Erin O'Shey was sleepwalking through another uneventful day at Kinko's last spring when a couple of customers, a man and a woman, came in bearing a half-dozen photographs they wanted duplicated.
What first piqued her curiosity about the pair, the 26-year-old O'Shey recalls, was their desire to supervise the copying.
"They were getting color copies and were concerned about the quality," says O'Shey.
Without looking too closely at the photos, O'Shey set to work running off sample reproductions on a Canon 500 and handing them to her customers. The couple deemed some of them acceptable and others not, but they held on to even the copies that didn't pass their inspection. That struck O'Shey as odd, so she gave the photos a closer look.
The pictures themselves were not that striking -- they appeared to be enlargements of some unidentifiable microscopic organisms --but what caught O'Shey's eye were the words printed beneath them: "Search for Life on Mars."
Pretty cool, O'Shey thought. The Kinko's is just a few blocks from the Johnson Space Center on Bay Area Boulevard, and O'Shey says it wasn't unusual for employees from JSC and nearby aerospace contractors to have copies made there. But the material was usually test results from shuttle missions and such, and this ... well, it led O'Shey to pose the obvious question: Had life had been found on the Red Planet?
"We don't know," replied the woman, who suddenly seemed nervous and wanted to know why O'Shey had asked the question.
"And I pointed out to her that that's what it said at the bottom of the picture," says O'Shey. "She was like, 'Oh, yeah' -- like she had messed up."
The woman, according to O'Shey, then requested that she not ask any more questions about the pictures and not mention them to anyone else.
O'Shey says she agreed, but covertly began making copies of the photos to keep for herself.
"I took them because I thought it might be something cool," says O'Shey. "I always took stuff from NASA when they brought it to Kinko's."
After the couple paid up and left with their copies and the originals, O'Shey immediately phoned buddies Kyle Phillips and Mike McGuire, with whom she shares a house in La Porte, to inform them of her discovery.
Phillips, a 28-year-old restaurant worker, and McGuire, who's 30 and unemployed but owns the La Porte house, favor the grunge look and hand-rolled cigarettes and describe themselves as guys "who kind of follow the space agency and what it's doing." And while neither they nor O'Shey consider themselves conspiracy buffs, they are, as O'Shey puts it, "very into Richard Hoagland."
Hoagland is the author of The Monuments of Mars, a book that advances his theory that aliens have carved a huge, Sphinx-like face on the surface of the planet. He's also a frequent guest on Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell, the late-night radio talk show that first popularized the notion that an alien spaceship was tagging along behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
O'Shey and her roommates figured the truth needed to be out there -- at least on the Internet -- so they mailed off copies of the photos to Hoagland, who has his own web site, along with a brief note from McGuire explaining how his friend "Erin" came into their possession at Kinko's.
"When Erin came home with the pictures, we were joking that this could be something great," says Phillips. "We were thinking that this might be from some project that nobody knew about and they weren't going to tell the public about. We're not conspiracy nuts, but we were interested in seeing the information come out."
Given the still-unexplained disappearance of NASA's $235 million Mars Observer as it was preparing to enter Martian orbit in 1993, Phillips and friends reasoned that the space agency might have ample reason not to go public with its findings.
Of course, they did wonder why, if the photos were actually of the first evidence of life on Mars, they had been brought to Kinko's for reproduction.
Weeks passed and the La Porte roommates heard nothing from Hoagland, nor were any of the pictures they had sent him posted on his web site. Then, on August 7, NASA announced that a study of a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite from Mars recovered from the Antarctic in 1984 had revealed signs of ancient bacterial life, and copies of the very same pictures O'Shey had pilfered from Kinko's were made public.
"Hoagland really dropped the ball," says McGuire.
But as soon as the news of the NASA press conference broke on CNN, McGuire received an e-mail from Hoagland inquiring whether he had any more photos. As it turns out, he did.
A month after her first visit, the woman with the photos had made a second trip to Kinko's for more reproductions. Once again, O'Shey made a few copies for herself. Those additional copies were also forwarded to Hoagland, who, within hours of the NASA news conference, had posted both batches of pictures on his "Enterprisemission" web site, along with the letter of explanation from McGuire. (Contacted at his Weehawken, New Jersey headquarters, Hoagland said he actually posted the first batch of photos the day before the NASA announcement after being tipped about the press conference by the BBC and finally realizing what he had been sent from Houston. "Iwish I'd been sharper on it much earlier," he said.)
O'Shey and her friends were pleased that the photos she lifted from Kinko's were finally on the Net, although by that time, NASA had already posted them as well. They weren't so pleased that Hoagland had also posted McGuire's letter, and at O'Shey's request the letter was pulled down off the web site. But it reappeared there a few weeks later, and was still up shortly after Thanksgiving when O'Shey looked up and saw the woman with the photographs standing at the Kinko's counter. The two made eye contact but said nothing.
"I turned around to the guy I was working with," recalls O'Shey, "and said, 'Oh, shit, this is it.' "
O'Shey later learned that the woman was Kathy Thomas-Keprta, a member of the JSC's Solar System Exploration team that had been studying the Martian meteorite. After Thomas-Keprta met with Kinko's manager, O'Shey was called in.
"My manager showed me the pictures and the letter on the Internet," says O'Shey. "She also said that there were only four people working on [the life on Mars project] and that I could have gotten [Thomas-Keprta] in a lot of trouble. I never actually talked with the woman, but apparently she wasn't happy. I was busted, so I just started laughing. I was amazed it took them so long to do something about it." (The manager at the Bay Area Boulevard store refused to comment, and calls to Kinko's regional management office were not returned.)
O'Shey says she was fired a week later, after an internal Kinko's investigation. These days, she's working in a pizza kitchen in La Porte. Thomas-Keprta, according to JSC's public affairs office, is on maternity leave and unavailable for comment. Thomas-Keprta's boss, David McKay, is also unavailable -- he's recovering from open-heart surgery.
Linda Copley, a JSC public affairs officer, acknowledged that O'Shey's story had made the rounds at JSC, but she says NASA had no reason to check its veracity.
"I haven't investigated the story because it's being kind of brushed off," she said.
But Copley, while not confirming the particulars of O'Shey's story, admitted that documents as sensitive as the Mars photos might be taken to a commercial copying center, especially if there was a backlog of orders at JSC's own photocopying facility.
"It doesn't sound incredibly surprising," said Copley, "depending on when you were doing the work and what quality you were trying to get."
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Copley also pointed out that "NASA is not the military," and maintained that there are "no top-secret photos at NASA."
"However," she added, "there is a certain sensitivity to not having things widely distributed before they are published as a part of a scientific paper. Certainly there is good reason, in this kind of work, to kind of keep the work you are doing close to the vest."
There was one reason, although not a very good one, to keep the Mars photos under wraps. It had nothing to do with science and everything to do with politics: In a partially successful effort to upstage news coverage of the Dole-Kemp ticket, the Clinton administration held back on announcing the NASA findings until just before the Republican National Convention convened.
And it turned out that O'Shey andher friends weren't the only unauthorized personnel to stumble on advance word of the discovery. Sherry Rowlands, the prostitute whose feet brought presidential adviser Dick Morris down on all fours, learned the news when Morris allowed her to eavesdrop on one of his phone conversations with President Clinton. Presumably, Rowlands didn't try to contact Richard Hoagland.