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Chapter 3: The Inflatable City

After the robots had signaled a non-eventful landing on the surface, Akshara activated them and directed them to start digging.

The main workhorse robots were the three DiGRs - Digging Gorilla Robots. They were affectionately called diggers. As the name suggests they resembled gorillas with short legs and long arms and were quite good at digging. They would be responsible for digging the underground caves where the living quarters would be inflated and mining for various minerals. The caves would provide some shielding from radiation and meteorites and temperature stabilization. For state-of-the-art robots they were not very intelligent but they were robust. They required some supervision to keep them from getting stuck when they encountered something they could not classify.

Akshara and the rest of the team watched through video feeds as the robots did their work. A large cloud of dust was forming around the robots so they could not see very far. All they could see in visible light was dust and rocks flying away from the drills. The best view was the radar from the camera drone above the scene.

Being further away from the sun, the Mars year is longer, about 687 Earth days. However, the Mars day, called Sol, is 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds. So a Mars year is 668.6 sols. Mars is also tilted on its axis, much like Earth, and so experiences seasons. The orbit of Mars is far more elliptical however, so some seasons are much longer than others. To avoid confusion, some scientists refer to Martian time using a 360 degree scale with respect to the orbit of Mars, called Ls (ell-sub-es). On this calendar it was currently Ls 265, almost the middle of summer in the southern hemisphere.

Another commonly used system denotes the year number relative to Mars Year 1 (MY1) beginning with the northern Spring equinox of April 11, 1955. By this measure it was MY41 and 486 sols, or MY41-486.

After the robots had dug a large enough cavern, the crew got suited up and ready to go. Although there was very little chance of a hull-breach, NASA did not take any chances. Everyone was in fully pressurized suits.

The landing module, Rigel, separated from the ship. It was equipped with heat shield, descent rockets, and a multiple stage parachute nose-cone.

Most of the landing sequence was automated. All they had to do was wait and withstand the forces that buffeted the landing craft.

First they hit the very top of the atmosphere. At this speed, the air molecules collided with the heat-shield, becoming plasma and blasting away (ablating) the molecules of the shield. Rigel tilted its nose up and down to control its descent into the atmosphere. Too fast and they would disintegrate. Too slow and they would miss their landing target. The crew were jostled in their gravity bucket seats. The blasting sound from the atmosphere gradually increased along with the temperature. Red hot plasma streaked by the windows of the craft.

After Rigel had slowed enough, it activated the supersonic drag parachute. The crew were slammed into their chairs at around 3 g. Kara started to pray silently with her eyes shut. After they slowed down enough to launch the subsonic parachute, it was launched. This brought a bit less deceleration with only 2 g of force. The heat shield made a loud pop as it was jettisoned. They were well into the atmosphere now and approaching Hellas Planitia.

The atmosphere of Mars is so thin that parachutes are not sufficient to slow the descent despite them landing at near the lowest altitude on Mars. At about one kilometer above the surface, the parachute line was cut and the craft was in free-fall for three seconds. The descent rockets fired and the crew sank into their suspension systems briefly at 3.4 g. Kurt held the joystick tightly, ready to take over at any moment if something went wrong. Rigel’s landing legs extended.

The automated landing procedure worked flawlessly. They touched down on the rocky surface.

Kurt called out for the post landing check, “Is everyone okay? Rin?” He called each crew member by name and they responded, “Okay.”

Kurt addressed everyone, “We’ve touched down about 1 kilometer north of the robots.”

Phoebe asked, “That far?”

“Considering we’ve traveled hundreds of millions of kilometers to get here from earth this landing was amazingly precise,” Kurt replied.

Akshara added, “Rigel probably would have put us closer, but we might have run into the robots. Right Rigel?”

“That is correct. My instructions were to keep at least 800 meters from the robot landing site for safety,” Rigel responded.

Kara exclaimed, “It feels so light here! I can’t wait to get out and jump around!”

Norbite agreed, “Me too.”

“Let’s do this. Switching on comms,” said Kurt, unbuckling his seatbelt and getting up. He switched on the uplink to NASA command, “This is commander Kurt, we’ve successfully landed on Mars.”

Kurt exited first, followed by Kara.

Kurt had thought a long time about what to say at this moment. He said, “We claim this land in peace for our country and for humanity. One small step for a few, one giant leap for all of humanity.”

Kara added, “Today marks a huge step forward for science. Our gratitude goes to the hundreds of people working for NASA back home to make this mission a success and to the American people. Thank you.”

Rin came out next and said, “Humanity is growing up. We are but standing on the shoulders of giants and leaping into the cosmos!”

Anesh spoke, “We boldly go into the final frontier! To humanity’s future!”

Akshara next, “It’s beautiful! We did it!”

Then as Norbite stepped out he said, “I can’t say that it’s a small step. This time it’s a giant leap for men, women, and mankind. Thank you NASA and thank you to my companions for taking this journey with me.”

Lastly, Phoebe came out and said, “I can’t add more than that. I just hope that our mission inspires everyone back home. This is all for you. We’re all in it together.”

One by one they started jumping. The low gravity gave the sensation of feeling hollow, like a doll. Kara jumped and twirled, laughing hysterically. The laughing was contagious. Norbite, Phoebe, Rin, and Anesh started skipping around, trying out their new found ability. They could easily jump one meter up. Kurt was not jumping.

After a few minutes Kurt interrupted, “All right crew. Let’s get going. There will be plenty of time to jump around later. This base won’t build itself. Well, you know what I mean.”

Akshara chuckled. Most of the base’s construction would be automated.

Norbite gave the command and Rigel jettisoned the landing gear and the covers over the wheel bays. The crew installed the wheels on both sides of the craft, now converted into a Mars rover. They then got back in the rover through the airlock, one at a time, and buckled back in.

“Okay, let’s go. Take us to the landing beacon, Rigel,” Kurt commanded. The crew jerked in their seats as Rigel accelerated forward.

There was a reason they called this the red planet. Almost everything was different shades of red. Dark red rocks, light red regolith, dull red sky. Looks can be deceiving. The rocks and soils were actually quite diverse. The most plentiful metals on Mars are magnesium and aluminum, followed by nickel and zinc. Calcium, sulfur, silicon, sodium, and iron are also available in decent quantities. Almost everything is bonded to oxygen in one way or another - oxygenated. Rusted. Thus the red.

The crew exited the rover one at a time through the airlock. An automated conveyor brought over each suit, hooking it to the suit airlock, a crew member climbed into the suit, and then the airlock closed. This prevented any potential contamination of the rover from Mars dust. The dust alone could be harmful if breathed and the perchlorates present on Mars are toxic to humans even in small quantities.

The base was to be named “Hellas 1,” the first human outpost on Mars. The base was to consist of a 128 square meters living chamber, located ten meters underground, about 15 by 8.5 meters, and two cylindrical greenhouses above ground, ten meters in diameter each.

The team split up into three groups: Norbite and Kurt inflated the living chamber, Phoebe and Kara inflated the greenhouses, and the rest worked on setting up the solar panels and nuclear reactor.

They worked for hours, only breaking to eat, drink, or relieve themselves. During this time, Rigel acted as their base. It had a fuel-cell and built-in solar panels for this purpose. When the sun set over the horizon Rigel turned on the lights and each crew member flipped on their head-lamps. The sunset was much darker than on Earth, blue, and cast such long shadows, it gave an eerie feeling of other worldliness.

The temperature plunged from around zero Celsius during the day to -70 C at night, although the crew’s suits wrapped them in a constantly flowing web of tubes and kept them warm. When they finally could take no more they filed back into the rover and went to sleep for the night.

The next morning they all woke up feeling refreshed but sore. The extra almost forty minutes of sleep helped. Phoebe and Kara were the first up. They headed over to the greenhouses with the 3D printers to start printing the solar collectors. Phoebe was excited to finally serve her real purpose of the mission and was telling Kara all about the details of exoplanet botany.

“This site in Hellas was chosen due to its proximity to a water-ice glacier, caves, and gypsum deposits. The robotic sample-return missions of the 2020s already mapped it out. Gypsum can be used as fertilizer and water has obvious uses.” Kara nodded. She already knew all of this, but didn’t want to interrupt Phoebe’s train of thought. Phoebe continued, “We can extract most of the nutrients we need from our waste products, but of course there will be some loss. No process is one hundred percent effective. Hydroponics would be the most efficient, but if we could use the soil, that would be amazing.”

Mission Log M41-487, Commander Kurt Campos

We successfully set up the initial base and green-houses yesterday. Morale is high. We had a celebratory feast last night, eating one of our few remaining dehydrated meals. Everything seems to be going well.

Just as expected, the Martian dust is covering everything. So far there hasn’t been any contamination in the rover. The Z-22 suits are working brilliantly. We haven’t entered the new habitat yet. I want to make sure the airlocks are functioning smoothly first.

Today we plan to start treating some soil with the perchlorate scrubber. Of course the hydroponics will be easier, but the Mission Director specified that growing in Martian dirt would be more appreciated by the public.

Well, back to work. Kurt signing off.

Kurt called on Anesh to help set up the perchlorate scrubber. They lifted it out of the supply module and set it down. It looked almost too large to lift.

“Shit,” Anesh blurted out.

“What is it?” asked Kurt.

“Someone… Aditya Jalali. He screwed with it.”

“How do you know?”

“See here?” he pointed, “It’s got a big dent in it.”

“Are you sure it couldn’t be landing damage?” asked Kurt.

Anesh paused for a moment. “You know what. You’re right. Sorry. It’s from the landing. He couldn’t have got to it.”

“Well, crap. Let’s try it out at least.”

Anesh tried to turn it on. It made a buzzing noise for a few seconds and then stopped. He tried again. Same thing.

“Damn. It’s broken,” said Anesh. “We’ll have to go on without it.”

“Get Norbite to take a look at. Maybe we can fix it,” Kurt suggested.

“Alright. I hope nothing else broke.”

“Me too…”

Norbite looked at the perchlorate scrubber, but it wasn’t salvageable. “The membranes are almost all broken. Without completely intact membranes, it just won’t work.”

After some discussion with NASA, they decided to send up another scrubber. With some effort, they figured out they could get one there in about six months. Meanwhile they would have their scientists look into every possible alternative.


The diggers had made several mounds of dirt categorized by primary compound: calcium, sodium, gypsum, and metal ores - aluminum, iron, magnesium and a small pile of titanium.

Norbite and Anesh used the 3D printers to print crude bricks to make ovens for pyrometallurgy to derive metals from the ores.

Rin, Phoebe, and Kurt set up the greenhouses for hydroponics to grow quinoa, dwarf wheat, lettuces, a variety of beans, and other plants.

Kara and Akshara meanwhile worked with one of the diggers to start processing water from the glacier nearby. Water would be extremely important for their survival as well as a source of fuel for the return trip after being split into hydrogen and oxygen. The diggers carved out cubes of ice and carted them back towards the settlement.

Phoebe also took some time to explore the surrounding area, taking samples, and checking for signs of life. None of the robot missions up to this point had found anything promising, but they could not do as much as a scientist on the ground. So far her tests all turned out negative.


The Chinese probe landed in Acidalia Planitia in the northern hemisphere. It was about five thousand kilometers away from the crew, near the north polar ice cap.

The Phoenix 5 crew huddled around the news feed from Earth. The news anchor was describing the announcement made by the Chinese president, “The Huǒxīng zēngzhǎng, or Mars Growth, successfully landed today on the northern hemisphere of Mars. He says this marks a great day in history for China. The lander is equipped with about four hundred tiny biospheres which will spread out in a circle around the lander. Each biosphere will separate about 120 kilometers from the rest. In this way they expect to lay claim to the land almost one thousand kilometers away from the lander in all directions. He then went on to suggest that human missions are not too far off-” the news feed ended.

There were gasps from the crew. Kurt flashed a look of surprise, grinned, and then huffed as if stifling a laugh. Anesh remarked, “Can they do that?”

“Apparently they just did,” answered Akshara.

Phoebe asked, “Isn’t the offset distance from the treaty one hundred kilometers? Aren’t they leaving gaps?”

Norbite replied, “No. There’s plenty of overlap actually. The treaty states that a country lays claim to one hundred kilometers around each plant growth on Mars. So imagine a bubble one hundred kilometers in radius around each biosphere.”

“Yes, it’s quite ingenious actually,” added Rin.

“If it works,” said Kara. Rin nodded.


By this time the base was fully formed. It all looked a bit like a child’s toy from far away. Above ground the only things visible were the cone-shaped rover, the two cylindrical greenhouses, the triangular solar panels, and the cube-shaped nuclear reactor, all connected by fat cables.

Phoebe was leading the rest of the crew on a tour of the greenhouse, telling them which plant was which and how it all worked. The plants were beginning to show large green sprouts. The air hummed from the sound of air circulators and hydroponic systems. Phoebe was smiling and gesturing happily throughout the greenhouse.

“Most of the light comes from these LEDs, but some of it is piped in through fiber optic cables from solar collectors on the roof. These are the soybeans; these are black beans; and these are green beans. They need to be harvested as soon as they mature. On the other side we have a variety of lettuce and kale. Make sure to pluck them when they are nice and green and before they get too big.”

She walked to the other side and said, “Over here we have the dwarf wheat, grasses, and quinoa. I’m having some trouble with the wheat as you can probably tell.” She looked around at everyone and then said, “Any questions?”

Rin asked, “What’s in the other greenhouse?”

“It’s the same exact thing. It’s meant to be a backup in case anything should go wrong.”

She waited a minute and when there were no more questions she continued, “Okay, let’s go over the hydroponic system…”

As Phoebe continued to talk, Akshara pulled Norbite aside and pretended to be interested in the plants while saying in a hushed voice, “Kurt can’t be trusted. He was the last one to see Aditya alive.”

Next Chapter: Chapter 5: The Storm