Project Hail Mary
reviewed by Barbara Saffer
A Russian scientist named Irina Petrova discovers that an arc of infrared radiation extends from the sun’s North Pole to Venus, where it spreads out to the width of the planet. Researchers learn that the arc, named the Petrova line, is getting brighter as the sun is getting dimmer, and if the phenomenon continues, it will soon result in a catastrophic ice age on Earth. Moreover, other nearby stars are getting dimmer as well, and the phenomenon is spreading.
There’s one exception though. The star Tau Ceti, which is twelve lights years from Earth, is maintaining its luminosity. The United Nations forms the Petrova Taskforce to discover why Tau Ceti is immune from the astrophysical scourge. The program director is Eva Stratt, a brilliant, multilingual, Dutch scientist who’s given total authority over the project.
Under Stratt’s oversight, the world builds a spacecraft, named the Hail Mary, to go to Tau Ceti. The starship will carry three scientist-astronauts: one from Russia, one from China, and one from the United States. The passengers will be in hibernation for the trip, so only people with coma-resistant genes can make the journey. This limits the astronaut pool, since only one person in seven thousand has the appropriate DNA.
Carrying the sleeping astronauts, the Hail Mary—traveling close to the speed of light—will reach Tau Ceti in 13 years. If the crew is successful, a probe containing the ‘dimming cure’ will reach Earth 13 years after that…..so at least 26 years. By then many Earth species will be extinct and the human population will be decimated, but there will still be a chance to save humanity. (The author has a spot of fun here. For redundancy, the Hail Mary has four probes called beetles, which are whimsically named John, Paul, George, and Ringo.)
The American astronaut aboard the Hail Mary is Ryland Grace, who tells the story from his point of view. Grace is a molecular biologist who became a junior high school science teacher. The dual careers—and his natural curiosity—give Grace a wide breadth of knowledge about biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy. The chapters alternate back and forth between preparations for the expedition and what happens when the Hail Mary reaches Tau Ceti.
Prior to blastoff, Grace is instrumental in mission preparation, and after the spacecraft arrives at Tau Ceti, he searches for a solution to the sun-dimming problem. Grace’s work is complex and difficult, and his explanations are heavy with math and science.
As always with a huge project like Hail Mary, things go wrong, resulting in death, destruction, and unexpected consequences. Luckily, Grace has a sense of humor and a gift for quips, which provide a welcome light touch to the narrative.
To reveal more would be a spoiler, except to say this is a sci-fi thriller with big surprises. Project Hail Mary has a fascinating premise and is a wonderful accolade to the cleverness, ingenuity, and better nature of the characters.
Thanks to NetGalley, Andy Weir, and Ballantine Books for a copy of the book.