Project Hail Mary

Page 40

Stratt picked up her pen and tapped it on the table several times. “Okay. We’ll do it.”

Lokken smiled. “Excellent. I’ll write up a paper and send it along to the UN. We can form a committee—”

“No, I said we’ll do it.” Stratt stood up. “You’re with us now, Dr. Lokken. Pack a bag and meet us at Genève Aéroport. Terminal 3, private plane called Stratt.”

“What? I work for ESA. I can’t just—”

“Yeah, don’t bother,” I said. “She’s going to call your boss or your boss’s boss or whatever and have you assigned to her. You just got drafted.”

“I…I wasn’t volunteering to design it personally,” Lokken protested. “I only meant to point out—”

“I never said you volunteered,” Stratt said. “It’s not voluntary at all.”

“You can’t just force me to work for you.”

But Stratt was already walking out of the room. “Meet us at the airport in one hour or I’ll have the Swiss Gendarmerie drag you there in two hours. Your call.”

Lokken stared at the door, flabbergasted, then back to me.

“You get used to it,” I said.


* * *


The ship is a centrifuge! I remember it all now!

That’s why there’s a mysterious area called “Cable Faring.” That’s where the spools and Zylon cables are. The ship can break in half, turn the crew compartment around, and spin.

That turning-around part—that’s the weird ring I saw on the hull during my EVA! I remember the design now. It has two big hinges on it, allowing the crew compartment to turn around before the centrifuge is activated.

It’s strangely reminiscent of Apollo spacecraft. The lunar lander was attached below the command module at launch, but they’d separate, turn the command module around, and reconnect with the lander during their trip to the moon. It’s one of those things that looks ridiculous but ends up being the most effective way to solve a problem.

I float back up to the cockpit and flip through screens on various consoles. As each one fails to be what I want, I move to the next. Finally, I find it. The “Centrifuge” screen. It was hiding out as a subpanel in the Life Support screen.

It looks simple enough. There are yaw, pitch, and roll readouts, showing the current state of the ship, just like the Navigation panel has. A separate readout is labeled “Crew Compartment Angle”—that must be the turning-around bit. Each one reads “0° per second.”

Below those is a button labeled “Engage Centrifuge Sequence.” Underneath that are a bunch of numbers related to rotational acceleration rate, final speed, spooling rate, estimated g-force at the floor of the lab, four different screens for spool status (I guess there are four spools, two on each side), which emergency protocols to follow if there’s a problem, and a lot more stuff I won’t pretend to understand. The important thing is all those readouts have values already in them.

Got to love computers. They do all the thinking for you so you don’t have to.

I do take a closer look at the emergency protocol mode. It just reads “Spin Down.” I tap the readout and a dropdown appears. Looks like my options are: “Spin Down,” “Halt All Spools,” and one in red labeled “Separate.” I’m pretty sure I don’t want to do that. I suspect “Spin Down” will slowly decelerate the ship’s spin if there’s a problem. Sounds good, so I’ll leave it set to that.

I’m about to engage the centrifuge, but then I pause. Is everything tied down? Is it safe to suddenly have a bunch of force acting on the ship? I shake it off. The ship was accelerating constantly for several years. It has to be comfortable with a little centrifuge action, right?


As hundreds of astronauts have done before, I place my faith and my life in the hands of the engineers who designed the system. Dr. Lokken, I guess. Hope she did her job.

I push the button.

First, nothing happens. I wonder if I even pressed it right, or if I just fumbled at the screen like I have so many times on my phone in the past.

But then the alert chimes throughout the ship. The piercing triple beep repeats every few seconds. There is no way for any crewmember to miss a signal like that. A final warning, I guess, in case the crew had a failure to communicate.

Over my head, the Petrovascope screen changes to lock-out mode. That confirms my earlier suspicion that the ship’s maneuvering engines are Astrophage-based. I mean, it’s kind of obvious when you think about it. But I wasn’t sure until now.

The beeping stops and nothing really happens. Then I notice that I’m closer to the Nav panel than I was before. I drifted to the edge of the room. I put my arm out to steady myself and get back to normal. And then I drift toward the Nav panel again.

“Ohhh,” I say.

It’s begun. I’m not drifting toward the Nav panel. The whole cockpit is drifting toward me. The ship is starting to spin.

Everything veers off and changes direction. That’ll be because as the ship spins, the crew compartment is also turning around. This could get complicated.

“Uh…right!” I kick off the wall and into the pilot seat.

I tilt. Or, rather, the room tilts. No, that doesn’t make sense. Nothing tilts. The ship is spinning around faster and faster. It’s also accelerating the acceleration. Also, the front half of the ship has detached from the rear, and it’s rotating around those two big hinges. When it’s done, the nose will be pointed in toward the rear half of the ship. All of this is going on at the same time, so the forces I’m feeling are really weird. Extremely complicated stuff, but also not my problem. It’s up to the computer to deal with.

I watch the Centrifuge panel. The pitch rate reads 0.17° per second. Another readout labeled “Component Separation” reads 2.4 meters. There’s a little beep and the “Crew Compartment Angle” readout blinks. It shows as 180°. I assume this whole sequence was worked out well in advance to minimize shock to the system and/or crew.

I feel a slight pressure on my butt as the seat pushes up against me. The transition is very smooth. I just…experience more and more gravity in what feels like a tilting room. It’s a weird sensation.

I know, logically, that I’m in a ship spinning around. But there are no windows to see out of. Only screens. I check the telescope screen that’s still pointed at the Blip-A. The stars in the background do not move. It’s accounting for my rotation somehow and canceling it. That bit of software was probably tricky, considering the camera probably isn’t at the exact center of rotation.

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