#52 February 1992
Section 18.104.22.168.052.of the Artemis Data Book
On Non-Earthlike Planets, Can There Be Any Firesides Around Which To Gather?
by Peter Kokh
Since time immemorial, ever since the taming of fire, we have found warmth,
comfort, and company huddled around campfires and hearths. The fireside has
been the most social of places, the place where stories were told, myths and
legends learned, mighty feats planned, and dreams made. It is the "hearth"
that has been the traditional "soul" of the home. In some languages "hearth"
and "home" are one word.
Even today, when a dwindling number of modern homes boast the luxury of a
fireplace, nestling around the fire is something we all enjoy - when it is
cold or damp, when we are out camping, on a clambake or a picnic in the park,
or just out on the patio or in the back yard for a barbecue or marshmallow
roast. And can any of us forget the bonfires after a high school homecoming
These days, such pleasures are hardly everyday experiences. Rather for us
twentieth century "moderns" the idea of fire is more likely to be associated
with destruction, devastation, and tragedy. All the same, however infrequently
enjoyed, the magic of the controlled fire is universally so positive an
uplift that it is still possible to ask: "can it be humanity if there is no
Yet on worlds without oxygen-sweetened atmospheres such as the Moon, Mars,
and indeed any other planet or moon in our Solar System other than Earth
itself, open fire is not possible. On all such worlds, we'll have to huddle
within the very limited atmospherules of mini biospheres. And in such tightly
bounded life zones, open fire cannot be tolerated, controlled or not. You
can't open the window to let the smoke out! Living essentially downwind and
downstream from our selves in mini oases of life, we simply cannot afford to
compromise the fragile freshness of the air supply.
Yet that is not the last gloomy word, for it only applies to fires in which
the combustion products are smoke and toxic gasses. Within the regime of
rigorous recycling in such mini-biospheres, there may be the possibility of
controlled burning of compost-pile derived methane to produce water vapor
along with CO2 for plant nourishment. Such combustion will need to be
confined to nitrogen-free chambers so as to avoid unwanted nitrogen oxide
byproducts. That in mind, we might wonder if such a methane-oxygen fed flame
in a glass-faced chamber might serve as a fireplace substitute?
It should also be possible to devise a tightly confined hearth "substitute"
that slowly fed together pure hydrogen and oxygen. If again the burning is
confined to a nitrogen-free chamber, the only combustion product would be
steam - pure water, which can then be used for drinking or other purposes. In
effect, we are talking about a modified fuel cell, in which the 2H2 + O2 =
2H2O reaction is run somewhat faster, not so fast as to be explosive, but
fast enough to sustain a flame, perhaps with a harmless enough additive (if
one can be found!) to colorize the normally invisible H+O fire.
I'd be surprised if either such device now exists, with little market for
them - back here on the open air, open sky Earth. But out on alien shores, a
flame-in-a-jar device might create enough symbolic warmth and cheer to become
commonplace in settler homes on the Moon or Mars or elsewhere, in gathering
spot lounges, even on long trips aboard space liners or on deluxe surface
roving coaches. In contrast, siting around the warp core won't quite do it!
In families, old vintage fire-chambers that are religiously maintained in
good working order might become treasured (and fought over) heirlooms. In
frontier general stores, they might become the item most frequently purchased
on a layaway plan. For marriageable space maidens, they might be priority one
in the hope chest. If available at all in Martian antique stores, they might
fetch handsome ransom-level prices. Now who would have thought of the
fireplace-in-a-jar as an interstellar security blanket?
As far as the human diaspora spreads among the stars, it may be around the
fireside that we still find common bond as well as temporary anchorage for
our wandering souls. It will be our symbolic shield against the cold of the
inter-stellar reaches, a magic condenser of unimaginable distances - a
We could tinker up such a device now - for profit! The methane version could
not be used in draft-tight close quarters but a hydrogen hearth might sell to
apartment dwellers, like singles wanting the latest in trendy mood-setting
gizmos. Just knowing that we could take a hydrogen or methane hearth or "fire
chamber" with us, could make the prospects of life on far flung worlds just a
little less daunting, just a little more reassuring.
Owning such a device might even appeal to many a science-fiction fan and
would be emigre from Earth. Can you think of a more magical focus around
which to gather for an evening of filk or star-lore story telling?
For the wanderlust-driven, owning such a pocket hearth could be a real
psychological enabler. See the ad in the employment wanted section: "Have
fire chamber, will travel - anywhere!
Contents of this issue of Moon Miners' Manifesto