Roanoke Remembered

Mars waits empty.


The US Senate has twice decided to make a mighty empire out of the first, and sometimes faltering, modern experiment in Democracy. Both occasions were marked with treaties. The first came with the ratification of a treaty to end the Spanish-American War, which stretched America to the far ends of its bordering oceans with the inclusion of several Pacific and Caribbean island archipelagos. The second came more than a century later, with the refusal to ratify a United Nations treaty to establish a permanent colony on Mars representing all of Earth’s nations.


At both occasions, Senators spoke out against the evils of empire, the impossibility of governing a place so far away (for the Philippines seemed about as far as Mars in 1898), and the dangers of stretching Uncle Sam too thin, lest he go the way of Romulus and Remus. And at both occasions the perhaps less reasonable but more impassioned cries of American exceptionalism and a growing vision of Manifest Destiny won out.

The emotions of men are better influenced by rhetoric than reason.

When the McKinley administration submitted its peace treaty to the Senate for advice and consent, the debate quickly centered on Spain’s cession of the Philippines and other archipelagos to America. Many Senators voiced concern over the legitimacy of ‘liberating’ the islands from Spanish tyranny only to put them quickly under America’s equal control. Some were satisfied with a shift in nomenclature: The Philippines would be an American ‘territory’ or ‘protectorate,’ but never a ‘colony,’ as if a linguistic change were equal to a better moral position. Others held firm as anti-imperialists, saying that to govern a foreign country against its consent was a “despicable violation” of the Declaration of Independence.


Senator George Hoar from Massachusetts was concerned for the safety of American administrators. “We can spill no more American blood on the islands,” he said. But all of the rebellions had been crushed, it seemed, and who would govern if not the American liberators? As one Senator said, “Savages left to themselves do not know liberty.”

Speaking for the first time in the Senate chamber, thirty-seven year old Albert Breckenridge of Indiana earned fame with a single speech. “The Philippines are ours forever,” Breckenridge said. “The flag has never paused in its onward march. Who dares halt it now – now, when history’s largest events are carrying it forward? And just beyond the Philippines are China’s illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either, or from the mission of our race as trustees under God. He has made us adept in government that we administer government among savages.”


It was settled with a close vote. Fifty-six were needed, two-thirds of eighty-four voting that day, and fifty-seven members of the senate chose to make America something new that day.




Under the nationalist jingoist exceptionalist rhetoric, a dark and pressing economic reality lurked in the subtext. Amidst the turmoil of the 1890s and the recent depression, increasing numbers of Americans demonstrated frustration with the growing economic inequality. Jacob Coxey and his army marched on Washington, and Eugene Debs and his Pullman strikers assembled and rallied against Teddy Roosevelt’s “malefactors of great wealth” – the robber barons and the exceedingly wealthy.


The Framers had designed the Senate as a protection against the people’s power for situations like these. Congress’s lower house was to be elected not by the people, but by the states, which was meant to anchor the government against popular fluctuations, the turbulences and follies of democracy. The Framers feared the people for another reason – the designers of government were rich and educated, and possessed property, and they knew that most people were not rich, nor educated, nor property-owners. James Madison wrote that, “Those who labor under all the hardships of life will secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings,” and he feared that group might soon greatly outnumber those people they might envy, the wealthy. More than half a century before Marx, Madison and the Founders created the Senate as a safeguard against a popular socialist uprising.

And at the close of the Spanish-American war, the Senate voted to protect property rights through an unusual method: The opening of a new frontier with the creation of an American empire.

The frontier, with its promise of free land, acts as a pressure release valve to stave away revolution and preserve class inequality. What does it matter if other people are rich, so long as you can find a plot of land and call it your own? Your tiny kingdom, where you reign supreme? And maybe even a starting point for greater things, a place to lay the cornerstone to your own empire of amassed riches and awesome power? Why, yes – other people are rich, but with your plot of land and a plan, you could very soon become one of them. And if not you, then your sons and daughters would surely take their rightful place among the richest of the rich. Your name would be great yet – this is the promise of the dream of America’s frontier.


Without the economic energy and pure freedom spirit of the frontier, America’s political and social institutions would stagnate and face increasing internal pressure to become something perhaps unrecognizable, un-American. America must expand or die. Everyone in the large room with the semi-circle of desks facing a dais, everyone seated at those intricately carved desks or observing from the theater seats in the gallery above, could sense it. They could sense it with the Philippines, and they could sense it again with Mars.

The perceptive Senators could see the logical end to latest trends – automation would lead to mass unemployment and a growing inequality. It wouldn’t happen then, and it might not even happen for the next several years. But only a fool believed that it would never happen. So the Senators, believing automation would again threaten those same property rights that the Framers intended the Senate to conserve, chose to act. When a UN treaty was presented before them, they knew it was time for a new frontier.

But they saw a problem with the UN treaty – to be a true frontier, the space would have to be uniquely American. The treaty carefully toed the line of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty forbidding sovereignty claims on any celestial body, and it instead structured the colony as a unified planetwide project. Each of the signing countries would support the terraforming effort, and eventually each would send a small number of colonists to a cooperative group on the red planet turned green.


Only one Senator said the word ‘frontier,’ and not a single one articulated exactly the current economic situation and trends that necessitated a release valve. But a growing number of Senators turned reservationists for one reason or another. Senator John Hill from Iowa voiced concerns about the treaty article that would bind the US to drastic action if any colonist, from any country, was in danger or if the colony needed supplies. “I’d be comfortable spending billions to spare American blood,” he said, “but no other.”

Senator Henley Gibson from Tennessee warned the body about the unequal expenditure of resources to terraform the planet and establish the colony. “The biologic and engineering tech – it’s ours. The rocketry? Ours. They expect us to go to Mars and to bring them with us on our backs.”


Some Senators, like Carl Schurz from Washington, understood the importance of going to Mars and defended the UN proposal as the best possible solution. “We should go to Mars, but we can’t go unilaterally,” he said. “It’s against international law to claim property rights on another planet. And besides – the project of terraforming is too big for us to do alone.”


Senator Jean Carlisle from Ohio took this a step further and pushed for a full-on breach of the treaty. “We must go! Just beyond the red planet are asteroids with illimitable deposits, deposits of nickel, cobalt, and gold. We planted a flag on the moon, but it was a symbolic flag. Let’s plant a real flag on Mars! The treaty will go at some point, why not now? Why let it stop us now, at this crucial moment in history? Let’s plant a flag!”


The debate raged on like this for weeks, with the Senate gallery packed full of spectators watching the greatest debates since the League of Nations was defeated. There appeared to be no end in sight. The Senate seemed in countenance and deportment like a single mind equivocating between two mutually exclusive, yet equally valid, options.


Then Abbott Caro Lodge, a thin and normally quiet Senator from Massachusetts, rose to the dais with a giant stack of papers to present his great compromise. All signing countries would cooperate in the terraforming effort and all participant countries would be given a plot of land, a colony site, proportional to their effort. In other words, countries would not be forbidden from engaging in cooperative colonies, an attractive proposition to small nations lacking resources, but neither would they be compelled to cooperate, attractive to big countries like America. The Lodge Amendment would, of course, scrap the old space treaty and allow claims of sovereignty on celestial bodies. At first, only the land plot on Mars would be permitted, but any perceptive analyst could see that this was a huge blow to the treaty’s long-term integrity, from which it might not recover.


The Lodge Amendment quickly passed, and the revised treaty was ratified and sent back to the UN. The American Delegate to the UN, Daniel Gilman, made fast work of demonstrating to the body America’s commitment to the Amendment and the necessity for US involvement. The UN debate centered around the 1967 treaty. Among others, England, Israel, and Russia all made impassioned speeches supporting the American position. The substance of their speeches was the same: When the 1967 treaty was written, the space age was in its infancy (neither small steps nor giant leaps yet taken), and the prospect of a permanent planetary outpost was nowhere near realistic. The treaty then was little more than abstract idealism combined with Cold War paranoia. Now, with a real, specific, and concrete proposal before them, the UN delegates had to realize that things were different. And the treaty had to evolve with the times. With only minor aesthetic revisions, the UN treaty passed, Lodge Amendment intact, and humanity was officially headed skyward like never before.


Within the next year, Congress passed a detailed plan for America’s involvement terraforming the red dot Romulus worshipped as his God of War. The international strategy was a two-stage, four-pronged plan: The first stage’s goal was to raise the planet’s temperature and pressure to make it a habitable, if still uninviting, world. The second stage’s goal was to oxygenate the planet and make it breathable. The first stage included three of the four prongs: Bacteria, giant mirrors, and the Martian soil. The second stage included the final prong, which involved waterproof robots working tirelessly to free oxygen from the now-liquid pools of water.



First, giant mirrors would be stationed at an intentional distance and angle from the planet’s poles, in order to free the solid carbon dioxide and water as gas. The Congressional plan called for America to provide 15% of the funds for the mirrors and to offer three military engineering facilities to the international coalition for construction. After placing the mirrors, the positive feedback generated by the Martian carbon dioxide greenhouse system would greatly reduce the amount of engineering effort that would otherwise be required.


Next, tens of thousands of pounds of ammonia and methane-producing cyanobacteria would be dropped at calculated points across Mars to cover the planet’s surface. The US’s commitment to this part of the project was 15% of the budget. The bacteria would warm the planet and thicken the atmosphere. Nitrogen and oxygen levels, however, would remain low, and the planet would remain relatively dry until the hydrosphere was activated. Activating the hydrosphere would make the atmosphere breathable for primitive plants, and the temperature would increase further. The orbiting mirrors would, after a time, activate the hydrosphere.


The UN plan then called for all signatory countries to turn their attention to the regolith, the Martian soil, in order to free trapped carbon. Digging up the alien soil released trapped carbon dioxide and fed into the greenhouse system. In a matter of several decades, with the combination of these three approaches, Mars would be transformed from its current dry and frozen state into a relatively warm and slightly moist planet capable of supporting life. But humans would be unable to breathe without the assistance of scuba-like equipment.

The final step, to make the planet breathable for humans, was to drop tens of thousands of tiny, waterproof robots into the new Martian lakes and oceans. The robots would extract oxygen and hydrogen through electrolysis, releasing the oxygen into the atmosphere and capturing the hydrogen to use as fuel. An orbiting satellite would take careful measurements of the oxygen levels and flip a kill switch to deactivate all the robots after levels above 130 millibars had been recorded consistently for multiple weeks. Too much oxygen, just like too little, can be dangerous. The US commitment for this part of the plan was 18% of the budget and access to advanced robotics labs and experts at NASA facilities and US universities.


When reviewing part of the plan to decide what America’s commitment should be, someone on the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Aeronautics, and Related Sciences noticed two options for participant countries to contribute in the effort to dig up Martian soil. Option 1: They could cooperate in digging giant holes, and leave massive piles of soil wasted, unused. Or, option 2: Their estimated contribution could be calculated using only their involvement with the mirrors, bacteria, and electrolysis robots, and they could dig holes on their future colony site while making use of the soil for construction. The regolith released just as much carbon dioxide per hole if the soil were put to use compared to if it sat in a pointless pile. Liana Drexner, a thirty-four year old junior Senator from Pennsylvania advocated for option 2, saying that although they might receive less total land, the advantage of early construction could not be understated. After review, the subcommittee joined only four other countries in choosing option 2. Senator Drexner suggested the reason option 2 wasn’t more popular was because of the complicated logistics involved in organizing a large-scale unmanned construction project, or else all other countries strongly believed in their ability to dig pointless holes and opted for a potential land grab because of their greater contribution. The cooperative work done, the subcommittee began to plan America’s singular destiny. The general idea was to find a 3-D printing company that was capable of building a city on another world. Chairman Robert Zubrin of Colorado tasked subcommittee members with soliciting design bids from home state firms.

One reason Senator Drexner advocated for option 2 was because she was familiar with 3-D printing’s progress – her brother Luke was on the board of a Philadelphia-based 3-D printing company, Apis Cor, that specialized in 3-D printing homes. With slight modification, the printer could surely make a whole set of houses, buildings, all in a row. And another row, and so on, and then it could make a city. She had a head start and took advantage. She called Luke that night.


“The printer – could it use red soil?”


He responded that it needed concrete, not soil, but the color of the soil component of the concrete didn’t matter.


“What about gravity – could it work in lower gravity?”

He was excited about the prospect and told her the solar-powered prototype worked just fine. But what about the concrete? The solution they developed was to make concrete with Martian soil and water, plus a small amount of Portland cement that could be transported and mixed, or else maybe substituted with an analogue made using materials found there. As for the water, the base’s location could be placed close to a dry riverbed in the hopes that liquid water would retrace its billions-year old paths. Or else, water could be formed from the carbon dioxide and hydrogen in the atmosphere. Details still needed to be figured out, but it could work. It would work.


Senator Drexner presented her brother’s bid first (she disclosed the potential conflict of interest). Luke Drexner’s Apis Cor won a spot in the Mojave Desert Trial, along with two other companies.

If he outperformed Utah’s 3-D Apexica and Wisconsin’s Printsmith, he’d win the contract. The arrangements were made, and they’d each make a city block as quickly and cost-effectively as possible, in conditions designed to mimic the Martian environment. 3-D Apexica’s printer worked the fastest, and for awhile it seemed the clear frontrunner. It made a house every three days, and its block even included a rudimentary sidewalk. But on closer examination, 3-D Apexica’s recipe for concrete included ingredients that would be hard to manufacture on Mars and difficult (and costly) to transport.

Printsmith’s buildings were ostentatious and attention-seeking. They were the most beautiful, with intricate exterior designs that included Ionic columns and aesthetic carvings. However, the cost for beauty may have been too high – each house took nearly two weeks to complete, and some buildings shuddered and cracked during the government’s load-bearing tests.


Apis Cor’s printer worked at a medium pace – a house every week, and its design was functional and simple, a honeycomb shape for the base. Apis Cor’s houses also easily withstood the government’s tests.


The contract was Luke’s.

When preparing the subcommittee press release about the colony, Chairman Zubrin observed that the colony didn’t yet have a name. Senator Drexner was a humble woman whose plan was coming into fruition, and Chairman Zubrin offered her the chance to name it after herself to reward her for her crucial involvement. But because she was humble, Senator Drexner didn’t think less of herself, she thought of herself less. So her accomplishment, and it was a huge accomplishment, did not register to her as something she and she alone could have achieved. Instead, Senator Drexner knew that anybody in her position could have done what she had, so she took pride in the result rather than her involvement and chose a name that highlighted the colony itself, not its designer: Roanoke.


The first outpost, waiting empty on a new world. The first British colony in America, left empty for two years between the first expedition and the Shakers’ arrival.

This colony should meet a better fate than its namesake, a second Titanic whose every successful voyage laughed at history’s past mistakes.

European, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, South African, Egyptian, Argentinian, and Brazilian scientists arrive at US military facilities in Monterey Bay, California; Houston, Texas; and Newburgh, New York. Vats of primordial ooze produce trillions of bacteria colonies, thousand gallon drums full to the brim with life’s most primitive form. Senator Drexner drafts a bill with her staff to commit America to colonizing Roanoke when Mars is ready, in six to eight decades. Mirrors with a kilometer-long diameter are constructed. Engineers at MIT, EPFL, Aachen University, and Tallinn University of Technology design prototypes for the electrolysis robot. Senator Drexner reads a speech to the Senate. Rockets ready for launch in Florida, England, Korea, and Argentina. The Senate votes against committing to colonize Roanoke. Apis Cor readies several printers for a big project. Specially-designed rockets are built to carry cargo with a kilometer-long diameter, and the rockets launch. Mirrors are moved into position.

Hundreds of drums filled with bacteria, with diverse lettering systems on the face, are loaded into rockets. Senator Drexner writes a new version of the same bill promising to populate the colony, this time with a more flexible time frame and funding plan. Apis Cor’s printers are stabilized, tied and secured to the floor and walls, and readied for launch. The bacteria drums are opened and released at a low altitude over Mars; the automated systems effectively coordinate to cover 65% of the planet’s surface. The prototypes perfected, designs for the electrolysis robot are transferred to a technical factory capable of mass-production in the Damman Second Industrial Area in Saudia Arabia. Senator Drexner presents her new bill on the Senate floor. The printers arrive at the US colony site. The four other countries that originally joined the US in its quest to construct cities with the regolith abandon their plans, either because they realized the tremendous cost of the solitary effort, or else because they got caught up in the global spirit and prioritized the terraforming process over nationalist land grabs. The Senate votes against her bill. Even as America moves alone with its goal to prepare a place for its colonists, it continues to vote against the further funding and commitment required to actually colonize Roanoke.


Holes are dug, concrete is mixed, and printers print. The bacteria produce ammonia and methane. The ice caps melt. Carbon is freed from the regolith. Popular opinion has moved against the Mars colony, and Senator Drexner knows it. Buildings, with honeycomb bases, are erected; the printers move slowly, but there is time. The Martian temperature increases by several degrees, and the Martian atmospheric pressure increases to 100 millibar. The fence separating the Senate from the people has lowered with direct election; Senator Drexner bows to the people’s will and drafts one more bill for Roanoke, a bill that is a huge step down from her original.


The permafrost melts. Water flows freely on the surface of Mars for the first time in billions of years. The electrolysis robots are dropped, a thousand per small body of water, and several thousand for the larger bodies of water. Several signatory countries organize an extra pro bono action and deliver tens of thousands of ferns and mosses to further speed up the oxygenation process. Splashes of green pop up on the otherwise rusted canvas.

Senator Drexner presents her bill, to place a bell on Capitol Hill as a monument to the colony, to be rung only when the terraforming is complete, when atmospheric oxygen levels reach the breathable 100millibar level, and Roanoke is habitable. The bill passes.

City blocks sprout slowly, and observatories on Earth watch the sprouts grow and spread like vines, or else like ferns and mosses on a distant marble. Shadows move across the red central square as the sun crosses the sky in 24 hour, 39 minute cycles.


When all of the programmed buildings have been constructed, a printer enters Roanoke’s central square to add one final piece. A nearly flat rectangle, held upright by a narrow cylinder on one side. The rectangle’s face is decorated with a corner box and horizontal bars. The American flag casts a shadow that moves across the square, tracking the sun’s movements over many sols. This American flag constructed, not planted, laying claim to an empty far away place, a desert with few (but increasing) oases. The flag claiming the place, but no one claiming the flag, no one there to claim the flag; no people, nothing.

The new frontier is open, the flag seems to say to no one. Come and get your free land, and forge your destiny.

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