Cislunar Goldrush

The news of living aliens at Titan hit Earth like the mother of all bombs. The awe and joy directly after it got pretty much silenced when the tidings were followed by the revelation of the potential threat lurking somewhere in outer space. While a fair number of politicians in the G-12 nations already knew about The Enemy, now finally the rest of the globe learned of its existence as well.

It got people, be it politicians or entrepreneurs, thinking. With these aliens, new and more advanced technologies would come to them, that were needed to increase and improve Earth’s defenses faster and better. At the same time it became clear that it was necessary to build additional infrastructure to make use of those new technologies.

The alien spacecraft would soon be out of fuel. Helium 3, deuterium and water were the main materials needed for fueling their propulsion systems. To provide helium 3 and water was a greater challenge than providing deuterium, especially since Europe was already using deuterium as fuel for their Marco Polo and had the infrastructure to produce vast amounts of it.

Water was abundant on Earth and could be stored with ease. The abundance was both an advantage and a problem though, as any alien spacecraft needed several thousand tonnes of water as propellant and each tonne had to be lifted into orbit from Earth.

Helium 3 was an even bigger problem. Only trace amounts could be found in Earth’s atmosphere, with each atom the result of the atmospheric nuclear tests during the last half of the 20th century. The only viable source of helium 3 for the short term was the moon. This would again mean large amounts of material had to be transported to the Moon, this time to build up the infrastructure to mine helium 3.

A real problem was that for each tonne of helium 3, several million tonnes of lunar regolith would have to be processed. One the other side that was also an advantage as lunar regolith also contained vast amounts of oxygen, silicon, iron, aluminium and titanium. All these materials were of great interest for humanity to continue with their buildup in space, as every tonne of these resources meant one less tonne launched from Earth.

International cooperation in space was in its infancy and while the ESA, the Asian-Pacific Space Community and the Agência Espacial Sul Americana were already cooperating on a smaller level, the cooperation between them was a political minefield.

Even the construction of the orbital scaffold for the alien spacecraft was a massive political headache for the involved governments and became rife with espionage between the different nations.

Nearly three months were needed until the involved nations had even been able to decide on a name for the project, while the design process began. In the end it was called the International Orbital Dock, an unimaginative name which still was a hard earned compromise. Additionally many nations that were not able to assist in getting any material into space, or that could provide astronauts, provided funding and production, even if it was only a low amount.

The design called for the ability to allow docking of twenty alien spacecraft with the largest being more than four hundred meters long and with massive heat radiators. That was only the beginning as there was the need for pressurized areas for crew transfer. The existing pressurized modules were not suitable for that. There was also a time restriction, the IOD needed to be ready by mid 2019 when the alien spacecraft arrived at Earth.

Although the designprocess was still underway, it was absolutely necessary to start construction early. The general shape of the design as well as the general scaffolding structure was finished by December 2017 and the ‘Big Four’ began to build the massive truss structure that were needed to be put into space to create the IODs skeleton.

Then there was also the need to house astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts and needed to build the IOD. NASA and the Soviet Union were the only ones who could launch the modules for housing on a short notice. For this NASA and the Soviet Union agreed to cancel projects that would have originally put two more stations into Earth orbit, to use their modules for the IOD. To provide power, ESA halted its expansion project for Columbus, providing a pair of solar power modules.

The first construction phase was to connect the basic modules for the IOD and was finished in May 2018 with a station that could house a crew of twenty, with three artificial gravity modules, one Soviet and two NASA.

The launch of the truss structure modules was the second stage of the construction and was greatly helped along when NASA, the Soviets and ESA were able to introduce their own counter grav system, effectively doubling their payload capacity. That this introduction happened within a period of two month suggested strongly that the Chinese had been spied upon and, while everyone denied the allegations that were made, the performance data also indicated a close relation to the Chinese system. As a direct reaction the Chinese government increased its budget for the National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets and the Ministry of State Security.

For NASA that meant that the Saturn CC-32 was now able to launch a payload of nearly 350 tonnes, while the Soviet N-3 was a close second with 340 tonnes. ESA’s Theia was only in the 160 tonnes range, but that was more than enough to launch a good number of truss sections.

The truss sections for the IOD needed an additional eight months of launches with one of the largest rockets being launched by the Big Four, while the smaller space going nations launched other supplies. From a central truss section of 400 meters in length ten berthing trusses of 200 meters pointed out into space from both ends, connected by smaller trusses. Each berthing truss had a truss section specifically designed to carry the berthing for one specific spacecraft of the alien ‘Rag Tag Fleet’.

The second stage of the construction ended in December 2018 and the third and last part began. The European Union shared its design for inflatable crew transport tunnels that they used for their artificial gravity modules and the ‘lunar elevator’ of Galilei Station on the Moon. Using this technology, it became possible to create a network of relative light weight crew transport tunnels between the berthing trusses and the central modules. Additionally each berthing truss was also equipped with a number of inflatable modules for crews to work in and to provide access to the alien spacecraft. There was also the need for more power on the station and additional solar power modules were installed on the berthing trusses.

By May 2019, the IOD was finished and ready to receive the alien spacecraft for docking. But the strict timetable of the design and construction, as well as its rapid construction claimed the lives of two american, one indian and one british astronaut, four cosmonauts and two taikonauts. Errors in the construction of individual truss sections and inflatable crew tunnels had forced delays and a waste of money.

The need for helium 3 added another number of projects besides the IOD. In this case however the single space programs were more interested in outdoing each other by creating their own infrastructure on the Moon. Even so, there was a general understanding among the G-12 nations that several different projects all over the moon was better than a single project.

Yet the projects to build up the helium 3 infrastructure on the Moon received less funding than the IOD and therefore progressed slower. Most technologies needed for larger scale mining were already in experimental stages as every of the G-12 nations had been interested in lunar helium 3 for fusion reactors on Earth.

The main problem for harvesting the lunar regolith was that it was highly abrasive and was quick to destroy any tools used to scrape it of the surface. To mitigate the problem cermet materials had been developed that had a certain degree of abrasion resistance.

The methods used to gather the regolith varied. NASA designed a wheel tractor-scraper to gather up to eight cubic meters of regolith at a time, while the Soviet Union went for a design that was similar to drag line excavators. ESA made use of german engineering and had designed a bucket wheel excavator, small compared to the likes of Bagger 288, yet still a capable machine, which was to a degree copied by the chinese with a bucket ladder system.

While the ESA and Chinese systems could excavate larger amounts of regolith at any given time, the NASA and Soviet system were simpler in construction, less prone to failure and could be used in larger numbers.

After excavation the processes to extract helium 3 and other useful materials were pretty similar. The regolith was ground to a fine powder and using a combination of solar energy on lunar days and nuclear power on lunar nights, the resulting dust was heated to over one thousand Kelvin. By exposing the dust to hydrogen the oxides within the dust could be reduced to water vapor and pure metals, as well as helping to outgas the helium 3 trapped within the material.

Helium 3, water vapor and other volatiles still in the regolith could be separated from the hydrogen and either stored or, in the case of the water, electrolyzed to reuse the hydrogen and claim the oxygen.

The outgassed dust could then be processed further to produce iron, titanium, aluminium and silicon, which were of great use on the Moon and in orbit.

Compared to the IOD budget of more than two hundred billion US dollar, the budget for the mining operation was vastly lower and not used as well either. By the time the IOD came online the lunar mining operations had only worked at full capacity for less than three months and had yet to produce their first kilogram of helium 3, although oxygen was not a problem anymore on the Moon.

But the Big Four were not the only ones to set their sights on the Moon and cislunar space. The APSC, the AESA and private organizations were also very interested in profiting from the ‘Cislunar Gold Rush’, as this period would later be called.

Within the center of this ‘Gold Rush’ was DaimlerChrysler. When The Rocket Company and SpaceX showed that the private development of launch vehicles worked out, the management board of the German-US company wanted to get into the new market as well. Chrysler used to have a Space Division, which had built the S-IB stage of the Saturn V, and now DaimlerChrysler built up its own Space Division.

A product was found relatively quickly after reviewing past projects of Chrysler, the form of the Chrysler entry for the canceled Space Shuttle program. The Single-stage Earth-orbital Reusable Vehicle, short SERV, had been a design of an Apollo capsule shaped launch vehicle capable of lifting up to 50 tonnes into Earth orbit. Not unlike the DH-1 the SERV was fully reusable, but a single state to orbit design with robotic control for launch and landing.

The SERV made use of hydrogen and oxygen as fuel and a plug nozzle aerospike engine that kept itself largely effective within the atmosphere as well as within space. The actual ten injectors of the plug nozzle could be closed off by covers during reentry, with the heatshield being cooled down by the remaining liquid hydrogen. The final landing was then done by conventional jet engines.

Originally the SERV had been designed to either carry a conventional payload, a manned capsule that could be returned to Earth with the SERV or a space plane.

In the mid 2010s new technologies were available and DaimlerChrysler was out a surprisingly large budget into the project, especially following the success of the DH-1. By September 2017, the SERV was ready for testing and after a set of three launches and landings from the Brownsville Launch Complex and gaining the international permission to operate the launch vehicle.

The modern version of SERV had slightly more efficient engines and lighter composite materials for tanks and structure that reduced the overall weight, increasing the payload of the SERV to 55 tonnes. DaimlerChrysler also looked into the possibility of acquiring the permission to build and integrate a civilian version of the Counter-Grav system into the SERV, further increasing the payload.

While DaimlerChrysler did build up a launch service, they also aimed to sell the SERV to national space programs as well as private entities, marketing it as the ‘larger cousin of the DH-1’.

Interestingly The Rocket Company reacted positively to the SERV and offered a module for the DH-1 Orbital Stage. This module could be used as first stage and carry a fully fueled Orbital Stage and even a fully fueled Interplanetary Stage into orbit. SpaceX was also interested in the SERV to use as its carrier vehicle for the Griffin spaceplane, going as far as looking into selling the Griffin to anyone who would buy the SERV.

The quick turnover time of the SERV of about two weeks seemed like a good argument, as were its relatively high payload capacity and the relatively low cost of 750 million US Dollar per SERV.

As DaimlerChrysler was primarily an automotive company, they also introduced the idea of leasing into the space launch business, making the operation of the SERV interesting for those groups that could not outright buy one.

The Asian-Pacific Space Community bought one of the first SERV launch vehicles in early 2018 and used it for a couple of test launches, carrying fuel to the Asian-Pacific Space Station, before launching two additional DH-1 Lunar Stages, increasing the number of APSC spacecraft able to go to the Moon to four.

By June 2018, the four Lunar Stages were used to carry a work crew and equipment to the Moon to begin with the construction of a lunar station within a lava tube located in the Grimaldi Crater. Grimaldi Station was primarily intended to be used as mining station for helium 3, but also for the other material found on the Moon.

The AESA on the other hand was not really interested in the Moon itself. Much like before, the interests of Brazil and Argentina were more within the realm of providing services and being payed for them. As such, the AESA expanded its space station program with the first commercial, if governmentally owned refueling station in Medium Earth Orbit, to sell relatively cheap oxygen and hydrogen fuel to private and commercial groups operating DH-1 Orbital Stages past Low Earth Orbit.

Also buying one of the first SERV, the AESA began with the construction of the Posto De Propelente in May 2018, placing it into a 1000 kilometer orbit with a 5 degree inclination, inviting it to be used to go to the Moon.

Planetary Mining & Manufacturing was the first to make use of the Posto De Propelente, after acquiring and launching two DH-1 Lunar Stages, named Mannie and Whyo. PM&M used these two spacecraft to land equipment and crew on the Moon in October 2018, making them the first private entity to land humans on the Moon.

The plan of PM&M was a tad bigger than that of the Big Four or the APSC. PM&M intended to build a largely automated lunar station that primarily mined oxygen, iron, aluminium and titanium to be exported from the surface and be used for larger constructions in cislunar space. At first the export was intended to be done with the help of locally constructed chemically launch vehicles, using aluminium and oxygen as fuel in a hybrid rocket. The long term planning on the other hand called for the construction of a large lunar mass driver to get the materials into space.

Holmes Station, as PM&M named its station, was unique in its design, as a part of the capacity was used to expand its own operations, effectively making the station the first, if partial, Von Neumann machine. While much of the infrastructure of Holmes Station could be constructed with material available on the Moon, using rapid manufacturing systems, chemicals and micro circuitry needed for the expanded manufacturing processes and control systems had to be imported from Earth.

Dinkum, the PM&M asteroid mission to 2002 AA29, returned to Earth in April 2018, having completed its mission. The spacecraft returned with valuable information about the asteroid and its composition. The asteroid turned out to be a two hundred meter diameter C-class asteroid, more specially of the CI-type. As such the asteroid contained about twenty percent water and polycarbonates, as well as some valuable ores, making it an interesting target for PM&M.

By the time the Saturn mission and with them the Alien Rag Tag Fleet arrived in cislunar space, much had happened and cislunar space was slowly transforming with the help of mankind.

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