2001-A Space Odyssey

    21 - Birthday Party




    The familiar strains of “Happy Birthday,” hurled across seven hundred million miles of space at the velocity of light, died away among the vision screens and instrumentation of the control deck. The Poole family, grouped rather self-consciously round the birthday cake on Earth, lapsed into a sudden silence.


    Then Mr. Poole, Senior, said gruffly: “Well, Frank, can't think of anything else to say at the moment, except that our thoughts are with you, and we're wishing you the happiest of birthdays.”


    “Take care, darling,” Mrs. Poole interjected tearfully. “God bless you.”


    There was a chorus of “good-byes,” and the vision screen went blank. How strange to think, Poole told himself, that all this had happened more than an hour ago; by now his family would have dispersed again and its members would be miles from home. But in a way that time lag, though it could be frustrating, was also a blessing in disguise. Like every man of his age, Poole took it for granted that he could talk instantly, to anyone on Earth, whenever he pleased. Now that this was no longer true, the psychological impact was profound. He had moved into a new dimension of remoteness, and almost all emotional links had been stretched beyond the yield point.


    “Sorry to interrupt the festivities,” said Hal, “but we have a problem.”


    “What is it?” Bowman and Poole asked simultaneously.


    “I am having difficulty in maintaining contact with Earth. The trouble is in the AE-35 unit. My Fault Prediction Center reports that it may fail within seventy-two hours.”


    “We'll take care of it,” Bowman replied. “Let's see the optical alignment.”


    “Here it is, Dave. It's still O.K. at the moment.”


    On the display screen appeared a perfect half-moon, very brilliant against a background almost free of stars. It was covered with clouds, and showed not one geographical feature that could be recognized. Indeed, at first glance it could be easily mistaken for Venus.


    But not at a second one, for there beside it was the real Moon which Venus did not possess - a quarter the size of Earth, and in exactly the same phase. It was easy to imagine that the two bodies were mother and child, as many astronomers had believed, before the evidence of the lunar rocks had proved beyond doubt that the Moon had never been part of Earth.


    Poole and Bowman studied the screen in silence for half a minute. This image was coming to them from the long-focus TV camera mounted on the rim of the big radio dish; the cross-wires at its center showed the exact orientation of the antenna. Unless the narrow pencil beam was pointed precisely at Earth, they could neither receive nor transmit. Messages in both directions would miss their target and would shoot, unheard and unseen, out through the Solar System and into the emptiness beyond. If they were ever received, it would not be for centuries - and not by men.


    “Do you know where the trouble is?” asked Bowman.


    “It's intermittent and I can't localize it. But it appears to be in the AE-35 unit.”


    “What procedure do you suggest?”


    “The best thing would be to replace the unit with a spare, so that we can check it over.”


    “O.K. - let us have the hard copy.”


     The information flashed on the display screen; simultaneously, a sheet of paper slid out of the slot immediately beneath it. Despite all the electronic read-outs, there were times when good old-fashioned printed material was the most convenient form of record.


    Bowman studied the diagrams for a moment, then whistled.


    “You might have told us,” he said. “This means going outside the ship.”


    “I'm sorry,” Hal replied. “I assumed you knew that the AE-35 unit was on the antenna mounting.”


    “I probably did, a year ago. But there are eight thousand subsystems aboard. Anyway, it looks a straightforward job. We only have to unlock a panel and put in a new unit.”


    “That suits me fine,” said Poole, who was the crew member designated for routine extravehicular activity. “I could do with a change of scenery. Nothing personal, of course.”


    “Let's see if Mission Control agrees,” said Bowman. He sat still for a few seconds, marshaling his thoughts, then started to dictate a message.


    “Mission Control, this is X-ray-Delta-One. At two-zero-four-five, on-board fault prediction center in our niner-triple-zero computer showed Alpha Echo three five unit as probable failure within seventy-two hours. Request check your telemetry monitoring and suggest you review unit in your ship systems simulator. Also, confirm your approval our plan to go EVA and replace Alpha Echo three five unit prior to failure. Mission Control, this is X-ray-Delta-One, two-one-zero-three transmission concluded.”


    Through years of practice, Bowman could switch at a moment's notice to this jargon - which someone had once christened “Technish” - and back again to normal speech, without clashing his mental gears. Now there was nothing to do but to wait for the confirmation, which would take at least two hours as the signals made the round trip past the orbits of Jupiter and Mars.


    It came while Bowman was trying, without much success, to beat Hal at one of the geometrical pattern games stored in his memory.


     "X-ray-Delta-One, this is Mission Control, acknowledging your two-one-zero-three. We are reviewing telemetric information on our mission simulator and will advise.


    “Roger your plan to go EVA and replace Alpha-Echo three-five unit prior to possible failure. We are working on test procedures for you to apply to faulty unit.”


    The serious business having been completed, the Mission Controller reverted to normal English.


    “Sorry you fellows are having a bit of trouble, and we don't want to add to your woes. But if it's convenient to you prior to EVA, we have a request from Public Information. Could you do a brief recording for general release, outlining the situation and explaining just what the AE-35 does. Make it as reassuring as you can. We could do it, of course - but it will be much more convincing in your words. Hope this won't interfere too badly with your social life. X-ray-Delta-One, this is Mission Control, two-one-five-five, transmission concluded.”


    Bowman could not help smiling at the request. There were times when Earth showed a curious insensitivity and lack of tact. “Make it reassuring,” indeed!


    When Poole joined him at the end of his sleep period, they spent ten minutes composing and polishing the reply. In the early stages of the mission, there had been countless requests from all the news media for interviews, discussions - almost anything that they cared to say. But as the weeks drifted uneventfully past, and the time lag increased from a few minutes to over an hour, interest had gradually slackened. Since the excitement of the Jupiter fly-by, over a month ago, they had made only three or four tapes for general release.


    "Mission Control, this is X-ray-Delta-One. Here is your press statement.


    "Earlier today, a minor technical problem occurred. Our HAL-9001 computer predicted the failure of the AE-35 unit.


    "This is a small but vital component of the communication system. It keeps our main antenna aimed at Earth to within a few thousandths of a degree. This accuracy is required, since at our present distance of more than seven hundred million miles, Earth is only a rather faint star, and our very narrow radio beam could easily miss it.


    "The antenna is kept constantly tracking Earth by motors controlled from the central computer. But those motors get their instructions via the AE-35 unit. You might compare it to a nerve center in the body, which translates the brain's instructions to the muscles of a limb. If the nerve fails to pass on the correct signals, the limb becomes useless. In our case, a breakdown of the AE-35 unit could mean that the antenna will start pointing at random. This was a common trouble with the deep-space probes of the last century. They often reached other planets, then failed to send back any information because their antenna couldn't locate Earth.


    "We don't know the nature of the fault yet, but the situation is not at all serious, and there is no need for alarm. We have two back-up AE-35s, each of which has an operational life expectancy of twenty years, so the chance that a second will fail during the course of this mission is' negligible. Also, if we can diagnose the present trouble, we may be able to repair the number one unit.


    "Frank Poole, who is specially qualified for this type of work, will go outside the ship and replace the faulty unit with the back-up. At the same time, he'll take the opportunity of checking the hull and repairing some micropunctures that have been too small to merit a special EVA.


    "Apart from this minor problem, the mission is still going uneventfully and should continue in the same manner.


    “Mission Control, this is X-ray-Delta-One, two-one-zero-four, transmission concluded.”