Life on Mars

By the end of the twenty-first century, humanity had reached a plateau for scientific exploration of the solar system. The various bodies in the system had been catalogued and their characteristics and histories established. Few still promoted the bright dreams of artificial intelligence; further exploration by humans had become prohibitively expensive. Scientists were content with a small set of carefully structured projects investigating more and more arcane aspects of the solar system.

Environmental problems on Earth created by power generation and resource extraction had led to strict regulation of both activities by the end of the century. Many predicted this would lead to severe reductions in global lifestyle. In reality, a second industrial revolution blossomed. Both entrepreneurs and nations invested in power generation, resource extraction centers, and factories in space. Space-capable private companies pioneered moving Earth orbit crossing asteroids into the L4 and L5 Lagrangian points of the Earth-Moon system. The successful companies mined ore, separated and refined it, and packaged it for transfer to factories in the L4 and L5 points, which transformed them into products for sale on Earth. Space-based industries created many jobs planetside as well as in orbit. Climate change slowed.

The plethora of early companies in space condensed into a few that continued to eke out modest profits. Political considerations forced them to become a handful of regulated monopolies, controlled by the seven nations with the greatest participation. Competition between these monopolies almost led to war. In 2074, seven space-faring nations signed a treaty to limit the effects of conflict in space. The seven sisters, as they were known, joined with the non-participating countries to form the United Nations of Sol, a new international organization to manage conflict between the existing monopolies . The seven sisters had substantial influence on UNS policy, but the demographics of Earth gave the other 197 UNS members enough influence that the monopolies benefited all of humanity, if not entirely equally.

As had happened on the planet, humans reached limits to resources in space, which had seemed virtually boundless, rather quickly. The first resource was space itself. Congestion in the Lagrangian points near Earth forced the UNS to establish mechanisms for managing slots in that valuable space. The Sun-Earth L1 point became home to a cluster of solar power stations that beamed power back to geostationary satellites orbiting Earth; the satellites in turn beamed excess power down to the surface. Asteroid mines, refineries, and factories occupied the Earth-Moon L4 and L5 points. UNS ownership of commercial nodes in the clusters allowed citizens to share directly in the profits of the monopolies.

Within each cluster, factories containerized finished products made from asteroid resources and packed  the containers into uncrewed orbital freighters. Logistics managers flew the filled freighter to Earth on hypersonic trajectories that terminated in linear decelerators at oceanic freight terminals; the freighters’ kinetic energy created electricity as it slowed to a stop . Shippers loaded containers onto ocean-going freighters that crisscrossed the world, supplying the global economy and returned the empties to orbit. The island terminals for this trade helped their countries, once poor, prosper.

Once this network of industrial systems was functional, the economic sustainability managers of the UN confronted the problem of resource scarcity.  Resource companies quickly exhausted the supply of suitable Earth crossing asteroids, never large in numbers. UNS planners looked to the Asteroid Belt to supply a virtually infinite amount of resources. The UNS found it far too expensive to transfer the industrial complex to the Belt; the Belt was too diffuse to allow centralization efficiencies. It was, however, possible to deploy hordes of asteroid prospectors to the Belt to find asteroids suitable for mining and redirect them to Earth orbit, where they could be captured and mined.

Ironically, the disarmament treaty of 2078 made this asteroid rush possible. The treaty had empowered an agency of the original United Nations to collect nuclear weapons from the seventeen nuclear powers across the globe. The warheads were stripped from the launch systems and transferred to an orbital storage at the Earth-Moon L3 Lagrange point. As long as these warheads remained intact, they represented a potential threat to the peace of Earth, even with UN safeguards in place.

By 2090 resource shortages from asteroid mining were being taken seriously. The Plowshares Treaty of 2098 established a mechanism for converting some of the existing nuclear warheads to engines for orbital transfer of asteroids from the Belt to Earth orbit.  Warheads whose design was suitable were converted from detonation to slower burn reactions. These converted warheads, referred to as deorbiting drivers, could be inserted into a cylindrical tunnel bored into an asteroid and aligned with its orbital velocity. When  detonated they created a plasma which ejected material from the tunnel. This imparted delta-V to an asteroid, transferring it to an elliptical orbit with a perihelion just outside the orbit of Earth. When the asteroid arrived at perihelion, it could be captured and injected into one of the L4/L5 clusters for mining.

Within a decade, a group of pioneering prospectors based on the larger asteroids of the Belt were routinely using deorbiting nuclear charges to find and send to Earth asteroids to be mined for metals. The regulated monopolies tried to incorporate prospectors into their monopolies to establish vertically integrated resource companies. This was outflanked by individual prospectors, who came to the Belt and established an alternate business model. Independent prospectors would deorbit an asteroid and sell mineral exploitation rights to one of the mining and extraction companies based in L4/5. This significantly reduced the cost of administering companies that spanned the inner solar system, and employed a far-flung network of prospectors and a fleet of ships.

Problems soon surfaced in the business model. The distance from the Belt to Earth was simply too great to support a population that needed periodic visits to high gravity environments. Even the low gee environments of Ceres, Vesta or any of the large asteroids could not provide this refuge. The solution was Mars.

The United States of America, in the throes of a midlife crisis of democracy, had found common purpose for its citizens in a flagship effort to establish a human presence on Mars. The first human explorers arrived on Mars in 2039. The tragic death of the first team on the surface of the red planet inspired not retrenchment but reinvestment. A second, larger team arrived in 2044 and built a permanent station of the eastern edge of the Tharsis uplift, adjacent to the Valles Marineris. The remains of the first crew were given heroic burials in a monument that was to become a touchstone for all future inhabitants of Mars. A third crew replaced the second, expanded the base and began the process of creating resource extraction mechanisms that would support a permanent presence on Mars. Water mines on the floor of Coprates Chasma in Valles Marineris provided the most critical resource. Agricultural greenhouses in the valley relied on water from artesian wells drilled deep beneath its floor into ancient aquifers.

Construction of dwellings on Mars copied the pioneers of the American Great Plains, partially burying most buildings in the soil of Mars to minimize heat loss. As the settlement grew, UNS management built dwellings and offices into the walls of Valles Marineris south of Coprates Chasma. The combination of the cliff dwellings above the valley and the designated landing site for Mars bound vessels south of the valley’s edge was designated Tharsis City. The water mines in Coprates and Eos Chasmas and the farms of Aurorae Chaos were referred to as Chasm Town.

For decades  the settlement remained small and heavily dependent on resupply of critical needs from Earth. Growth was small but consistent. By 2074, when the UN was replaced by the UNS, a small community of administrators from Earth and a larger community of water miners and their descendants clung to survival.

The newly founded UNS made Mars a flagship project for the entire globe. An infusion of capital led to modest growth for two decades. The interest of the member nations of the UNS waned over time and there was constant pressure to reduce funding for what was seen as an unnecessary and even frivolous project with no long-term benefit to the mother planet. Native Martians felt ties to the planet of their birth but were unable to provide a convincing rationale for Earth to continue its support.

The one value of Mars from Earth’s perspective was as a way station to asteroid prospectors in the Belt. Mars provided a refuge for prospectors and managers in the Belt to mitigate the medical effects of low gee living. It also provided a way station for staging resources needed in the Belt to provide Earth with critical metals.

The explosion of asteroid mining in the 2130’s led to higher traffic via Mars. An Earth-based resource corporation established an asteroid mining and smelting facility in orbit over Mars to provide local resources for building ships, habitats and other necessities of life in the Belt. Competition from Earth’s L4/5 resource extraction entities and limited demand on Mars for refined metals led to the demise of the corporation but not before its products had built a much more extensive community on the surface of Mars and permanent habitats on Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, and Hygeia in the Belt.

As membership in traditional religions plateaued far below the levels of the twentieth century a new, secular faith arose on Earth. The Terra Refugia movement gained millions of adherents as the result of proselytizing by a cadre of charismatic believers. Terra Refugia was tolerant of virtually all idiosyncrasies of its members, the sole tenet of its faith being that humanity must have a second inhabitable planet in the solar system to avert potential extinction. Terraforming plans and strategies from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries were dusted off and rethought, redesigned, repurposed. Terra Refugia was never politically powerful, although it did establish parties in some of the educationally advanced nations which had some modest electoral success. It was rapidly headed toward a permanent existence as a refuge for a very small number of truly committed.

What changed the fate of Terra Refugia was its recruitment of Rachel Lowenstein, Earth’s first trillionaire. Rachel was the owner and CEO of Lion Entertainment, the first truly successful virtual reality studio.  The success of Lion was based primarily on catering to a target audience of successful women. These women demanded and paid for a series of total immersion virtual reality stories focusing on intimate, sensitive portraits of women who had pioneered equal rights in the centuries straddling the end of the second millennium. The surprise success of Lion VR titles among men assured her fortune.

Rachel joined Terra Refugia after marrying Richard Swan, one of her most charismatic actors. She and Richard became guiding lights of Terra Refugia and provided it with billions in funding. This funding was cannily spent largely on marketing and political action rather than financing Martian construction. These two prongs of her campaign resulted in an extremely high popularity of the cause of terraforming Mars. Not only did Terra Refugia succeed in convincing the UNS to finance expansion of the settlement on Mars, her glamour drew thousands of potential pioneers to emigrate to Mars and work on terraforming. Tharsis City and Chasm Town grew larger and more complex.

The explosion of asteroid prospecting coincided with the spike in popularity of Martian terraforming, resulting in establishment of close to a self-sustaining community of humanity on Mars. Because of the gravity well of Mars and the limited ability of the atmosphere to provide aerobraking of arriving spacecraft, Mars did not establish a two-way trade relationship with Earth. This meant that the foothold humans had established on Mars continued to be tenuous.

The first Martian rebellion resulted from friction between UNS security forces and the population of Chasm Town. The residents of Chasm Town in 2140 were highly educated and skilled terraformers but the limited economy on the surface meant that their living conditions were Spartan. UNS administrators, who primarily lived in Tharsis City, were paid by Earth taxes and had substantially more affluent lifestyles. As children were born and grew up on Mars they found it difficult to obtain the education, training and experience needed for most employment. A youth subculture not invested in the ideals of their immigrant parents created tension in Chasm Town. When this tension erupted into disruptive activities, the UNS police reacted harshly. Parents were divided between support of their children and sustaining their idealistic orientations.

The rebellion was headed by a few political activists who led an army of dissatisfied adolescents. Some of the activists were political radicals from Earth who had been quietly shipped to Mars to eliminate their political influence. They brought with them attitudes of earlier generations of anarchists and skill in bomb-making. Assassinating a senior UNS administrator and disabling the elevator connecting Tharsis City with Chasm Town gave the rebels temporary control of the valley and its resources until UNS Marine forces landed on Thaumasia Planum. Many of the rebel leaders died or were captured in the ensuing pitched battle. The remainder retreated to the distant farms of Aurorae Chaos and isolated communities beyond the reach of Chasm Town, living in individual habitats.

The truce that ended the rebellion did not resolve the problems that had led to it and left many of the rebels unidentified and living on the margins of the Martian settlement. All agreed it was a problem that would resurface.