“Thank you so much for this,” Madison said. “I feel guilty. Like all I ever do is ask you to do things for me, and I never do anything for you!”
Cindy handed Madison her tea. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “You let me geek out and feel good about it. Having a real-life friend I can be myself around is really cool and new for me. To be completely honest, I felt a little proud when I brought you over to my old table at lunch the other day. Like hanging with you is clout, you know?”
Madison gave Cindy a little hug. “I don’t know about all that. But you’re awesome. Your old friends know way too much about Star Wars, though.”
Cindy laughed. “They really do. Do you think this is really about what my dad was talking about, though? The SDI Star Wars?”
“I guess there’s no way for me to know, but the movie franchise feels like a total dead end. I can’t imagine Mr. Black sitting in a meeting where Miss Gold is saying, ‘This is just like the blockade of Naboo.’”
Cindy laughed again. “Yeah, I see what you mean. So what are we looking for today?”
“Okay, so on the next page after the Star Wars logo, Mr. Black doodled the NASA logo. I searched and found that the guy who was put in charge of SDI back in 1984 was a former astronaut. So there’s definitely some common blood there. But that’s all I was able to find connecting the two agencies.”
“Hmm,” Cindy replied. “Okay, let’s see.”
Madison watched as Cindy searched many of the same terms Madison had already searched and landed on the same results. This went on for several minutes and Madison started to feel discouraged. “Maybe it’s a dead end,” she said. “I mean, just because there are two doodles near each other, doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
“You know what we need to do?” Cindy asked.
Madison looked at her with anticipation.
“Like Mr. P. told you,” Cindy continued. “We need to follow the money.”
Madison watched as Cindy’s search went into areas Madison had never thought of. She was awed by Cindy’s creativity. “You’re too smart,” she said quietly. Cindy glanced at her, smiled, and continued on her quest.
“Gotcha!” Cindy turned to Madison and pointed at the screen.
“What am I looking at?” Madison asked.
“So NASA keeps all their old budgets on an FTP server,” Cindy said.
“FTP? What’s that?”
“Oh. Well you know how web addresses start with HTTP or HTTPS? So before HTTP was defined there were a bunch of other ways you could access things on the internet. Gopher, FTP, RCP, and so on.”
Madison smiled. “I know I’ve said this before, but it’s totally adorable how you think I know what you’re talking about.”
“Anyway, FTP is one of those old protocols from the early days, but people still use it because it’s pretty simple and reliable. Government agencies tend to dump old documents onto FTP servers, because it’s easy. They don’t need to build web pages to make them accessible, since you can just connect up and explore like it’s another disk drive on your computer.”
“How do you know about this?” Madison asked.
Cindy shrugged. “Picked it up somewhere along the way, I guess. No idea, really. Anyway, that’s an old NASA budget on the screen. See that line item?”
Madison scanned the text on Cindy’s giant monitor. “SDI related activities,” she read. “That’s it?”
“Yeah. That’s the only hit for SDI in this document. Hang on, I’ll write a crawler.”
Madison didn’t know what that meant, but she sipped her tea while Cindy appeared to write some code. “What language is that?”
“Python,” Cindy said while continuing to type. “Named after some old British comedy TV show.”
“Yeah. Crazy huh? Anyway, it’s good for things like this.” She finished typing the program and opened a terminal window. “Now we run it and wait,” she said, picking up her tea.
“What’s it doing?” Madison asked.
“It’s pulling all the budgets, which are PDFs. Then it’s converting those to plain text and grepping for SDI.”
“Oh, sorry. I mean searching. Grep is the command you use to search for stuff in Unix.”
“I reiterate—adorable,” Madison said.
“Same thing in every budget,” Cindy said. “See?”
“Yeah. So that same line item appears in all those budgets, but there’s no explanation of what the activities are?” Madison asked.
“Exactly. I guess when the budget is hundreds of pages, you can kind of hide things in plain sight like that.”
“Okay,” Madison said. “Let’s review. Star Wars means SDI. SDI makes a cameo in all the NASA budgets from the nineties, even though SDI was military, and NASA is civilian.”
“Right, and the head of SDI was an astronaut,” Cindy said.
“And there’s nothing on the net explaining what NASA’s SDI related activities were?” Madison asked.
“Not that I can find.”
“Which means there isn’t anything. Because if it was there you would have found it.”
Cindy’s face lit up. “Thank you,” she said.
“No. Thank you,” Madison replied. “Okay, I think I need to talk to Mr. P. again.”