Along with the arrival of the aliens, so came their willingness to share their technology and scientific knowledge, as far as they had retained it at least and as far it was not lost to corruption of the data storage. To them it would not help in any way if they kept information back and would be forced to flee again in the case The Enemy was still out there and found them.
Additionally they were more than willing to rent out their aerospace craft and even their interplanetary/stellar spacecraft, though refueling was rather hard in the beginning. With their craft they could provide relatively cheap space lift capacity, compared to conventional launch vehicles, with the only competitors actually being the DaimlerCrylser SERV, the DH-1 of The Rocket Company and the OTRAG 2 launchers of the AESA.
Among the information shared by the aliens were basic designs of their aerospace craft, complete with simple counter-grav systems and more than one of the big aircraft companies jumped at the chance to get their hand on the designs. Some of the materials needed however were at least two decades ahead of anything Earth science had to offer and it would need at least a decade until the technology to create them would exist.
The demand for cheaper access to space, and with it cheaper aerospace craft, had been around for a while, but now the new technologies began to make it readily available for everyone and many companies, small and large alike, saw the opportunity and jumped into the niche.
Following a request from NASA, the three largest aerospace companies of North America, Boeing, Lockheed and Martin Marietta, in a rare moment of cooperation started working together to develop a powerful heavy lift spaceplane. The three companies dug up their work from the late 1960s and early 1970s, like DaimlerCrysler had done years before, and reviewed eachothers information.
The result was called the Pegasus, after the potential names for Space Shuttle project that had been cancelled by Nixon in favor of going to Mars. It was powered by six air-augmented rocket engines, the support of a counter-grav system and capable of launching a mass of 70 tonnes into orbit, the Pegasus was the second heaviest of the early generation aerospace craft developed by mankind. Alternatively it could be used to carry 150 passengers either into orbit or in a short suborbital flight to the other side of the planet.
In Europe, Airbus worked on their own spacecraft based on the data the aliens had shared, as well as the Quetzal shuttle that had been found two decades earlier.Combined with the advantage of the already existing knowledge and the research for the Marco Polo, the Airbus produced the Saenger aerospace plane. Four SABRE liquid cycle air breathing rocket engines powered the Saenger, allowing it to lift a mass of up to 55 tonnes into orbit or up to 100 passengers with the passenger version.
The first company to build a space plane, Embraer, was also competing to design and build an aerospace craft, making use of their previous experience with the Santos Dumont spaceplane. Much like the American Pegasus the Embraer SP-100 Palmira was powered by air-augmented rocket engines, though the smaller SP-100 only had four of them. It was also designed for a mixed payload of up to 30 passengers and about 30 tonnes of conventional payload, instead of going with two different versions for cargo and passengers. An interesting factor was that the payload bay of the SP-100 could accommodate a conventional 45 foot high cube intermodal container, though it could also load smaller intermodal containers.
Mainly to be used by the APSC, but not excluding the possibilities on the international market, was the aerospace craft designed and built in a cooperation between Mitsubishi and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. The Astroplane would be the smallest of the aerospace craft developed in this era. It was powered by two turbo rockets and two aerospike engines, allowing it to carry 20 tonnes into orbit, together with 10 passengers. A full passenger version could carry 40 passengers.
The four aerospace craft made their test flights and first orbital flights within about a year of each other, with the SP-100 Palmira being the first in March 2026, followed by the Saenger in August of the same year, the Pegasus in January 2027 and the Astroplane in May of 2027.
The direct competitors to the aerospace craft were DaimlerCrysler and The Rocket Company, who had their own niches cut out and were now fearing to lose their advantage. So, much like Boeing, Lockheed and Martin Marietta in the United States, or Mitsubishi and HAL in Asia, the two companies cooperated to design a heavier reusable launch vehicle.
Rather than to design a completely new vehicle, the two companies decided to develop a heavy Orbital Stage based on the design of the DH-1, the DH-2, while using the already reusable SERV as first stage in a ‘pop-up trajectory’ similar to the DH-1. Like its smaller cousin the DH-2 carried enough fuel for a delta-v of nearly 10 kilometers per second, enabling it to go to the Moon and land there and return to Earth after orbital refueling.
The final payload of the DH-2 was 25 tonnes for the Orbital Stage, which was already equipped with the systems needed to land on another celestial body and return. The Interplanetary Stage was longer and needed its full fuel load to enter orbit, but was able to carry a payload of about 150 tonnes to another celestial body and return. Either version could of course also be equipped with seats for passengers to be carried into orbit or anywhere in cislunar space, in additon to other payloads.
After its initial design and by using as much off-the-shelf technology as possible, the DH-2 was designed and built within three years, allowing it to have its initial test in June 2025, followed by its first orbital mission in September 2025.
In the biggest two communist-lead nations of the world, similar developments were made.
China, being the first nation to actually develop an aerospace craft with their Feilong, was relatively quick to design a heavier one. The new Zhulong aerospace craft was equipped with four larger and more powerful LACE rockets based on the Feilongs engines and capable of lifting 40 tonnes of payload, compared to the Feilongs 2 tonnes.
However the China National Space Administration was not willing to let the investment of the Feilong go to waste and began to rework the smaller aerospace craft into a pure person carrier, able to carry 15 passengers besides the required pair of pilots.
In the Soviet Union, the KGB had acquired the basic design informations about all other aerospace craft in development, so that the Soviet Space Program would know what they were up against.
Based on this information, the Antonow Engineering Office designed the Buran, specifically to outdo the American Pegasus. Powered by eight LACE thrusters and larger than the Antonow AN-124, the Buran was able to carry 90 tonnes of payload, as well as 30 passengers into Earth orbit, making it the largest aerospace craft of the early 21st century.
With this massive increase of launch capacity and its availability on the open market space finally was opened up to the general public, dropping launch costs down to record lows in 2026, going as far as allowing tourist trips into orbit, though the space hotel Virgin One was the only destination at the time. It would not take long for other destinations to develop however, as the big potential of space tourism was recognised by many as well.
Planetary Mining & Manufacturing for example expanded Heinlein Point in Earth orbit and Holmes Station on the Moon. For this, and to get the experience in actually building and constructing objects in space, PM&M acquired a small startup company named Tethers Unlimited. The company was best known for its work in tethers, but more recently had developed a rapid manufacturing system that could work in space. In 2023, they had built a nanosatellite able to 3D print a nearly twenty meter long PVC truss in microgravity, which had a better strength and integrity than conventional ones.
Armed with this know-how and supported by a pair of Turukal engineers, PM&M enhanced the polymer using Trusseleator, to a 3D printing system using a direct metal laser sintering process and metal dust. Like first tests and experiments with creating metal alloys in microgravity had shown, the metals tended to clump together, creating impurities. With the DMLS process these contamination could be largely avoided and metals in the form of wire spools could be used to create complicated structures in space, such as trusses in a single piece or pressure vessels for manned modules.
As a proof of concept for their technology, PM&M built a free floating robot with a Laser Extruder System, which would be capable to carry up to 4 tonnes of metal in the form of a 0.5 mm thick wire as its source material. The robot was named Waldo I and was controlled by an advanced program that allowed him to plan his work based on a blueprint and adapt to problems when they showed themselves.
Waldo I was carried into geostationary orbit over the Pacific Ocean by Dinkum and provided with over 500 tonnes of material and began to build a massive structure that was covered with a photovoltaic foil made on Earth. In March 2027, after nearly a year of continuous work Waldo I had created a large circular satellite with a diameter of two kilometers, with a truss section made from a single piece and designed to be as light and strong as possible. About four months later a Soviet version of Waldo I, called Rabochiy, showed up in Earth orbit, starting to expand the Soviet Space Station Mir.
The satellite was named Solar I and was also the first prototype of a solar power satellite and capable of producing about 900 MW of electrical energy. On the ground a large square kilometer large antenna floating in the ocean near Hawaii received nearly 650 MW of the energy beamed down from orbit. As an added bonus, Solar I was equipped with a large number of telecommunication antennas to provide satellite communication as well as television. To facilitate attitude adjustments and counteract the pressure of light and solar wind on the large area, the massive satellite was equipped with a number of ion thrusters that could and had to be refueled once a year.
Waldo I was joined by Waldo II and Waldo III and the tree robots began to expand Heinlein Station with a large truss section and several crew, science and industrial modules.
The small fleet of PM&M, consisting of four DH-1 orbital stages was also expanded after the enlargement of Heinlein Station with a pair of purpose built asteroid mining craft, named Evangeline and Gabriel, which were finished in November 2029. They were the first spacecraft built in orbit using the new technology and were specially designed to make use of the optimized construction.
Both craft were equipped with VASIMR engines using water as propellant and large solar sails for power generation, for use by propulsion and the integrated systems of the ice and rock mining systems. Each would carry a single Waldo robot and two of its manufacturing systems and a crew of four in a rotating habitat with provisions for two years.
By January 2030, Evangeline left for 3753 Cruithne, while Gabriel left for 2010 SO16, preparing to construct asteroid mines to mine water to sell in cislunar space.
On the Moon Holmes Station expanded largely on its own, though with the addition of the new DMLS process it could work much faster. Mobile construction units, six legged robots with two extruders had been designed based on the Waldo design and from 2027 on, used to build a lunar mass driver to replace the need for chemically fueled delivery of materials into orbit.
The other stations on the lunar surface expanded their operations as well, with the Big Four and the smaller space programs deploying their own 3D printing technologies.
The Soviet technology made use of metal dust, which either needed to be imported or produced from lunar regolith, though with the Helium 3 mining operation, it was produced anyway. The Soviets used it to create a massive dome structure over Zvesda Station, before covering it with Regolith.
The European technology on the other hand could directly use the lunar regolith as working medium, creating an airtight material, which was used to seal off the entrance to the lava tube that was the home of Galilei Station. After filling the tube with some oxygen gathered from the lunar mining operation, it was possible to find a number of smaller openings within the tube and sealthem, which enabled it to carefully fill the entire lava tube with oxygen to create a more comfortable work environment.
Copernicus Base of NASA also expanded its operations with 3D printing, sealing off their own lava tube, as well as beginning with the construction of a mass driver next to the station and a massive expansion of its surface mining operations compared to the other stations on the Moon.
The smaller operations of the Chinese and the APSC were slower to expand, as they were concentrating their efforts more on the mining of Helium 3.
Aside from the individual stations on the Moon, the Big Four, the APSC and the AESA cooperated again, this time in a halo orbit around the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point Two, short EML-2, past the far side of the Moon. The location was perfect for interplanetary operations and later on interstellar operations.
Material was relatively easily obtained now from the mining operations on the Moon and after a small station was constructed similarly to the International Orbital Dock, the first modules prefabricated on the lunar surface arrived at EML-2 in early 2026.
Gateway Station, was different from all other previous space stations, being something of a paradigm change. It was designed to be from the beginning to be constructed completely in space and to be used for longer than previous stations, which began to show their age, while being constantly expanded.
The design of Gateway Station was to a degree based on the old rotating wheel stations of Von Braun and others of the early space age. It had a diameter of four hundred meters and was made of a central ring connected to the center with four spokes. Cylindrical habitats were connected to the central ring, providing crew, lab and storage space. After the completion of the initial construction, slated for 2032, the station would be able to house about 500 people and provide docking ports for about a dozen spacecraft of various designs.
Past cislunar space, things were also in motion.
The Mars Society had designed and built a pair of Aldrin Cyclers, meant to provide easier transport to Mars and back, every synodic period. Named Lusitania, the outbound cycler for the trip to Mars,and Mauretania, for the inbound cycler coming from Mars, the identical cyclers were little more than heavily radiation shielded rotating habitats based on the European design, with four counter rotating sections for up to 25 people. A massive solar array powered each Cycler, while a large service module provided maneuvering as well as automated course correction to change the cyclers orbit slightly to follow the synodic period between Earth and Mars. Docking ports for eight spacecraft allowed to transfer crew and material to the cyclers and then down to Mars. For later increases of carrying capacity, the Cyclers could easily be expanded with additional rotating sections, solar cells and service modules.
The use of the Aldrin Cyclers made it possible to reduce the launches towards Mars to small crew and cargo capsules, reducing the needs for propellant to get to the needed delta-v. After a journey of five months crew and cargo could simply aerobreak in the atmosphere of Mars to get into orbit and meet up with Mayflower Station in Mars orbit, followed by a landing. Lucitania meanwhile passed Mars, with its life support shut down to minimum, awaiting the next Earth rendezvous to take on more passengers to get to Mars.
On Mauretania, it was similar, crew and cargo would boost away from Mars to meet up with the Cycler, and have a five month journey back to Earth and an aerobreaking maneuver to get into Earth orbit.
To add some revenue to their expenses, the Mars Society offered crew space on the Cyclers to the Big Four and anyone who wanted to go to Mars the easy way, though they kept a set amount of seats to increase the population of New Plymouth. By 2031, the population had grown to 150 people.
The Mars colony itself grew nicely and the colonists picked up materials from Honore City to help constructing habitats of their own without needing to import too much from Earth. The most important projects for the colony were several greenhouses for a large aquaponics setup, that would grow most, if not all the food needed by the colonists.
A mixture of transparent foil and locally produced glass panels were used to build the greenhouses and it was filled by simply pumping in the Martian atmosphere and pressurizing it to 20 kilopascals and heating it to comfortable temperatures. While it could only be entered with a space suit, the nearly pure carbon dioxide atmosphere was a great help to increase the growth rate of the plants, as well as producing oxygen. The fish, hardy and tasty tilapia, grown in large tanks inside the greenhouses, had little problem with this different atmosphere, living in water that was oxygenated with the help of several water plants.
The importance of the greenhouses made it necessary to make sure that the colony had more than they actually needed, in the case of an emergancy or an accident that could destroy one or more of them. Some of the surplus of food was sold to the Soviet and the American bases, who welcomed the chance to get some more fresh food, while the rest was preserved and stored for emergencies.
On the Soviet and American side the bases had expanded to include more existing buildings, though they were sorely used to house more scientists and scientific equipment, while foregoing any military personnel, as a Status Quo had been established on Mars.
Aside from Mars, the Asteroid Belt got some attention by the Soviets, NASA and ESA. With their return from Saturn, Lewis & Clark, Smirnova and Marco Polo were without a immediate job, they were upgraded with technologies developed over the time they were in the outer solar system. That the aliens had shared some of their technologies helped as well and equalized their capabilities.
ESA used the new technologies to upgrade the Z-pinch fusion engine of the Marco Polo, redrawing the fuel lines to replace the waste of deuterium using cheaper water. The power and specific impulse of the engine were improved as well and a counter-grav system was installed.
While the Soviets had improved on their gaseous fission thrusters, the alien based fusion engines were much more efficient than the nuclear engine. The upgrade of Smirnova needed longer, as the nuclear engine had to be removed, before a fusion engine could be installed, complete with the need for additional cooling.
NASA on the other hand installed a fusion engine in parallel to the slightly improved VASIMR thrusters on the Lewis & Clark. It made a larger propellant load needed to keep both fed, but that also increased the Delta-V capacity of the craft.
By 2025, the upgrades of the three craft were finished and they began with a mission that was backed by the United Nations and included scientific personnel from other nations. Over the years there were several unknown objects that had been discovered within the Asteroid Belt, that were marked as asteroids, but were different from most other asteroids.
The UN Pathfinder Mission was designed to seek out these objects and determine what they were. The Lewis & Clark, Smirnova and Marco Polo were perfect for this mission as they had large delta-v capacities and were relatively quick to move between these objects, while carrying scientific instruments and a crew to analyze the data that came in about the objects.
Nominally the UN Pathfinder Mission was slated to last ten years, but it was cut short to five years. During this time they did not discover much of value in the Asteroid Belt, outside of a few interesting asteroids with valuable minerals. In several cases it was discovered that the asteroids in question had already been mined by someone, but there was no machinery or anything else left behind that allowed for any conclusion about who had mined them and for what. In one case part of an asteroid had been carved into the likeness of a completely alien creature not resembling any of the currently known species.
The Big Four also had developed a number of advanced probes, equipped with a good number of the latest and best sensors available, as well as powerful engines, and sent them out towards other celestial objects. Mercury was of special interest, as were the moons and Trojans of Jupiter. Uranus and Neptune got their own visitors to get new scientific insight about the places, though it was only secondary to seeking out alien artifacts.