The Second Space Race

By any measure, the late 21st century saw an explosion of technology and possibility. Some today would even argue that all of modern history began in A.D. 2117 with the establishment of the first off-world colony. Others would say it was earlier, in 2085, when the American outfit of Feldman-Cooley Industries created the DCF thruster – the acceleration technology which to this day forms the base of all stellar travel. Others still would say that not only modern history began here, but history itself. Napoleon Bonaparte once said that “history is but agreed up fiction.”Or possibly it was Voltaire. Or else some other Frenchman named Bernard. And since no one agrees, neither does history.

History, one might say is messy.

 

Nonetheless, it is certain that this 2085 development was the spark that started the fire that reshaped humanity's view of the universe forever. Even in its infancy, the new technology had the potential to allow manned spacecraft to traverse the solar system in a matter of weeks, rather than the years required with conventional engines. American plans became promptly mired in red tape while scientists and politicians debated the best use for the new technology over the next three years.

But the landscape changed completely when India shocked the world with the announcement of a manned mission to the rings of Saturn. This was followed swiftly by a Chinese announcement and a Russian one. Nation after nation unveiled similar technology over the next few months. In the new Age of Information, nothing was truly secret anymore. The United States was forced to play catch-up, with the United Kingdom, Japan, and even France directly on their heels. And so the historic Second Space Race began.

The reason for so many nations jumping in (some of which had not previously boasted of anything resembling a space program before) was simple: resources. Over the next ten years, experimental mining colonies were established in the asteroid belt, and the results were enough to produce new waves of investment. News media likened it to the gold rush of the early American west, excepting, of course, that the average gold panner would be hard-pressed to take to the stars to seek their fortune. Territorial squabbles became common; naturally, it was time for another shakeup.

2132 brought what its designers cheekily called Mófǎ Hé, or the Magic Box – the humble beginnings of terraforming technology. Long a staple of science fiction, the process was first made reality under controlled conditions in a series of tests conducted in Chinese laboratories. Contrary to its name, the process was not alchemy – using the inherent properties of the elements contained within the mass of a world, the Magic Box was capable of reordering a given environment to a new set of parameters through extremely complex and direct manipulation of atoms, potentially allowing inhospitable locales to be rendered the opposite. The resulting changes were not entirely predictable, but produced unexpectedly good practical results, especially once the introduction of outside elements became possible.

Wild fears (and, truth be told, some excitement) that the technology could be weaponized proved unfounded. The process simply took too long, requiring a dedicated team to constantly adjust parameters, add new ones and, frankly, babysit the process. Even on a small scale, terraforming projects took years of rotating shifts by highly skilled and knowledgeable personnel; a push-button “terraforming bomb” was, and remains, a fantasy. Today, terraforming is recognized as being nearly as much art as it is science.

But weaponization was not the only ethical concern. Many were horrified by the notion of discovering new worlds only to completely change their natures through artificial means. Others argued that the asteroid mining and even the very act of discovery itself already amounted to the same thing and was as natural as the original state of the planets and moons in question. After all, the line went, is humanity not also a part of nature? And is nature not always in a state of change? Corporate PR departments, government lobbyists, religious organizations, special interest groups, and private citizens took it in turn to weigh in. Public opinion rose and fell in a clamor largely ignored by anyone in a position to actually make a choice in the matter. Nations that had the technology stood with the second argument, while nations without sided with the first until they did. The death knell to opposition came when an experiment successfully reversed the unlivable environment of Jupiter's moon, Europa. Media outlets notably christened it “The Rape of Europa,” in an attempt to push back, but to no avail. Governments scrambled to replicate the accomplishment in their own claims and stake new ones. Heavily populated countries found relief for their burgeoning populations as colonists were recruited by the thousands and shipped off to begin new lives abroad.

Then at last came the greatest technological breakthrough of the millennium, in the form of a phenomenon known as Aggregate Displacement, harnessed by the new Static Shift Drive. A vessel equipped with such a device was capable of traveling to potentially any point in the galaxy and even, for that matter, the universe in a perceived instant. Just like that, the unfathomable distances between stars no longer mattered. Scientists predicted discoveries that could “give us clues as to the very nature of our universe.” Within a few short years, colonization efforts moved into new solar systems. The length and breadth of the universe were there for the taking. Space-faring nations pushed further and further outward, spreading their culture and influence, and finding all new worlds to fight over in what was rapidly becoming a new age of empire-building.

Life for the colonists, however, was not easy. They found themselves in environments often harsh, cruel, or even incomplete. Survival tactics honed over millennia on Earth proved ineffective in these new homes. Crops often died as quickly as they sprouted. Many perished from starvation, exposure, equipment failure, and from strange, never before encountered physical effects borne out of the unique features of these new environments.

Still, humanity prevailed in the end. After hundreds of failures, colonies found their footing and grew. Terraforming technology improved. Over the coming decades, colonies expanded and trade flourished between themselves and the home planet. It was a time of discovery and adventure.

The older generation of scientists, however, began to grumble as they realized that what they really wanted was answers about the nature of the universe. Yes, science had produced the Static Shift Drive and a host of technological marvels that allowed this fantastic exploration and expansion, but this success was tainted with a kind of dull cynicism and disappointment. Little in the way of new elements was found. No new understanding of the meaning of things. And worst of all, no new life. No intelligent beings, no animals or plants. Not even single-celled organisms. A previously unknown Astrophysicist was recorded during that time asking through tears, “is this all that there is?” creating a moment widely mocked on social media (it was something about the way he said it). Generations of searching went unrequited and UFO supporters began to dwindle. Those who clung to the hope did so in an increasingly religious fashion, squabbling over whether the definition of life should also include complex organic matter.

All told, humanity continued as it always had – with strife and blood. Nations colonized, colonies rebelled, and wars were fought – now on a previously unimagined scale. New nations and principalities large and small sprang up to take their place in the emerging galactic community. Prominent countries attempted to establish united allegiances to govern planets and star systems, but with limited success. Sociologists noted with palpable dissatisfaction, that as much as humanity had grown and expanded in numbers, there was no evidence of any change in nature – human beings remained the same flawed creatures they were historically.