In “A Pail of Air”, science-fiction writer Fritz Leiber imagines an ill-fated Earth, torn from the warmth of the Sun by a passing dark star. Without heat, the atmosphere freezes, precipitating into layers of terrestrial snow and leaving an inhospitable, vacuum-like landscape. One lonely family manages to survive this cataclysm by constructing a makeshift, leaky shelter. Here, life is sustained by scooping up pails of frozen oxygen from outside, which are placed by a central fire to thaw and replenish the space with breathable air. Indeed, air is one of the most immediate and vital resource needed for life functions, and much like the cold world described by Leiber, Mars has little of it. It’s an environment of extremes, with a dusty wisp of atmosphere, meeting frozen vistas where vital resources are locked beneath crimson regolith. To sustain life on Mars, yet alone entertain the dream of permanent habitation, we must first establish mediums within which all this may reside… pockets of air.
Pockets of Air is a proposition, not simply for a colony, but for a construction methodology that may help realize it. Automation is vital in the early stages of any such effort, due to the extreme environments that would, by necessity, prioritize sustaining human life over the broader objective of establishing a foothold. Similarly, the cost of importing material from Earth is prohibitive, justifying the need for building methods that utilize local resources. Embracing these restraints, autonomous agents are deployed to establish an orbital and surface infrastructure, with the capacity to operatively manipulate the Martian environment. These agents consist of an orbital “Solar-Array,” a ground-based “Seed-Module,” and a family of “Drones.” Because of limited solar radiation hitting any given point on the Martian surface, juxtaposed by the high energy requirements for certain manufacturing processes, the Solar-Array acts to subsidies required inputs. It captures additional sunlight directly, which it converts and transmits via lasers to the ground-based Seed-Module. The Seed-Module utilizes some of this energy for material processing, while redirecting surplus to peripheral drones. In concert, powered by the Solar-Array, the Seed-Module and Drones construct two-dimensional composite mesh membranes across prepared regolith surfaces. Upon completion, the Solar-Array refocuses its apertures, converting sunlight into microwave radiation that penetrates the regolith beneath these membranes. Just as the bucket of frozen air was thawed by a fire in Leiber’s fictional world, the heating of the subsurface-regolith causes off-gassing of volatiles, inflating the membranes to create pressurized, dome-like structure. Within the newly erected, enclosed environment, Drones engage in adaptive and subtractive manufacturing techniques, parametrically 3D printing structures and excavate the regolith.
By pairing historical architecture typologies with automation and emerging fabrication methods, a unique Martian Vernacular begins to emerge. With each new structure taking shape, a surficial-cellular-agglomeration of irregular, interconnected domes, housing a diversity of biospheres, begins to populate the landscape. These pockets of air create the spaces needed to establish a foothold, a medium in which everything else can happen.