What are the changes the pilot makes to the ship's speed in Tom Godwin's short story "The Cold Equations"? Why does he do this?

Expert Answers
Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Tom Godwin's short story "The Cold Equations," as soon as pilot Barton realizes his stowaway is a girl, he goes back to his pilot's chair, asks her to be seated on his drive-control units box, and asks her questions about why she stowed away and how she managed it. Then, he reduces the "deceleration to a fraction of a gravity," which we are told later is .10 gravity. And, as he explains to Marilyn, he does it to save fuel.

Since Emergency Dispatch Ships (EDS) need to be as small and lightweight as possible to be able to fulfill their emergency missions as quickly as possible, they have no "hull-cooling units." Therefore, they must enter a planet's atmosphere as slowly as possible or else they'll burn up. To enter the atmosphere as slowly as possible, they must begin the deceleration process while their destination planet is still very far away. Deceleration requires a great deal of energy, and increased energy must be fed by greater amounts of fuel. Therefore, if he reduces his deceleration speed for a time, meaning makes the ship go faster, he can save fuel and, therefore, prolong Marilyn's life for at least a little while.

Though it is against regulations for an EDS pilot to adjust the speeds programmed by the computers, Commander Delhart fully understands the tragedy of the situation and, empathizing with both Barton and Marilyn,  gives Barton permission to remain at a deceleration speed of .10 gravity and has the computers calculate that he'll be able to safely remain at that speed for 57 minutes, giving Marilyn enough time to fully understand and accept her situation, write a goodbye letter to her parents, and say goodbye to her brother over the communicator.