Project Hail Mary

Page 39

“I’m not happy to be here either,” Lokken said. “I’m here, at great inconvenience to me as well as you, because this was the only way to tell you a critical design flaw in the Hail Mary.”

Stratt sighed. “We sent out those preliminary designs for general feedback. Not command appearances in Geneva.”

“Then file this under ‘general feedback.’ ”

“Could have been an email.”

“You would have deleted it. You have to listen to me, Stratt. This is important.”

Stratt twirled the pen around a few more times. “Well, I’m here. Go ahead.”

Lokken cleared her throat. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but the entire purpose of the Hail Mary is to be a laboratory. One we can send to Tau Ceti to see why that star—and that star alone—is immune to Astrophage.”

“That’s right.”

She nodded. “Then would you also agree that the lab aboard the ship itself is the most important component?”

“Yes,” Stratt said. “Without it, the mission is meaningless.”

“Then we have a serious problem.” Lokken pulled several sheets of paper from her purse. “I have a list of the lab equipment you want aboard. Spectrometers, DNA sequencers, microscopes, chemistry lab glassware—”

“I’m aware of the list,” Stratt said. “I was the one who signed off on it.”

Lokken dropped the papers on the table. “Most of this stuff won’t work in zero g.”

Stratt rolled her eyes. “We’ve thought of that, of course. Companies all over the world are working on zero-g-rated versions of this equipment as we speak.”

Lokken shook her head. “Do you have any idea how much research and development went into making electron microscopes? Gas chromatographs? Everything else on this list? A century of scientific advances brought about by failure after failure. You want to just assume that making these things zero-g functional is going to work on the first try?”

“I don’t see any way around it, unless you invented artificial gravity.”

“We have invented artificial gravity,” Lokken insisted. “A long time ago.”

Stratt shot me a look. Obviously that had caught her off guard.

“I think she means a centrifuge,” I said.

“I know she means a centrifuge,” Stratt said. “What do you think?”

“I hadn’t thought of it before. I guess…it could work….”

Stratt shook her head. “No. That won’t fly. We have to keep things simple. As simple as possible. Big, solid ship, minimal moving parts. The more complications we have the more points of failure we risk.”

“It’s worth the risk,” said Lokken.

“We’d have to add a huge counterweight to the Hail Mary to even make that work.” Stratt pursed her lips. “I’m sorry, but we barely have enough energy to make the Astrophage for the current mass limit. We can’t just double it.”

“Wait. We have enough energy to make all the fuel? When did that happen—?” I said.

“You don’t need to add mass,” Lokken said. She pulled another paper from her purse and slapped it down on the table. “If you take the current design, cut it in half between the crew compartment and the fuel tanks, the two sides will have a good mass ratio for a centrifuge.”

Stratt peered at the diagram. “You put all the fuel on the same side. That’s two million kilograms.”

“No.” I shook my head. “The fuel would be gone.”

They both looked at me.

“It’s a suicide mission,” I said. “The fuel will be gone when they get to Tau Ceti. Lokken picked a split point where the back of the ship will weigh three times as much as the front. It’s a good mass ratio for a centrifuge. It could work.”

“Thank you,” said Lokken.

“How do you cut a ship in half?” asked Stratt. “How does it become a centrifuge?”

Lokken flipped the diagram over to reveal a detailed image showing a faring between the two ship halves. “Spools of Zylon cabling between the crew compartment and the rest of the ship. We could simulate one g of gravity with a hundred meters of separation.”

Stratt pinched her chin. Had someone actually changed her mind on something?

“I don’t like complexity…” she said. “I don’t like risk.”

“This removes complexity and risk,” Lokken said. “The ship, the crew, the Astrophage…it’s all just a support system for the lab equipment. You need reliable equipment. Stuff that’s been in use for years with millions of man-hours of commercial use. Every imaginable kink has been worked out of those systems. If you have one g of gravity—to make sure they’ll be in the environment they were perfected for—you get the benefit of all that reliability.”

“Hmm,” said Stratt. “Grace? Your thoughts?”

“I…I think it’s a good idea.”


“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, we already have to design the ship to withstand four years of constant acceleration at one and a half g’s or so. It’s going to be pretty solid.”

She took a longer look at Lokken’s diagram. “Wouldn’t this make the artificial gravity in the crew area upside down?”

And she was right. The Hail Mary was designed so that “down” was “toward the engines.” As the ship accelerates, the crew is pushed “down” to the floor. But inside a centrifuge, “down” is always “away from the center of rotation.” So the crew would all be pushed toward the nose of the ship.

“Yes, that would be a problem.” Lokken pointed to the diagram. The cables didn’t attach directly to the crew compartment. They attached to two large discs on either side. “The cabling attaches to these big hinges. The whole front half of the ship can rotate 180 degrees. So when they’re in centrifuge mode, the nose will face inward toward the other half of the ship. Inside the crew compartment, the force of gravity will be away from the nose—same as when the engines are thrusting.”

Stratt took it in. “This is a fairly complicated piece of machinery and you’ll be breaking the ship into two parts. You honestly think this is less of a risk?”

“Less risk than using brand-new, insufficiently tested equipment. Trust me, I’ve used sensitive equipment most of my career,” I said. “It’s finicky and delicate even in ideal conditions.”

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