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Mars by Stealth
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In no time at all they had cut a narrow set of steps down into the ice. They led to a door-sized hole that was the entrance to the new habitat. Keith worked inside with the chainsaw cutting away at the walls to make the space larger. In one corner of the new room sat Brian with the oxygen unit and a pile of LPG bottles. Brian finished refilling an oxygen bottle. He slid it and an LPG bottle across the floor to where Keith picked them up and sent the empties back to him. At this stage they still had a healthy supply of LPG gas bottles to fuel the chainsaw. Stewart hurled the chunks of ice out and up to a pile outside.
Up on the roof Victoria was on her hands and knees scraping the ice smooth with a metal edge. She noticed the ice was slightly pink. Was it a reflection of the colour of the sky or was it the dust in the water? She threw water on the scraped surface to glaze it and make it more transparent so the room would have more light. Her blurred shadow could be seen through the translucent roof. The soft pink/white light was a little eerie. They covered the walls and the floor with insulation from the supplies that had come down in the balloon lander.
Back at the habitat Max and Anna examined the air lock.
"What do you think is the best way to cut it out?" asked Max.
Anna offered him a domestic can opener. She had him going for a moment.
Anna enjoyed using the cold chisel and lump hammer to make the initial hole. Once this was done she rested and Max started on the long cut with the hacksaw to separate the door from the habitat.
Victoria noticed Keith looking at the sun low in the sky.
"Red sky at dawn shepherds warning. Red sky at night shepherds delight. Pink sky in the middle of the day, you're on Mars." She chanted.
He remembered something. He looked over at the contentious heat exchanger that Victoria and he had the fight over. He went to mention it to Victoria but stopped himself and went to Stewart. Now was the time to set up the power supply. They unrolled the big black mat close to the ice room but out of the way so no one would accidentally step on it.
On Mars solar cells are what they call a low-density power source. At this distance from the sun they did not deliver the goods. But Mars has an extreme temperature gradient. It goes from zero degrees Centigrade in the hottest part of the day to a hundred degrees below in the middle of the night. Here was another local resource that could be turned to an advantage. The gas in the fine pipes of the heat exchanger would turn into a liquid during the coldest part of the night. In the morning it would boil back into a gas. The expanding gas drove a small turbine and generated electricity. This would charge the batteries. If they had stuck to the plan of walking they would have had to stop and wait every second day just for the recharging and to slowly build up the oxygen in all of their tanks. The extractor worked hard to keep six people going.
By the time Anna and Max were on their way back with the Airlock the sun had set. Their global positioning reader had a light in it but they ended up not needing it. Something seemed to be on their side for once. Both Demos and Phobos were in the sky that night and they found their way by moonlight. They followed their footprints back the way they came. They knew the new camp was not far when they saw the faint glow that came up through the ice.
All hands crowded in to carefully lower the airlock into the pit and fit it into the door-sized hole. They had to be very careful not to cut their suits on the jagged edge. Victoria and Keith packed chipped ice around the door. Max melted ice in a metal cup with a small welding torch and then through the warm water into the join. This was repeated until a solid airtight seal of ice was formed around the airlock.
The Oxygen extractor now sat chugging away in the corner. Keith took a reading. Anna double-checked that both sides of the air lock were closed and latched. Keith took off his helmet.
They all took their helmets off to enjoy the new space. They stood and looked at each other for a moment. Being no bigger than the habitat they arrived in it was still quite cramped. Oh well. At least the construction had been a temporary distraction from the cabin fever.
Brian handed out the chocolate. That first taste was extraordinary.
"I wonder how the boys at mission control are going." Said Victoria. "They must be in a state."
Nearly everyone laughed.
"So is my family" said Anna.
Brian hurried to point out that at least they would be getting good news eventually.
Victoria couldn't help noticing something strange. She sniffed her share of the chocolate.
"What's that smell."
She sniffed near the Oxygen extractor. But it wasn't a mechanical smell.
They sniffed this and that. It was they and their suits. With the fresh air of the new environment they had a striking contrast to the pungent odour that their noses had been deadened to.
The ceiling had a slight arch in it for mechanical strength and so the melting ice would trickle off to the walls. In your standard Eskimo ice block igloo there is a constant slow melting and refreezing of the ice behind the animal skin lining. In this case they just had to keep an eye on the thickness of the roof. If it really became a problem they could always build it up by freezing layers of water outside on the roof. At least for now they had a place to call home.
They sat down to dinner. To conserve energy only one light was going. This made it very cosy. The food was simple but it felt like a banquet. Even if the ingredients are out of a can there is something about prepared food and a meal with friends. Victoria looked around at the contented faces. Everyone's cheeks were a little rosy from the cold, but their clothes were warm and comfortable. There was a feeling that had never been there before. This now was a team that could achieve something worth while.
Stewart talked casually about the walk they still had to do to the main camp. There was still the problem of not being able to eat or drink. Victoria tentatively mentioned her drinking straw in the suit idea. No one laughed so she picked up a suit and showed where its neck rim was wide enough for the hole to go. She said they could cannibalise parts she knew of at the crashed habitat. They had all the tools to make it safe and airtight. They would still go hungry but at least they would not die of thirst. Everyone agreed this could be made to work.
Keith said it was a shame they all had to do the walk. The time could be used to improve the ice camp. No one needed to be told that the oxygen extractor bound them together. Where it went everyone went. It only took three people to carry the whole oxygen system including the power supply. If only they had a back up oxygen extraction system.
Stewart said "But we do."
They all looked at him.
He held up a bag of wheat seeds they had brought to add to the crop in the greenhouse. Wheat grows very quickly. What child hasn't grown wheat in cotton?
Stewart said the ice camp was working well and it was worth making it functional for teams that would come after them. They would need a permanent base down here to exploit the ice. Stewart proposed that they carve out a couple more rooms and grow wheat in them. They would only need a few square meters to produce enough oxygen for six people. Once this was working three of them could continue on to the summit while the others made the ice camp completely functional and comfortable to serve as a permanent facility. He was confident their bosses would approve.
"What about power?" Victoria said. "The heat exchanger has to go with the oxygen unit."
Stewart said whoever stayed back at the ice camp would just have to get used to going to bed when the sun went down. They had torches and batteries for anything unexpected.
Copyright Peter Rasmussen 2001