your wife and children what his last words were. Poppy, he said, ‘Don’t give up, son. Someday you’ll make it up there. Someday they’ll have to let us hold the stars in our hands, just like they hold them now.’ How can I know that if you told only your wife and three children, Poppy?”

Zeke felt his throat close. His hands were trembling and he was sweating. How was such a thing possible? Was he really hearing his own great-granddaughter’s voice from seventy-two years in the future or had he lost his mind?

“But…who…you’re name is Darcy?”

“That’s right, Poppy. I’m a temporal engineer studying the phenomenon. We don’t know if it’s natural or if an extraterrestrial species created it, but either way, it’s old, nearly as old as the Moon itself. We’ve been trying to understand it for nearly a decade now. I’ve only been posted here for about eight months. That’s when I figured out how to focus the phenomenon’s effect.”

“But other Apollo missions heard the noise. NASA said it was RF interference.”

“That’s the official story, Poppy. The fact is, the experts couldn’t figure out what it was and they couldn’t reproduce the same sounds by creating VHF interference back home so they classified all the information and buried it. What the other missions heard were the random emissions of the phenomenon.”

“You focused it…on me?”

“I knew you were the Command Module pilot on Apollo 18 and history records exactly when and on what orbital trajectory you’d pass over the far side. Listen Poppy, we’re running out of time.”

“I know, I’m going to cross the terminator again in less than fifteen minutes, Darcy.”

“It’s not just that, Poppy. Holding a stable lock across time is incredibly difficult and this was our first successful attempt. I’m going to lose you in about five minutes. Poppy, I didn’t create the link just to prove a point. I have a message from Grandma. That’s right, she’s over ninety years old but your little girl is still alive. The message is really from all of us, all black men and women who were inspired by you and your flight. Poppy, thank you for everything you had to go through so that life for us could be better.”

Zeke couldn’t help the tears that were streaming down his cheeks. He had worked so hard, been called a “Nigger” and worse by the very officers he served with. Two tours of duty in Vietnam watching all those poor young men be cut down before they ever got a chance at life. His Uncle had been lynched in Mississippi when Zeke was little. White people wanted him to keep his head down, never make eye contact, always be ashamed, never try to be more, but he fought them all and now here he was sitting in the most advanced spaceship humanity ever created and orbiting the Moon. Everything he’d suffered wasn’t in vain. He was talking to the living proof.

“Thank you, Poppy. I know we’ll never really meet, but I love you.”

He could hear her voice quaver on the other side and figured she’d teared up some, too.

“Tell…” he cleared his throat. “Tell your Grandma I love her. I have always loved her and I always will. Now more than ever I’ve got something to look forward to.”

“I’m losing the link, Poppy. I….you…I…”

Another burst of static and the voice was gone. So was the “space music,” even though what Darcy called the phenomenon must be there under the Moon’s surface right now. He checked the recorder and saw the tape had gotten snagged. He’d been so busy listening he’d forgotten to check it. Now he’d have no proof.

Eight minutes to terminator.

Maybe proof didn’t matter. If he told anyone they’d think he was crazy, and if the tape machine hadn’t malfunctioned, chances are the government would have suppressed the information anyway. Maybe they would have even locked him up. Darcy said they already know the “music” isn’t VHF interference and are lying to the public and to NASA astronauts about it.

Zeke Johnson was assigned to the Apollo 18 mission for a reason, but not just to be the first black man to orbit the Moon. It was to have his faith in humanity and in the future restored. Colonel Philips could be a racist pig if he wanted but right now, Zeke didn’t care what Philips called him or what any other white person said or did. He knew that it gets better and that in the future, black men and women stand alongside the rest of the people of the Earth exploring the Moon and God be willing, their inheritance the stars.

I’ve been working on ideas for a submission to an upcoming Moon Anthology. This story won’t be it, but in doing my research, I discovered some articles about various Apollo missions hearing “space music” on the far side of the Moon. You can read one such report at Space.com.

While the radio phenomenon has been explained as VHF radio interference, I chose to use it as a jumping off point for a more interesting story. I had to invent an extra Apollo mission and made Zeke the first African-American (we said “Afro-American” in the early 1970s) in space instead of Guion “Guy” Bluford who:

…became the first African-American in space on Aug. 30, 1983, aboard the Challenger on NASA’s eight space shuttle mission (STS-8). Guion “Guy” Bluford is a former NASA astronaut who was the first African-American to fly into space. He flew four shuttle missions.

I decided to give Zeke a message of hope from the future as well as one of thanks. I also needed the whole thing to stay a secret (or maybe Zeke really did have some sort of mental breakdown from being in total isolation for just over an hour), so no tape recording.

However if the “phenomenon” can communicate across time, what else is it capable of?

Oh, LEM stands for Lunar Excursion Module, and BEM means Bug-Eyed Monster.

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