The visiting scientists’ quarters were now all occupied, indeed overcrowded, by selected luminaries of the SETI community. When the official delegations began arriving from Washington, they found no suitable accommodations at the Argus site and had to be billeted at motels in nearby Socorro. Kenneth der Heer, the President’s Science Adviser, was the only exception. He had arrived the day after the discovery, in response to an urgent call from Eleanor Arroway. Officials from the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Defense, the President’s Science Advisory Committee, the National Security Council, and the National Security Agency trickled in during the next few days. There were a few government employees whose precise institutional affiliations remained obscure.
The previous evening, some of them stood at the base of Telescope 101 and had Vega pointed out to
them for the first time. Obligingly, its blue-white light flickered prettily.
“I mean, I’ve seen it before, but I never knew what it was called,” one of them remarked. Vega appeared brighter than the other stars in the sky, but in no other way noteworthy. It was merely one of the few thousand naked-eye stars.
The scientists were running a continuous research seminar on the nature, origin, and possible significance of the radio pulses. The project’s public affairs office – larger than in most observatories because of widespread interest in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – was assigned the task of filling in the lower-ranking officials. Every new arrival required an extensive personal briefing. Ellie, who was obliged to brief the senior officials, supervise the ongoing research, and respond to the entirely proper skeptical scrutiny being offered with some vigor by her colleagues, was exhausted. The luxury of a full night’s sleep had eluded her since the discovery.
At first they had tried to keep the finding quiet. After all, they were not absolutely sure it was an extraterrestrial message. A premature or mistaken announcement would be a public relations disaster. But worse than that, it would interfere with the data analysis. If the press descended, the science would surely suffer. Washington as well as Argus was keen to keep the story quiet. But the scientists had told their families, the International Astronomical Union telegram had been sent all over the world, and still rudimentary astronomical data-basing systems in Europe, North America, and Japan were all carrying news of the discovery.
Although there had been a range of contingency plans for the public release of any findings, the actual circumstances had caught them largely unprepared. They drafted as innocuous a statement as they could and released it only when they had to. It caused, of course, a sensation.
They had asked the media’s forbearance, but knew there would be only a brief period before the press would descend in force. They had tried to discourage reporters from visiting the site, explaining that there was no real information in the signals they were receiving, just tedious and repetitive prime numbers.
The press was impatient with the absence of hard news. “You can only do so many sidebars on “What is a prime number?'” one reporter explained to Ellie over the telephone.
Television camera crews in fixed-wing air taxis and chartered helicopters began making low passes over the facility, sometimes generating strong radio interference easily detected by the telescopes.