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Mars by Stealth

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Cycling trips on Mars

Keith was a perfectionist. One of the ideals that drew him to Mars was that with a clean slate and a couple of millennia of hindsight the race would have a chance to get it all right for once. Victoria had a strong feeling he was as usual set for Disappointment.

Victoria and Keith were so different in so many ways. Keith had the discipline for the kind of rigorous routine vital for setting up a mission. It was impressive how many ways he could anticipate that a system might go wrong. He would fix the problem and test it again and again with every conceivable permutation. It was quite remarkable how reality could manage to find yet another permutation to surprise him with. But Victoria connected very well because she could step in and roll with the punches to solve the problem in the field. He would feed her with the background information and they would surge on.

This is where they met. In the field they worked together so well. But domestic life together was a complete failure. They were safe when they joined forces to solve technical problems but trying to relax in front of the television together always ended in tears.

In the field is where they made the connection that seemed so special. They were here to feel that elusive connection again and see if they could find some way of taking it home with them. Of course NASA knew nothing about this. They wouldn't have let them do the mission unless they thought they were the perfect couple. Getting through that part of the interviews was a great example of how they could work together if they had a common goal. Everything was fine while the pressure was on.

Brian had said once about Keith that he would find a way to put Victoria in a position where he knew she was going to disappoint him and then got angry with her when she did disappoint him. But he believed this was just Keith's way of keeping an emotional connection going with her, even if it was an unhappy one. Victoria found that she could talk to Brian about all sorts of things. He was so insightful. When she asked him what her way of dealing with the relationship was Brian said she was a bit more mysterious? He was still trying to work that out.

They set off up the gentle five-degree slope to the crater of the volcano. Olympus Mons was so big it didn't feel like you were on a mountain at all. It just felt like the whole world was on a tilt. The path ahead would be like this pretty much all the way to the top. They walked. No one said much. At that time Victoria actually preferred the silence. It gave her a chance to get some pleasure out of taking in this exotic landscape.

She had the geo-positioning reader and used it to figure out what direction a particular location was from here. The location was slightly behind her so she walked backwards for a few steps trying to imagine she could see it from so high on this mountain.

Keith asked, "What are you looking for?"
Victoria replied "My land."
Keith smiled and nodded and kept walking.

Victoria had the deed to an acre of land on Mars. Her grandfather bought it for her when she was five. It really tickled her to think she actually owned a tiny part of this unusual place. Victoria had daydreamed of visiting her little piece of Martian real estate but it was many hundreds of kilometres from where they would be working.

Way back at the beginning of the century some entrepreneur had worked out that a legal mechanism existed that would allow an individual to take ownership of land on unoccupied worlds. Going there was not an issue. He started by going through the legal hoo-ha step by step to take possession of the entire surface of the Moon. He set up a web page and sold deeds for this land an acre at a time for twenty dollars a pop. It was like that pet rock craze, except now the rocks were bigger. It was such a success he worked his way through the solar system planet by planet.

Victoria had sort of visited her Martian acre but only in virtual space. She had an exercise bike with a virtual environment feature. It allowed you to go on cycling trips in all sorts of locations. You even had to pedal harder going up hill. It really helped to take the boredom out of exercise. Victoria had acquired a full 3D surface map of Mars and integrated it into the system. The first location she visited was her piece of land. Her grandfather had chosen well. It had a great view of the chasms of the Valles Marineris.

When the first humans touched down on Mars this entrepreneurial real estate venture put a whole new light on everything. Because of the real estate rush on Mars all of the land around any of the probes had been bought up. So if NASA wanted to take advantage of the data they gathered at those locations they would have to pay through the nose for the right to walk on it. Now NASA had to buy land through a third party to disguise their reason for buying. They would buy just as much land as they needed and do the mission on it. Missions were not authorised to go outside the limits of NASA land. So now this team were in big trouble. Really. Missions were no longer broadcast live. Any discoveries were filtered through a legal quarantine. It was pretty depressing but the up side was that at least people took it seriously now. Mars had a dollar value.

It was hours into the walk. Okay so far but they had a long way to go. Victoria didn't need a watch to tell her that lunchtime had come and gone without so much as a cracker. After lunch Victoria's first job would have been to repair one of the house builders that had broken down.

Victoria's speciality was robotic missions. One of the reasons she was here was because she wanted to see for herself what the difficulties were in the actual locations.

The robotic missions Victoria specialised in belonged to a new approach to space exploration. Everything before had been missions like mapping the surface or measuring atmosphere or soil chemistry. As vital as these were they were motivated by ambitions to determine things like how the solar system had formed or a search for life on other planets.

The robotics Victoria was working on had a more practical slant. These missions were aimed at setting up infrastructure in locations before human arrival. It was like building a house in a new country before you made the move. The robots were small and simple and would use as much of the local resources as possible for construction.

Victoria's favourite was the igloo constructions system because it was so simple. Most of the habitats were made this way. The igloo construction system had two main parts. The first was like a self-drive vacuum cleaner. The second was a five-metre long boom arm with a bonding head at one end. The motorised vacuum cleaner moved freely around on the surface sucking up dust. When it was full it would return to the hub of the boom arm and load the dust into its hopper. A conveyer that ran the length of the boom took the dust up to the bonding head at the other end. This head had wheels that turned the boom clockwise around its hub at a constant slow speed. A slow but constant flow of dust was built up in layers on the circular path of the head. This process was continuous from the permafrost base to the roof of the building. As the boom added each layer of dust the wall grew. As the wall grew the end of the boom was lifted. The boom was hinged both ways at the central pivot point so the wall curved inward, as it grew higher. This resulted in the formation of a hemisphere.

At the top it left a hole for a one and a half metre skylight to be installed later. The boom then collapsed gently back on its hub platform. The platform was on wheels so the vacuum cleaner could drag the boom outside through a cat-flap that had been left in the wall during construction. The boom platform was taken to a neighbouring location where the whole process would start again.

Robotic missions are a bit like wallpapering your front hallway through the letterbox in the door. You have to have a sturdy imagination. This was definitely one of Victoria's strong points. Her first repair job was on Igloo fourteen. The bonding head had clapped out half way up the wall. She could almost visualise where the part was that had broken down and what the damage looked like. Number fourteen used a heat bonding system. It bonded the dust in much the same way glaze is bonded to pottery. These units sometimes suffered from the moving parts near the head becoming glazed. The builders had performed beyond expectations but it was important to see where the weaknesses were and stretch the technology further.

To the onlooker the boom arm didn't seem to move much faster than the minute hand on a clock face. It took months to complete one dome. The idea was to use time as an asset. Something that was in ample supply on Mars.

The igloo construction system embodied the approach to planetary exploration known as "Mars by stealth". It was two years between each window where Earth and Mars were close enough to make the journey. The automated systems turned the time from a handicap into an advantage by building up the infrastructure a grain at a time to make things more comfy for the next human mission. All the elements had been snuck in place in small, automated packages until the only thing missing was the humans. It became easier then to say to a politician, we've sent all these dollars over the years, we had better put it to use.

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Copyright Peter Rasmussen 2001