Martian Rhapsody: Chapter 2 – Rocks

[Note: See chapter 1, Landing. Also see Harry’s Mars One: Exciting Adventure or Hoax?, especially the long-running, extended discussion at the end of the article. See his other Mars related articles in his list of publications. Chapter 2 is being published as submitted, without editing by ETCJ. -Editor]

Martian Rhapsody
by Harry E. Keller, PhD


The four hopeful settlers stare open-eyed at the vista that confronts them. Mars stares back, red-faced and malevolent. They discern nothing friendly or helpful in that stare. Some might see indifference, but they’d be wrong. If ever mankind faced evil, it is here in this impossibly alien and lifeless environment.

Even the dark, sharp-edged rocks strewn across the landscape with apparent reckless abandon seem infused with baleful intent, waiting patiently for countless eons for these soft Earthlings, waiting to cut them and trip them. The surface between the rocks is red, not the red of a poppy or even an Earth sunset, but an intense red that fills the land with emanations of harm. Despite the extreme thinness of the atmosphere, the strangely close horizon does not immediately and sharply turn to the black of space as on the Moon. The red dust of Mars hangs in the sparse air and softens the horizon just enough to give the appearance of red sand reaching up, an almost living thing.

As if sensing the planet’s personality, Chun speaks up, “We have to get that module back so we’re at full strength.”

“You bet!” responds Dawit excitedly, pumping his fist. He is undaunted by the landscape or the problem of the errant module.

“Sure,” says Aleka, “but first we have to put our habitat together.”

“Sorry,” says Chun as she moves into position.

“We all feel the same. All right, we’ve practiced this plenty of times,” says Aleka.

“Seems like thousands,” responds Dawit with a gesture none of the others can see because he’s inside.

“We don’t have all that long before our suits have to be recharged,” warns Balu.

“Right. Let’s rotate and connect,” says Aleka.

“Good thing that missing module connects at the end,” comments Chun.

“The rovers have done a nice job of clearing the site and putting the modules in place,” says Balu.

“I cannot wait to get a plan for the missing module,” comments Dawit over their intercom. Everything is an exciting adventure for Dawit.

Aleka soothes, “Just keep thinking and working. Let’s finish setting up camp. First things first.”

Balu, ever ready with nifty facts, distracts with a ramble on Mars geography as they work, “They don’t make mountains here like they do on Earth. We don’t have plate tectonics here. The entire Martian crust is one solid piece. Volcanoes formed where the liquid mantle pierced the crust and kept on at the same place, unlike Earth.”

Aleka thinks, “Let him ramble on. It’s his way of thinking.”

Balu continued, as if he had three hundred freshmen in front of him, “Erupting repeatedly at the same spot over tens of thousands of years built up immense volcanic mountains. You know, we have the highest mountain on any planet or moon right here on Mars.” He drones on while the settlers do their work.

“Look around,” Dawit interrupts. “This landscape looks strangely like some near my country. No clouds, no trees, no grass. Just sand and rocks.” He spreads his hands to take in the entire scene even though the gesture is unseen by his crew mates.

“Really?” asks Aleka.

“Yes. In Sudan, the landscape is often barren, dry, and baked.”

“Well, we’ll see no rain here,” says Chun.

“Yes, and no earthquakes either,” adds Balu. “I should say no ‘Mars quakes’ here. The mantle has receded below the reach of essentially all volcanic activity, and no enormous continental plates grind out quakes.”

Geologically, Mars is a nearly dead world that threatens the existence of any life attempting to establish itself here as though wishing the same fate as its own for all visitors. As the chosen first four Martians prepare their quarters for their first night there, they think back to their training days in the Atacama desert.

The Atacama desert has been designated as the driest hot desert in the world. Located in Peru and Chile, it has relatively stable and low temperatures year round. Its rock-strewn vistas remind one of those on Mars, except that the soil is not red; neither is the sky tinted with that red dust that defines everything Martian. Three module mock-ups look very out of place here in this inhospitable location, and the crew and support team seem even more so back during their training days in Peru.

Dawit is sitting in one of these modules as he remotely commands an Earth-adapted rover to help as each module moves to its exact position in this drill designed to mimic their first major Martian operation. Balu and Chun stand on opposite sides of the module being moved applying torque to twist it for perfect alignment as the rover pushes it. Aleka stands beside the rover ready to provide help if needed and watching the other two for safety. Her commands are short and curt, “Clockwise four degrees.” “Stop.” “Counter-clockwise two degrees.” “Stand by.” “Dave, give it more power.” She’s following the display inside her helmet that provides exact alignment criteria in all three dimensions. “Cut power. We have alignment.”

“I’m glad that we only have to do this for three modules,” says Chun.

“Stop complaining,” responds Aleka, “we have to do them all on Mars, and it will be harder there.”

Balu interjects, “We get more than enough practice here. The rest will be like these.”

Frank, their trainer for this exercise, stops this discussion, saying, “Good job. Time for a water break.”

The trainees bleed off the excess air pressure inside of their Mars suits, and the suits collapse to fit them. This pressure of 1.16 bars, 16% higher than on Earth, emulates the pressure differential they’d have on Mars. They walk over to the water truck sitting nearby along with an electronics van that monitors everything and provides power for the settler team and their trainers. The water truck’s cylindrical container contrasts with the electronics boxy appearance. Mars won’t have any water trucks.

Dawit says, “I hope that we can find more water on Mars than in this forsaken desert. Man, it is dry.”

Frank answers, “It’s frozen underground, but unmanned missions have found plenty where you’ll be landing.”

“Great,” replies Aleka, “we’ll just have to dig it up, carry it to our modules, and melt it.”

“Well, you can’t just melt it because it’s heavily contaminated with toxic chemicals. You have to distill it,” Frank tells the group. “Fortunately, the low pressure makes distillation much easier. You only have to heat pure water to around 7 degrees Celsius to boil it on Mars. The contaminants raise the boiling point a bit, but it will still be easy to boil. These same chemicals lower the freezing point to as low as 63 degrees Celsius below zero.”

“Wow, that’s cold!” Aleka shakes her head inside the pressure suit.

“And still the water’s frozen,” says Frank.

Balu jumps in again, “Water boils at just above freezing? That’s amazing.”

“It’s almost a vacuum there,” Frank answers.

Chun grumbles, “Can’t we drop the pressure in these suits a bit. It’s da—, darn annoying.” She is struggling to replace certain words, as instructed, to tone down the monitored conversations broadcast around the world.

Frank just shakes his head, but Balu interjects, “The Martian atmosphere has nearly zero pressure, 0.01 bars, and the suits on Mars will be pressurized with 0.16 bars of pure oxygen. The insulation and the air pressure make them bulge a bit.”

Dawit, relaxed in a module mock-up, reminds them, “Our new suits with stretch-pressurization will help. Only the helmet will have to be fully pressurized so we can breathe.”

Aleka says, “I wish we could just pressurize the Martian atmosphere.” She is as laconic as Balu is voluble.

Even though they’ve already been told the facts, Balu explains, “Mars has just one percent of our pressure, and its air is 95% carbon dioxide.” He expects the others to know what that means.

Chun comes back at him with logic, “So what? There’s carbon dioxide aplenty here. Plants make lots of it.”

“Yes, but not 95%. We only have around 400 parts per million or …”

“I know, 0.004 percent.” Dawit’s math is lightning fast as he adds this remark to the discussion.

Balu continues, “Ten thousand parts per million will make us act drunk. Ten times that will kill us a sure as cyanide. Plus, there’s enough carbon monoxide in the Mars air to kill us quite efficiently even if the carbon dioxide were not deadly already.”

The Atacama training site is less than a kilometer from the dirt access road. Signs of life are few and far between. The Sun overhead heats them despite the cold air. It will be considerably smaller on Mars. The trainees carefully step to avoid tripping over or stepping on those sharp-edged black rocks as they work their way back to the van.

Chun complains, “Couldn’t you have found a training locale with fewer rocks?”

She’s just venting, but Frank explains, “We expect the surface where you’ll land to be much like this one. Your rover has treads to roll over rocks. You have to step. You wouldn’t want to cut your suit on one, would you Chun?”

It’s no fun complaining to Frank. He’s just too businesslike.

The rover manages better because it was engineered with caterpillar treads that readily climb over these minor obstacles. Dawit, having left his module mock-up, chuckles quietly as he hears Aleka cursing a particularly annoying rock on her way back to the van.

Aleka was born of Hawaiian parents in Hawaii and was an army brat who went against her father’s wishes and joined up. Even worse, she disrespected her father by choosing the air force over the army. He got over it as she excelled in flight school and ended up first in her squad. Her mother, having died during her early childhood, was just a dim memory. With no siblings, her family was the Force and her father. Now that her father had died in Fallujah, she had only her air force buddies, but she was a female in a still mostly male organization. The Mars settlement operation was as a siren call when she read about it. Already comfortable with few friends, she saw an opportunity to put her family’s name in the history books and to put all of her training to good use. It was irresistible.

So, she converted readily from defense to exploring. And what exploring! The hostiles firing bullets and rockets at her plane were nothing compared to Mars. She would confront the god of war directly, face-to-face and in the flesh. After a few weeks of research, she determined that the likelihood of death was not much worse than many battles and the potential for making a difference much greater. Her physical and leadership training would be valuable, she mused.

And that’s exactly how it turned out. She was at or near the top among all applicants in many categories. And it was so much fun! Not the fun that most people think of, rather the fun of overcoming challenge after challenge, of learning more than she had believed her mind capable of absorbing. She ended each day, no matter how sore or exhausted, knowing that she was the luckiest person in the world. Well, there was one little annoyance that she kept reminding herself was the cost of entry: no meat. Not only no meat, but no cheese or eggs. Her last Hawaiian-style meal was well in the past. She was surprised to find that her current diet left her with more stamina and a clearer mind than she could ever remember having. Maybe vegetarians weren’t all wimps after all.

Aleka has a muscular and trim body due to her military training and her almost fanatical devotion to excellence. You probably would not call her face beautiful with its almost masculine lines, but her mahogany skin is unlined and the envy of a great many of those who see it. Her deep brown eyes have an almost supernatural clarity and seem to see everything around here. She has little interest in gossip or small talk and prefers to speak simply and without extra words. For this reason, few see her deeply intelligent mind.

On Mars, the settlers are repeating that earlier Atacama exercise, now for real. Errors will result not in scoldings but possibly in death for all of them.

“You were right, Allie,” says Chun.

“Wha?” responds Aleka.

“You know, about it being harder on Mars than in that awful desert.”

“Yeah, wish I weren’t.”

“Good thing we did those extra hours of practice,” adds Dawit while he operates Gazprom from inside of the crew module. He’d already moved Sinopec to a great vantage point for sending video of the whole thing back to Earth. It would have been moving the other module, but that wasn’t possible now.

Back on Earth, mission control puzzles over the best way to retrieve the errant module. The earlier, unmanned landings had gone so well that they hadn’t really developed contingency plans. Had they not gone well, the first manned landing would have been postponed for two years while more modules were delivered for backup. Across the world, people are submitting their suggestions on the relevant social media and discussing, sometimes heatedly, the pros and cons of the various suggestions. Many science classrooms were engaged in similar discussions.

While the project engineers are considering how to rig things or how to upload new software to the Sinopec rover, the settlers are having their own debate.

“Now, just calm down.” Aleka is trying to produce order from chaos. Ideas are sprouting like weeds and with as little value. “Let’s hear one thought from each person one at a time. Bob, you first.”

Dawit mumbles, “By the time he finished, it’ll be dark.” Balu doesn’t hear or pretends not to.

Balu gathers his thoughts. What is his best single idea? “We cannot walk with the rover all of the way, but we can run out and check on it regularly,” he remarks thoughtfully.

“That’s a great thought,” says Aleka carefully. Meanwhile the Earth engineers are giving up on their idea of reprogramming the rover so that it could make the long trip without visible contact with the errant module. They just don’t have the necessary hardware on board the rover. Making the rover autonomous over ranges of more than a few hundred meters was never in their plans. The second-generation rovers that might begin arriving with the next shuttle and definitely with later ones will have much greater range and speed. Time constraints had prevented building the first rovers with those capabilities. They already had plenty of design parameters to meet as it was.

“Chunnie, you’re up next,” says Aleka as she digests the implications of Balu’s idea.

Chun has been thinking about how to get the rover and module back from the module’s five-kilometer distant location. The ground is uneven and littered with rocks of all sizes. The low-power rover was designed to move the modules a few dozen meters, not kilometers. It will be unable to push or pull the metric-ton module over any sizable rock. Having no immediate answer, she simply voices her concerns, “The return trip will be very slow but will stop if it runs into even a sizable stone. How can we steer around the larger rocks? What’s the largest size it can go over without being stopped?”

“We’ll ask Earth,” Aleka replies. “We must have information before inventing solutions.”

Back on Earth, this conversation is being monitored by mission control and, after editing, being sent out with the video feed for all of the Earth’s population to follow. Viewership had spiked at the time of the landing but dropped off after that. This new development, with the lives of the settlers in jeopardy, had now raised the show ratings again. Coffee breaks hummed with wild ideas about how to fix the problem. Everyone was suddenly a Mars expert — in their own “humble” opinions.

While awaiting the long round-trip transmission delay, Aleka continued with her round-robin discussion. “Dave, what are you thinking?” she queries. Dawit had been thinking and thinking quite a bit. He is not only the communications specialist but all the all-around fix-it person for the mission. He always had claimed to be “the master of no trades,” but the training program had fixed that permanently.

“Steering around rocks will be nearly impossible,” he responds. “The rover-module combo will have a gigantic steering radius. We can readily plot a course to avoid really large landscape features, but mere large rocks are too frequent for that strategy to work. If we had a person with the rover, I could be talking to them and remotely steer the rover around minor obstacles.”

“Now, we’re getting somewhere,” says Aleka excitedly, although she is not so sure herself.

The first three modules were now in place, two connected to one central module at that 120-degree angle decided upon so long ago, one corner of a hexagon. The settlers talk as they work smoothly, the result of many years of careful and thorough training. They move on to the remaining one. They all are eager to complete the hook up and enter their new home. Just a couple more hours and they can rest briefly before beginning interior deployment.

Years earlier, José Alvarado, the force behind the Mars program, had been sitting with the habitat design team and going over plans. He truly enjoyed the give and take of engineering design sessions.

“Let’s get the big parts done first,” he was saying as the discussion once again veered into interior design details. “Size, materials, and connections. How will we link them up?”

Cesario, one of the project engineers, spoke up first. “How about in a straight line. That would be easy to do.”

Johann, a project coordinator, responded, “That would require lots of crawling between modules to get from one end to the other, very awkward.”

Cesario thought for just a moment and said, “How about three equally spaced connections like the Mercedes star?”

Johann: “Six connections would provide maximum flexibility.”

José interrupted, “No. The connections cost more, add weight, and increase the probability of failure. We have to have the minimum consistent with necessary ability to move between them. Two is a problem. Can we do it with three? Remember that we’d like to have at least two airlocks.”

Cesario quickly responded, “Three allows a circle of six units making the maximum trip from one module to another through just three connections. Most trips would require only one or two. The habitat complex could grow to look like aromatic compounds with the inflatables looking like side chains and room for the airlocks as well.” His allusion went right over the heads of those without organic chemistry training.

José asked, “Johann. Can that work?”

Johann was sketching furiously, lots of hexagons looking a bit like chicken wire. “I think so. I’d like to sketch out the configurations as the complex grows so that we don’t forget anything.”

“All right. Let’s move on to the connectors. We have to make them robust and large enough to go through quickly in case of emergency.”

Now, it was Alfredo, another project engineer, who spoke. “The light gravity makes crawling less of a problem. For pressurization reasons and ease of fabrication, they should be circular tubes about a meter in diameter.”

José said, “Has anyone tried crawling through a one-meter wide tunnel of the expected length? What will you put on the bottom of these tunnel connectors to prevent wearing them out? How much space is left when you have added that feature? Can you connect the cylindrical connectors to the round modules efficiently? How closely can we arrange the units? Closer means less lift mass expended on connectors.” He didn’t know everything but really knew how to ask questions.

It looked as though Alan Bond’s reaction engine technology would be ready for them to use and so reduce lift-off costs substantially. By using oxygen from the air instead of onboard liquid oxygen tanks until reaching high altitude, the rocket’s mass would be considerably less on the ground making it possible to lift much more payload mass into orbit at the same cost. Unfortunately, the new magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD) space engines would not be ready in time. Maybe for the second trip two years later.

The group continued discussing the crucial design parameters of homes on Mars. Among these were the materials being used that would have to withstand the pure oxygen atmosphere with high humidity inside the modules and the powerful radiation outside of them.

In the present, on Mars, the four settlers continue their work. As they move the last module into place, Aleka keeps thinking about what the others had said. In any event, the four modules are now strung out into a bent line, two in the middle and one attached to each of those as though reaching out and trying to touch each other.

“Let’s get inside and out of these suits,” commands Aleka. “We all have our tasks for getting the inside ready.”

“Can’t wait, our cozy little Martian home,” comments Chun.

“Don’t be so glib,” says Dawit. “We absolutely must retrieve the missing module. Allie, we should figure it out right away.”

“No. I understand your concern. We must secure what we have first. Everyone. Think about ways to get that module back while we work.”

Still no word from Earth. This is going to be their problem and theirs alone. They all began to realize that their lives depended on their own wits.

– end of chapter 2 –

© 2014 by Harry E. Keller, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266

3 Responses

  1. nice, love your story Harry, I can’t wait to see the next installment. I like how you capture the fact that a seemingly simple error, like pod placement of 5 km, can mean life or death for a venture such as this. I am interested to see where your author takes the story. :)

  2. Dan, thank you very much.

    I am thoroughly reworking the entire book and hope to finish in a couple of weeks. It’s now at 57,000 words, 248 pages, and 24 chapters plus prologue and epilogue.

    The first chapter will be considerably revised to increase interest. It also will become chapter 2 because a new chapter 1 will briefly explain the origins of the three major rocky planets in a manner that will set the stage for the entire story.

    I am taking three days from work to go to a cabin in the mountains to work intensively on this book. I am finally feeling it in my bones as it were.

  3. The book is published now. For 99 cents, you can see exactly what happened and even what came before. A prologue and an inserted chapter one add to the interest.

    Martian Rhapsody is about to come out in paperback too.

    The website is at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: