“Exactly,” Venkat said.
“How did you know that?” Annie asked, getting annoyed.
“Elrond,” Bruce said. “The Council of Elrond. From Lord of the Rings. It's the meeting where they decide to destroy The One Ring.”
“Jesus,” Annie said. “None of you got laid in high school, did you?”
“Good morning,” Teddy said as he walked in. Seating himself, he rested his hands on the table. “Anyone know what this meeting's about?” He asked.
“Wait,” Mitch said, “Teddy doesn't even know?”
Venkat took a deep breath. “One of our astrodynamicists, Rich Purnell, has found a way to get Hermes back to Mars. The course he came up with would give Hermes a Mars flyby on Sol 549.”
“You shittin' us?” Annie demanded.
“Sol 549? How's that even possible?” Asked Bruce. “Even Iris wouldn't have landed till Sol 588.”
“Iris was a point-thrust craft,” Venkat said. “Hermes has a constant-thrust ion engine. It's always accelerating. Also, Hermes has a lot of velocity right now. On their current Earth-intercept course, they have to decelerate for the next month just to slow down to Earth's speed.”
Mitch rubbed the back of his head. “Wow... 549. That's 35 sols before Watney runs out of food. That would solve everything.”
Teddy leaned forward. “Run us through it, Venkat. What would it entail?”
“Well,” Venkat began, “If they did this 'Rich Purnell Maneuver,' they'd start accelerating right away, to preserve their velocity and gain even more. They wouldn't intercept Earth at all, but would come close enough to use a gravity assist to adjust course. Around that time, they'd pick up a re-supply probe with provisions for the extended trip.
“After that, they'd be on an accelerating orbit toward Mars, arriving on Sol 549. Like I said, it's a Mary flyby. This isn't anything like a normal Ares mission. They'll be going too fast to fall in to orbit. The rest of the maneuver takes them back to Earth. They'd be home 211 days after the flyby.”
“What good is a flyby?” Bruce asked. “They don't have any way to get Watney off the surface.”
“Yeah...” Venkat said. “Now for the unpleasant part: Watney would have to get to the Ares-4 MAV.”
“Schiaparelli Crater!?” Mitch gaped. “That's 3,200km away!”
“3,235km to be exact,” Venkat said. “It's not out of the question. He drove to Pathfinder's landing site and back. That's over 1,500km.”
“That was over flat, desert terrain,” Bruce chimed in. “But the trip to Schiaparelli-”
“Suffice it to say,” Venkat interrupted, “It would be very difficult and dangerous. But we have a lot of clever scientists to help him trick out the rover. Also there would be MAV modifications.”
“What's wrong with the MAV?” Mitch asked.
“It's designed to get to low Mars orbit,” Venkat explained. “But Hermes would be on a flyby, so the MAV would have to escape Mars gravity entirely to intercept.”
“How?” Mitch asked.
“It'd have to lose weight... a lot of weight. I can get rooms full of people working on these problems if we decide to do this.”
“Earlier,” Teddy said, “You mentioned a supply probe for Hermes. We have that capability?”
“Yes, with the Taiyang Shen,” Venkat said. “We'd shoot for a near-Earth rendezvous. It's a lot easier than getting a probe to Mars, that's for sure.”
“I see,” Teddy said. “So we have two options on the table: Send Watney enough food to last until Ares 4, or send Hermes back to get him right now. Both plans require the Taiyang Shen, so we can only do one.”
“Yes,” Venkat said. “We'll have to pick one.”
They all took a moment to consider.
“What about the Hermes crew?” Annie asked, breaking the silence. “Would they have a problem with adding...” She did some quick math in her head “533 days to their mission?”
“They wouldn't hesitate,” Mitch said. “Not for a second. That's why Venkat called this meeting.” He cast a disapproving glare at Venkat. “He wants us to decide instead.”
“That's right,” Venkat said.
“It should be Commander Lewis' call,” Mitch said sternly.
“Pointless to even ask her,” Venkat said. “We need to make this decision; it's a matter of life and death.”
“She's the Mission Commander,” Mitch said. “Life and death decisions are her damn job.”
“Easy, Mitch,” Teddy said.
“Bullshit,” Mitch said. “You guys have done end-runs around the crew every time something goes wrong. You didn't tell them Watney was still alive, now you're not telling them there's a rescue option.”
“We already have a rescue option,” Teddy said. “We're just discussing another one.”
“The crash-lander?” Mitch said. “Does anyone think that'll work? Anyone?”
“All right, Mitch,” Teddy said. “You've expressed your opinion, and we've heard it. Let's move on.” He turned to Venkat. “Can Hermes function for 533 days beyond the scheduled mission end?”
“It should,” Venkat said. “The crew may have to fix things here and there, but they're well trained. Remember, Hermes was made to do all 5 Ares missions. It's only halfway through its designed lifespan.”
“It's the most expensive thing ever built,” Teddy said. “We can't make another one. If something went wrong, the crew would die, and the Ares Program with them.”
“Losing the crew would be a disaster,” Venkat said. “But we wouldn't lose Hermes. We can remotely operate it. So long as the reactor and ion engines continued to work, we could bring it back.”
“Space travel is dangerous,” Mitch said. “We can't make this a discussion about what's safest.”
“I disagree,” Teddy said. “This is absolutely a discussion about what's safest. And about how many lives are at stake. Both plans are risky, but resupplying Watney only risks one life while the Rich Purnell Maneuver risks six.”
“Consider degree of risk, Teddy,” Venkat said. “Mitch is right. The crash-lander is high-risk. It could miss Mars, it could re-enter wrong and burn up, it could crash too hard and destroy the food... we estimate 30% chance of success.”
“A near-Earth rendezvous with Hermes is more doable?” Teddy asked.