Seven-year-old Timmy Robinson threw the tennis ball as hard as he could, sending it sailing over the Martian surface. Rusty, his pet terrier, scrambled after it, his paws spewing little clouds of red sand into the air behind him.
“Go get it! Go get it, boy! Timmy was screaming at the top of his lungs as the dog followed the now bouncing ball.
“I think this is the last one, Timmy. We’ve got to go down into the gravity lab now.” It was the voice of Joyce Robinson, his Mother. In all the excitement, he hadn’t heard her walk up behind him.
Rusty returned skidding to a halt at the little boy’s feet and obediently deposited the slime covered ball near his left shoe, a red high-topped Converse all-star.
“Ah, Mom. Can’t I stay out a while longer? I’m having so much fun. I never get to play with Rusty except when we’re on Mars.”
“Now you know the rules, son. We can’t leave you on the surface alone.” Joyce knelt down and put her hand reassuringly on the boy’s shoulder. She paused for a moment to look at her lovely boy. The shoes were brand new, but his blue jeans were faded, and the blue and orange striped t-shirt, like the pants, were covered in red dust. He looked “all boy” as her Daddy would have said.
“I can watch him, Dr. Robinson.”
Shantelle was the sixteen-year-old daughter of Phil and Chandra Matten, the other husband and wife physicist team working on the project at the small Acidalia Planitia grav lab with Joyce and Jamal.
Joyce stood up and turned toward the girl who was dressed in her pale summer shorts and halter.
“Alright, but make sure he doesn’t get into any trouble.”
“This is Acidalia Planitia. Not much out here for him to get in trouble with.”
Joyce was passing Shantelle going back toward the airlock, the only part of the underground lab visible on the surface. “Don’t say things like that, Shantelle. He’ll take it as a challenge.”
Both women laughed while Timmy picked the tennis ball up, not minding the dog’s saliva, and tossed it again into the distance.
Joyce entered the airlock and the door closed behind her. Shantelle turned to look at the boy and took a deep breath. She enjoyed her visits to Mars, mostly because it felt good to have the wide open spaces. She didn’t mind Huygens and there was actually a lot of room there, enough for 3,000 people, but no matter how green and lovely her settlement was, it still wasn’t as wide and panoramic as a planet.
Shantelle was just an infant when Huygens arrived in orbit above Mars and she had never experienced life on Earth, so Mars was the only planet she knew. She understood abstractly what Huygens and the other large space habitats were trying to do, but as a teen, she couldn’t appreciate the enormity of what was at stake.
For Timmy, things were even more simple. He either played with his friends Collins, Taylor, and McKenna in their settlement aboard Huygens, or ran around with Rusty on Mars.
Shantelle watched the boy and his dog play, each one seemingly possessing an endless bounty of energy. Seated on the ground, alternating her gaze between the endless horizon and Timmy, she daydreamed about the future, and then was suddenly surprised by how low the sun had gotten in the sky.
She heard the airlock door open behind her, stood, and turned to see her parents and the Robinsons emerge.
“Hi, sweetie.” Shantelle’s Dad gave her a peck on the cheek. “Ready to go home.”
“Don’t be disappointed. We’ll come back tomorrow.”
Jamal called out to Timmy, “Time to go home, son.”
Timmy yelled back, “Just five more minutes, Daddy.”
Jamal used his “Dad means business” voice. “Now, Timothy.”
Timmy ran back, came to a stop in front of his parents, and pouted. “Why can’t I take Rusty back home with me?”
“Rusty has to stay here on the surface, Timmy. We’ve explained that.” Joyce softly kissed her son on the top of his head. “You can play with him tomorrow when we come back.”
“We’re coming back tomorrow? Hooray!” Sometimes a whole week went by before Timmy could go to Mars with his parents.
“Everybody ready?” Chandra was in charge of the transfers to and from their surface avatars.
“Hit it, Honey.” Phil knew Chandra wasn’t happy with that nickname for her and winked at Jamal.
Chandra rolled her eyes. “You know, I can just leave you here if you’re going to be like that.” Then she visualized the pattern that would send a radio signal 11,000 miles above their heads, and cause the return sequence to be activated in their pods on the habitat.
Timmy blinked his eyes and was aware of how cold the air was as his pod opened in the semi-darkness. He’d been standing on Mars just a moment ago, and now he was reclining as a technician removed the leads from his virtualization headset and then his body suit.
So far, this was the only way people could spend any time on the Martian surface. Even moderate exposure to microgravity and hard solar radiation could cause them irreversible damage leading to a premature death (and with prolonged exposure, a more rapid death).
The technology that would allow human beings in human bodies to live on Mars was still in the development stage. The Robinsons and the Mattens were on one of the gravity teams developing plating that would eventually be used in the flooring of all surface habs simulating Earth-like gravity.
Charles and Nora Paul teamed with Don and Francine Vikers to work on the radiation problem at the Acidalia Planitia rad lab, but these four couples were only one of hundreds of other scientific research groups working in facilities all across the planet.
The neurolink technology allowed them to project a virtual presence into sophisticated android copies of themselves which gave them the impression of being able to work and play on the Martian surface in a “shirtsleeve environment”.
The Huygens orbital habitat was a Kalpana One cylinder, one of three orbiting the red planet, each capable of nurturing a population of 3,000 people. Three more orbited Venus working on the Cloud City design, and one was at the L2 Lagrange point a million miles from Earth. It’s view of deep space would allow the Chodas habitat to eventually coordinate efforts at restoring Earth’s biosphere so it could one day sustain human life again.
In some ways, Hilda, the habitat near Jupiter, performed the most critical part of that effort; building three more Kalpana One habitats using asteroids as raw material. Once finished and populated, they would orbit Earth to prepare for repopulation of the mother planet.
Mankind had been foolish once and destroyed Earth’s ability to sustain human and most animal life. It would take centuries and perhaps longer, but humanity would never again put all its proverbial eggs in one basket.
By the time humans were able to set foot upon the Earth again, we would already be living in nearly a dozen Kalpana habitats in various parts of the Solar System, as well as on the surface of Mars, the Moon, and in massive floating cities in the atmosphere high about the hellish surface of Venus.
Timmy Robinson ran out of the local transfer station which was located next door to McKinley Park. Collins and McKenna were waiting to play tag with him (Taylor hadn’t been doing so well in school lately, so he had extra homework).
Between his human form on Huygens and his avatar on Mars, this would be the only life he’d ever know, but his grandchildren or great-grandchildren, albeit in space suits, and radiation repelling surface habs equipped with artificial gravity, would become the first true Martians.
This short story has its origins in a conversation I had last Sunday afternoon over coffee with my friend Tom. We frequently talk about the barriers to a long-term human presence on Mars, the “biggies” being microgravity and radiation.
I borrowed some ideas from the 2009 film Avatar (which I still haven’t gotten around to seeing) and the 1993 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Interface in order to depict people working on Mars using artificial bodies.
Rusty is a sophisticated robot and there’s no real terrier on Huygens projected to Mars, so Timmy can only have a dog while on the planet. He can however, run and play in a t-shirt and jeans the way people once thought we might live on Mars before the Mariner probes in the 1960s showed us what the red planet was really like.
I plan, when I get the time, to expand on this story. The concept of the Kalpana One cylinder is huge and deserves a lot more attention than I’m giving it here. I encourage you to click on the link to learn more. It’s a relatively recent design and it’s pretty exciting to think that it might be possible someday to build one.
In real life however, we’ll probably have boots on Mars long before we can build even a single one of these spinning space habitats.