Ice Cubes: a short story
Updated: Feb 9, 2022
Garner smiled, a little giddy, his aches forgotten. Finally in space. Weightless. An implied promise from a lifetime of movies now realized. It just took 84 years!
So what if it wasn't quite Star Wars, and proven alien life was limited to microbes on an icy moon. So what if he's a passenger in a crate, not a fighter pilot. The world has changed. Or should we say the solar system? And he got to be part of it. Well, as a tourist.
The view was fantastic. You really have to see it in person, he mused, picking out features on the Ecuadorian coast through the large round window next to his seat. He gripped a handle and attempted to find Quito, but it was covered by clouds.
"Your first trip?" his seatmate asked. She was a young woman in a company jumpsuit.
"Yeah, realizing a dream," he grinned, returning to the view. She understood, having pressed her face to the window on her first few trips.
A man across the way retched into one of the bags provided, thankfully keeping it closed around his mouth. His child giggled at the indiscretion, while the woman next to them reached for tissues, followed by a bag of water. Tourists perhaps?
The 30-plus passengers seemed to be a mix of first timers—excited, a little scared, gawky—and blasé uniformed workers enjoying some quiet time or chatting quietly. A worker's hand gripped his armrest tightly, perhaps betraying a little nervousness after all.
Garner realized he was doing the same thing. He enjoyed flying, but it was too easy to imagine something going wrong, unlikely as he knew that was. And this was hardly a hop to Chicago.
This crate to space was a wild theoretical concept in the 1960s, and not much more 20 years ago. But when the need and opportunity became clear, well, the world hemmed, hawed, and debated, but finally did it. The hordes spewing BS on the internet be damned.
Garner understood the space elevator story as an interested layperson. If you can stretch a strong enough cable from orbital space to an anchor at the equator, high enough that centrifugal forces pulling it and a counterweight away are greater than gravity, the cable will stay in place in geosynchronous orbit. And you can put a space station on top. Then you can use it to pull things from Earth to space and back, using an elevator with efficient motors. No need for a rocket to hit escape velocity, or any velocity if you don't mind the wait.
The trip was 35 minutes, somebody's idea of the ideal mix of comfort and efficiency. They'd developed motors that would do it in a fraction of that, once some cooling issues were figured out.
The decades weren't wasted, of course. New materials had been developed, like the lighter, stronger composite cables that made it all possible, the better framing that allowed the big windows, and new hydroponic methods for growing food at the space stations. Even with an elevator, it's nice to grow your own food, and important to be able to.
Arriving at the station, the crate even sounded like an elevator, with an audible ding as the doors opened. No longer weightless, the man waited as the more energetic tourists regained their feet and crowded toward the door. Garner had several hours before bedtime and a little bit of tomorrow, so there was no hurry.
In a slight daze, he shared final peasantries with his seatmate and headed for the door, guided by attendants who understood completely.
The Station Manager had her speech down pat. She stood in a small entry hall as the tourists gathered. The workers headed down a hall, which curved slightly upward.
We're in the outer ring, Garner knew. Ninety feet wide and almost a mile in circumference. It spun at just the right speed to equal Earth gravity. At an inner ring you'd feel 30 percent lighter, which sounded kind of nice to him. The wide Earth moved slowly through broad windows on the right. To the left, steel framework stretched out for miles, dotted with lights, seemingly spinning because it wasn't.
"Welcome, welcome," she said brightly, enjoying this brief moment as cruise director in a day filled with meetings. "I'm thrilled to welcome you to the station. I hear it's everyone's first visit! Just a few things to share before I hand things over for a safety briefing, after which you'll be free to head for your rooms, something to eat, the viewing room, or a tour...
The tour began 25 minutes later, and was given by none other than Dr. Leung himself. He was one of the original minds who dreamed up the ice station concept and made it a reality. Now in semi-retirement, the doctor was visiting to help the engineering team troubleshoot a few challenges and help with PR on the side. Garner arrived a few minutes in.
"When you looked at the math, there was no other way," Dr. Leung was explaining to a small cluster of visitors in front of a bank of windows. "Shoreline protections could save most of the big cities but not the 221,000 miles of ocean coastlines worldwide, and even that would wipe out species by the thousands. Carbon capture and venting played at the margins. We needed scale right now, and a lot more for future decades. We also wanted to preserve ecologies. That meant either stabilizing and reversing the climate, which we can't seem to agree on, or directly addressing the volume of water on the planet."
A thick truss extended for miles from a starting point below the window, with smaller members connecting at square angles at regular intervals, moving slowly. A few sections appeared to be covered in sheeting, like giant smooth tarps. White lights were regularly spaced, followed by red flashing ones that seemed to indicate the outer edges. Movement was visible, designating work, or ships perhaps. It looked like a city.
"Some suggested storage on land, but that's where the math comes in. Not to mention the ecology. The Earth has 141,000,000 square miles of ocean, not counting land-based ice. Even before ocean levels flood new areas! We could create giant ponds, fill canyons, whatever, but on that scale?
Imagine a cubic mile of water. That's almost 53 square miles at 100 feet deep—huge! But cutting just one foot from sea level would require 26,500 cubic miles. And we really need three feet—say 80,000 cubic miles—just to get back to normal and get through the next decade. And potentially multiples of that soon after. Compare that to 5,500 cubic miles for all the Great Lakes combined."
"So why aren't we doing that too, at least for part of the solution?" asked a man in a green shirt, genuinely curious.
"Engineering. Politics. Risk. Ecology. It would solve a fraction of the problem, and create a host of other ones. Let's say you target one foot of ocean savings. Who's going to give you the massive territory to make it work? Filling the Grand Canyon would give you half an inch. The Salt Lake Basin could take a chunk if we built a big enough dike around Salt Lake City. Or the Dead Sea. Or we could fill California's Central Valley, where 30 miles of dam could get you 20,000 square miles. But think of this: If we filled the Central Valley 1,000 feet deep, that's five percent of what we need! And there goes our food supply."
He paused to sip cold, chocolatey coffee from a bag with a straw. Garner wished he'd had time to grab one.
"We even thought about giant levees in flat areas, but those aren't really workable. More math! The US is about 1/40th the area of the oceans, including Alaska. We'd need to fill the whole thing 120 feet deep to drop the oceans by three feet. Or we can do ten percent at 1,200 feet! Even if we could find enough land, including big chunks of Siberia or the Sahara for example, and even if we found enough workers and material, who'd trust levees hundreds of feet tall? Realistically we'd need thousands of concrete Grand Coulee Dams, and even those would have some degree of risk."
The green shirt man whistled. "All right, I give up!" he exclaimed, to general laughter.
The doctor continued. "The fact is, removing every foot of ocean overflow is exponentially harder than the last. Or you could say every inch. So we wanted an alternative. And it turned out we had one. Two decades earlier would've helped, but we had one."
The doctor turned to the miles of framework outside. "The solution was to pump water up here, in massive quantities. All we need is a couple trillion dollars, some amazing new materials, obscene amounts of energy, and a new way to store it. The life's work of the smartest people in several fields. And then making it all work onsite. Another Manhattan Project. Piece of cake!"
He took another sip. "But relative to above ground storage, or flooding out hundreds of millions more people, or paving the world's coastlines, it's nothing. And we've got just about all the technical details licked. Ice Station 2 will fit 27 cubic miles, and the next ten will scale that up."
"I've read that the tough part was getting strong-enough hoses," Garner piped up, wanting more. "It sounds like they're pretty amazing." They'd all seen the Beanstalk, as the English-speaking locals called it. Somehow "planta de frijoles" didn't catch on. It was just offshore, not far from the massive elevator complex, each a marvel of security and logistics.
"Developing cold fusion wasn't easy either, but others handled that! Yeah, the hoses were key. How do you build them strong enough to hold columns of water to orbital height, or to the equilibrium point, and wide enough that there'd be enough flow? How do you deal with the temperature variation along the way?
The pipe looks like a single cylinder, but it's actually a series of two-foot pipes that can each do about 36,000 gallons a minute. It takes 60 of these a year to fill a cubic mile, so we pack 172 in a framework that provides structure and leaves a little room for robotic maintenance. Next year we'll have three clusters like that for this station, each a few hundred yards apart at ocean level. We'll fill up a little over three years from now, though we'd be ok with four.
What you're looking at will be a three-mile cube. Really we're a beta test. Ice Station 3 will be a 20-mile cube off Brazil, and we need ten equivalents total, so we're in process on others in Brazil, Gabon, and Indonesia. All have a lot of shallow ocean on the Equator. We're doing even larger hose assemblies, and lining them up in a row for each station. The Equator's going to look like eyelashes! The good news? Plenty of drinking water at the stations."
Garner had watched the first ice station with interest. It was for proof of concept and refining the design. The facility was now operating but so far at 40% capacity due to a variety of technical problems with the hoses and storage process. No surprise. Of course tourists weren't invited.
Likewise, a tourist couldn't visit the other three elevators, which were basically floating centers for space flight and juuust a little off limits. China and the United States operated theirs like fortresses, while the UN struggled to find capacity for dozens of other countries at the third. The EU and India were building their own.
The elevators had revolutionized space flight by eliminating the need to escape the Earth's gravity or survive its atmosphere. This had already kicked off a wave of manned and unmanned missions for exploration and mining. And it was assumed that the US and China were filling the skies with military hardware as well.
You could get to one of a handful of orbital space stations, including three with centrifugal gravity equivalents. But those weren't Ice Station 2, which had its own special fascination.
The tour didn't actually go anywhere, because the rotating station showed every available angle from the same spot. But Garner finally noticed a drinking tube and used it. You attached a clean nozzle from the hopper and drank through it like a straw. Apparently the station designers planned for gravity shutdowns.
Dr. Leung continued. "As long as we manage inertia, a pretty light framework will keep the ice in place. But we needed to contain the water, and avoid sunlight to stay below freezing. The shielding lets the ice cool to about minus 100 degrees Celsius. It's basically rock."
"How do you fill the bags before that happens?" asked Garner.
"That's actually pretty easy, and I mean that unironically! The hoses and bags are insulated, and any juncture happens in a heated compartment. You can see a junction ship over there, with the blue lights," said the doctor, pointing to a cluster near a tarp-like structure. We fill the whole bag and let nature take its course. The crews watch things pretty closely but anything short of a major break wouldn't be a problem."
Garner set his mug of stout on a table and dropped carefully into a seat, letting out a more audible tired sigh than usual. The Store & Saltwater was the informal option between the two onboard eating and drinking establishments. It was filled with rank and file tradespeople and scientists who preferred it to their own cafeteria. Beer was served in glasses. Really taking a risk there, he chuckled to himself.
"Living your dream?" a woman's voice asked. It was his old seatmate from the crate, sitting at a neighboring table. All bolted down of course.
He laughed. "It's been a pretty great couple of hours, but I should have brought a chair! Wait until you're in your 80s."
"You're pretty spry for that! And actually I kinda get it. Old knee injury."
"How'd you manage that? At your age?"
"I was a diver, working at the base assembly. Picture a klutz, walking with a ton of gear on, going ssssplat!" Her hand slapped the table to illustrate. "Anyway I wrenched it good, and they fixed it, but it still aches. I'll get a new one eventually."
"I thought you were going to say you got sucked into an Ice Station intake. Please tell me that doesn't happen!"
"Nope! That doesn't happen. The assembly has 172 lines. They spread the intakes out over hundreds of acres to avoid causing a whirlpool or something. Each intake has a huge mesh cage around it so it's straining everything through a wide filter. Three filter layers in all, each tighter than the last. A diver can actually lay on the outer cage and there's hardly any suction."
"The internet says they're killing fish."
"Well, very little. They play predator sounds and use other fancy wave tech. But yeah some small stuff gets through. If you thaw enough rock up here, you'll eat well," she said, turning back to her friend.
Four hours later, Garner lay in bed reflecting on a busy day. He didn't plan to use the safety harness. If something went wrong at least the memorials would say he died in space.
He'd enjoyed an immersive virtual jaunt across the ice that had been almost like being there, and no suiting up! That was followed by a three-minute turn in a weightlessness chamber. His stomach actually did fine despite the beer. Then a light dinner at the tourists' common table, sharing amazements and fears overcome. A great day.
It works, he thought to himself. And I got to go to space!
In the end, weariness overcame excitement and he slept easily.
Garner awoke refreshed, a little late as Ecuador was three hours earlier than the US West Coast. The giddiness returned. Just my second day in space, he thought! Two hours before the trip back. Better stop wasting time.
Store & Saltwater was surprisingly busy. Packed even. Breakfast time for the workers apparently.
Two men in company jumpsuits arrived just behind him. "Doesn't look like any tables," Garner shared. "Guess it's rush hour?"
"No, the pipe's down," one replied, his shirt labeled Foreman. "We're out of commission for a while, or worse."
"What do you mean "or worse?" Those were scary words on a space station.
"No, don't worry, the station's fine. You're a visitor? But a section of the pipe structure tore a little, and they had to shut the whole thing down, drop the water, move the counterweight, the whole shebang. Maybe it'll be an easy fix, or maybe they need to reengineer some things. We'll be fine."
His coworker nodded. He hadn't heard the bosses' request about speculating. "They tested the composites for a period of time, on Earth, without all the same conditions as space. It's lucky the whole thing didn't snap..."
The Foreman cut him off. "So a lot of us are getting the day off." He nudged the other man toward a group of friends.
So we're not quite there after all, Garner thought, remembering what happened to the Beanstalk in the story.
Dr. Leung was worried too. If it's as bad as I hear, we might need to rethink the whole pipe assembly. Or worse.