Everything started to go wrong just after 5 a.m., when Sidd Bikkannavar scanned his passport, placed his hand on a fingerprint reader, and watched as the automated customs kiosk spat out a receipt with a black X drawn across it.
It was January 31. Bikkannavar had just arrived at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport after a nine-hour flight from Santiago, Chile, where he’d competed in a two-week race from the southern tip of the country to its capital in a solar-powered car. In a few hours, he would board a connecting flight back home to California, where he’s worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena for over a decade. Bikkannavar, a 35-year-old engineer who was born in Pasadena, designs technology for space telescopes like the enormous James Webb telescope that’s set to be launched into orbit in 2018.
But before boarding his next plane, Bikkannavar would have to clear customs and immigration. Usually, it’s a breeze: He’s a part of the Customs and Border Protection Global Entry program, whose members are waved through the line after just scanning their passport and fingerprints. But the receipt with the X meant things wouldn’t go so smoothly this time.
He presented it to an agent and was promptly led to a holding room. The customs checkpoint had only been open for business for 10 or 20 minutes, so the room was mostly empty. But several occupied cots were arranged in the room, suggesting that some people had spent the night. A table was arranged with peanut butter biscuits, crackers, and instant noodle cups.