The Calculating Stars starts with a bang. Elma York, Kowal’s protagonist and first-person narrator says that she and her husband had flown up to the mountain cabin that he inherited for stargazing, “By which I mean: sex. Oh, don’t pretend that you’re shocked. Nathaniel and I were a healthy young married couple, so most of the stars I saw were painted across the inside of my eyelids.” (12) At times, Elma has a very 2010s voice for a 1950s character. Marital bliss is soon interrupted by a catastrophic event.
Although the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics has, in the book’s world, put three satellites into orbit by March 1952, they do not yet have the technology to search for asteroids whose orbit could intersect with Earth’s orbit. (In my timeline, systematic cataloging objects greater than 150 meters in size whose orbits implied a possible collision with Earth began just after the turn of the 21st century.) Geologically speaking, that’s less the blink of an eye. Unfortunately for most of life on Earth, the cosmos blinks and drops a large meteorite into the Chesapeake. Washington and Baltimore are obliterated. Congress was in session. In early chapters of the book, it’s not known whether the entire US government is wiped out, or whether a cabinet secretary of some sort might yet be found to assume the reins of power.
Elma and Nathaniel both work for NACA; he is an engineer, and she is a computer. That is, she is a person who sets up the equations for many of the tasks of space flight, and then does the calculations with pencil paper and slide rule. Electronic computers are starting to come on line later in the book, but they are not entirely reliable and prone to overheating. They had both been at Los Alamos for Trinity, so when they see the light of the meteor’s entry they immediately think that it is an atomic bomb. The radio’s continued operation tells them that there had been no electromagnetic pulse, so it’s not an atomic attack by the Russians. Nathaniel comes up with the idea of a meteorite just before the earthquake’s shock wave hits their cabin. And levels it, just after they have gotten to the relative safety of a doorframe.
As physicists, they know what is coming next. “’The airblast will be what … half an hour late? Give or take?’ For all the calm in his words, Nathaniel’s hands shook as he opened the [car] passenger door for me. ‘Which means we have another … fifteen minutes before it hits’ … All I knew for certain was that, as long as the radio was playing, it wasn’t an A-bomb. But whatever had exploded was huge.” (p. 16) They drive a bit down the mountain — they are already on the lee side — and take shelter under an overhang. Still, the airblast blows out most of their car’s windows and knocks the car itself halfway across the road. Trees are laid out like the Tunguska event.