The Second Space Race

The period of the latter half of the 21st century into the 22nd was marked by an unexpected and dramatic shift in our view of the universe. Responsible for this was the development of technology that at last allowed manned space travel beyond Mars to be considered in reasonable discussion – a change that can be traced back to three successive scientific breakthroughs.

The first was the development of the Flux Thruster by Feldman-Cooley Industries, based in the United States of America. The device was an engine of previously unmatched power which was capable of acceleration hundreds of times beyond that of a solid-fuel rocket, and powered by a unique new brand of liquid propellant, and tremendous amounts of electricity. The genesis of the idea was not a new one – the notion of using electrical energy to generate thrust was proposed as early as the first half of the 20th century, and was in widespread use by the mid 21st. It was the amount of thrust and acceleration made possible by the FT which would so drastically change humanity's course. After all, a manned trip as far as even Pluto was no longer out of the question. Instead of years, such a journey could now take days.

The development was not public, but as often happens, was uncovered sooner than its backers would like. When the news broke, it is perhaps surprising that it was not quite as explosive of a story as we today would believe. Interest in space exploration was in a lull, and the full gravity of possibilities was not considered by most. Manned exploration and scientific colonization missions would benefit greatly, but for the average citizen, it was merely scientific interest in a time when the novelty of high tech hand-held devices had not yet begun to wane.

The real drama unfolded outside of the public eye, after the technology was offered to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, struggling at that time with the burden of inadequate funding. Old debates about money and ethics were debated endlessly. Tiring of the red tape, Feldman-Cooley offered their technology to private industry. When the news broke that the company was playing multiple sides, the government was furious. The next three years were a tangled mess of legal complication.

But the landscape would change completely when India shocked the world with the announcement of a manned mission to the rings of Saturn; they claiming to have spent the intervening time investing in research that brought them technologically up to speed. Nation after nation then suddenly unveiled similar thruster technology; it rapidly became clear that secrets to American technology had been leaked – or quietly sold. The United States immediately approved a mission plan, followed swiftly by Russia, China, The United Kingdom, Japan and even France, who all announced competing missions within the next month, beginning the historical Second Space Race.

Ten years passed, during which mining colonies were established and worked on solid masses – planets, moons, and asteroids – all throughout the solar system. Asteroids yielded the most spectacular results; elements to mine ranged from the common, such as iron, to the precious, including silver, gold, and platinum. News media likened it to the gold rush of the early American west, noting of course, that this new enterprise was conversely inaccessible to the general public. Territorial squabbles between nations were common, and typically involved asteroids rather than the larger bodies of planets and moons, where land was more plentiful, but minerals less so.

This, too, would change, with the advent of the second breakthrough: the Terraforming Engine. Long a staple of science fiction, the process was first made reality under controlled conditions in a series of tests conducted by Chinese scientists – a great secret soon plundered by foreign powers working through the black market. In the new Age of Information, nothing was truly secret anymore.

Contrary to public misconception, the process was not alchemy – using the inherent properties of the elements contained within the mass of a world, the Terraforming Engine was capable of reordering a given environment to a new set of parameters through an extremely complex and direct manipulation of atoms, potentially allowing inhospitable locales to be rendered the opposite. The resulting changes were not always completely predictable, but generally produced satisfactory results, especially once refinements to the technology made the introduction of outside elements possible.

Concern immediately arose that the new technology might be weaponized and used for destructive purposes. Practically speaking, however, this was a difficult prospect, because despite its fantastical place in movies and comic books, the process remained very much bound by the laws of science. Any given project routinely required a tremendous commitment from a large team to constantly adjust parameters, add new ones and, frankly, babysit the machinery. Beyond that, the engine's effect on matter, even on a small scale, simply took too much time – years of constant, rotating shifts by highly skilled and knowledgeable personnel; a push-button “terraforming bomb,” for example, was just not possible at the time and remains so today.

As for the ethics of the practice, the scientific community was divided. Naturally, many were opposed to it, horrified by the notion of discovering new worlds only to alter their natures through artificial means. Others argued that the mining already in progress and even the very act of discovery itself had 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 man 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 turns to weigh in and propose measures and laws; by the airwaves, by newspapers, by internet postings, and by placards in the streets. The tide of public opinion rose and fell in a clamor largely ignored by anyone in the position to make a choice on the matter, and continued in a low background rumble long after the issues were officially settled.

Nations with the technology in hand sided with the second argument, while nations without sided with the first until they did. And when a Chinese experiment successfully reversed the unlivable environment of Jupiter's moon, Europa (notably christened “The Rape of Europa” by some news outlets), governments scrambled to replicate it in their own claims and stake new ones. Countries such as China and India 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 third major breakthrough 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 travel to potentially any point in the galaxy and even, for that matter, the universe in the space of a perceived instant. Colonization efforts quickly spread into new solar systems. Space-faring nations pushed further and further outward, spreading their culture and influence in what was rapidly becoming a new age of imperialism.

Life for colonists was not easy. They found themselves in environments livable, but often harsh and cruel, and sometimes incomplete due to scheduling. Survival tactics honed over centuries or longer on Earth failed in these new homes and crops often died as quickly as they sprouted. Many perished from starvation, exposure, equipment failure, and worse, from unusual physical effects borne out of the unique features of these strange, non-terrestrial environs.

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.

Deaf to the tune of society's onward march, however, the scientific community grumbled with disappointment as further searches into the depths of the galaxy turned up more of the same. Yes, science had produced the Static Shift Drive and a host of technological marvels that allowed this fantastic exploration and expansion, but for science, this success was tainted with bitterness. 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. Nothing.

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 could also include complex organic matter.

Socially, 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 to little avail. Sociologists noted with blatant dissatisfaction, that as much as humanity had grown and expanded in numbers, there was no evidence of any real change – human beings remained the same flawed creatures they historically always had been.