While Mars and Venus were the main focus of the late 1980s and the early to mid 1990s, NASA and the Soviet Union were far from idle back home in cislunar space.
NASA was now dependent on small CCPM-2 modules that were only useful for moving crew from and to the Moon. The large chemical and nuclear propulsion modules, needed for decent cislunar transportation, had been used to create the boosters for Enterprise and Artemis.
With the next Mars mission scheduled for 1990, NASA had to update their existing plans for further infrastructure development in cislunar space and scheduled more and larger launches from Cape Canaveral.
It helped that Boeing had been working on a fuel crossfeed technology that allowed for an increase in payload for the Saturn CC-31 and CC-32 boosters adding only a little extra weight. The fuel crossfeed allowed to feed fuel and oxidizer from the booster cores into the central core. Doing so allowed for the use the engines of the center core without touching its fuel until the burnout and the decoupling of booster cores.
For the Saturn CC-31 the result is an increase of payload capacity by twenty percent to 120 tonnes, while the CC-32 got an increase to 150 tonnes.
The first launch of a CC-31 with fuel crossfeed was on September 13, 1989 delivering a CCPM-1, while the first CC-32 with fuel crossfeed launched on June 4, 1990 supplying fuel and oxidizer to the orbital propellant depot.
Forced to use the existing launchers and contracts for the propulsion modules, the expansion of Copernicus Base was put on hold for the moment, allowing the crew to undertake a number of more lengthy excursions with a pressurized rover that had been landed on the Moon early 1987.
During one of these excursions, two astronauts were able to discover two lava tubes in the impact basalt of the Copernicus Crater. The geologists on the Moon and back on Earth were puzzled to what exactly formed these tubes as the lava of the Copernicus impact could not have flowed to form these tubes.
Both lava tubes were accessible from the surface due to a partial collapse of the roof, caused by a meteorite impact. NASA started to conduct research on site shortly afterwards The largest tube The larger of the two tubes is about two kilometer in length with a maximum width of thirty meter and a maximum height of about fifteen meter. The smaller one was only one and a half kilometers long with a maximum width and height of twenty three and twelve meters. The basalt of the walls and roofs both tubes were at least ten meters thick, making them both very stable.
Lava tubes were actively sought after as a the were considered to be a much more suitable place for a lunar base, as opposed to a base on the open plain with some regolith on it. Therefore this discovery was excellent news to NASA.
The thick roof of basalt in a lava tube was able to provide a much better amount of protection from both micrometeorites and radiation, as well as presenting a stable temperature inside.
NASA considered relocating Copernicus Base into the larger of the two tubes, nicknamed Lunar Line. With the Soviet Mission to Venus and the militarization of space however, these plans were discontinued, aside from setting up a sensory platform within Lunar Line.
The year 1994 was dubbed ‘The Cursed Year’ by many NASA employees. Two bad accidents happened within three months of each other.
The first accident happened on March 3, when a Saturn CC-31 detonated on Launch Pad 39-B. The vehicle was to carry propellant for the propellant depot. The detonation of over 3300 tonnes of propellant had the force of a low kiloton yield nuclear weapon. The explosion was heard and felt as far as Miami, completely destroying Launch Pad 39-B and severely damaging Launch Pad 39-A and killed one technician directly from the detonation. Thirteen more were killed and hundreds injured from the blastwave.
All planned launches of the Saturn Common Core were suspended until further notice, to investigate the detonation and to repair Launch Pad 39-A for continued use, which would take three months, seriously hampering operations. Manned launches could be resumed within two months after repairing Launch Pads 40 and 41.
To NASA it became clear that operating from a single launch site, was a risk that had to be curbed and sought out a second launch site. While Vandenberg Air Force Base was considered, NASA decided on the Texas bid, Brownsville. Brownsville was located on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and further south than Cape Canaveral. Not only did it allow a small increase in payload capacity, but also enabled a launch profile over the ocean, reducing the possibility of damage to private property. Additionally the second launch site would allow for an increase of launches for NASA.
In the end the investigation revealed that Boeing had used a damaged gasket for the RP-1 fuel crossfeed line on the left booster. A video camera had captured how the RP-1 had gushed out of the fuel line and had been set aflame with the ignition of the rocket engines, triggering the explosion within mere seconds.
While the investigation of the launch pad detonation was still in progress, another disaster struck NASA. On June 9, a micrometeorite perforated one of the habitat modules of Copernicus Base, opening it to vacuum and causing explosive decompression. Three astronauts died without any chance to save themselves or to be rescued.
There had been a call for governmental investigations into NASA following the two accidents. The Saturn detonation had largely been a loss of material and skilled employees. As soon as NASA had found the cause of it, they started reworking the workflow of the vehicle assembly to prevent similar accidents.
The accident on the Moon on the other hand had killed three astronauts, one of them slated to go to Mars later in 1994. Other than the death of Jerome Apt, this time it had been a natural disaster. NASA was very vocal about not being able to defend against such accidents and that they had already been working to relocate Copernicus Base into the Lunar Line Lava Tube, to better protect the astronauts against micrometeorites and radiation.
The political maneuvering within the Pentagon lead to the Uniform Space Military Act, Pub.L. 104-34 in early 1995. While every politician in Washington D.C. was aware that, technically, the Air Force had the most experience to get the mandate for acting as the spaceborne armed forces, they also knew that actually giving that mandate to them would make the other services of the Armed Forces openly rebel against that decision, especially the Navy forces.
The Uniform Space Military Act effectively created a new branch of the Armed Forces, named Space Force. To fill the ranks of the new Space Force, the Air Force, Army and Navy had to give up most of their own space assets. This included the Air Force Space Command and parts of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, as well as the budgets for those space assets.
That the ballistic nuclear arsenal of the Army could technically be classified as extremely long ranged artillery prevented it from being transferred over to the Space Force.
NASA also had to give up a part of its budget, as well as the Vesper and a number of astronauts. Further NASA was to share training facilities and launch facilities with the newly created Space Force. To benefit from NASA’s experience with actual manned operations in space, several scientists and engineers were offered to transfer to the Space Force, though most were only interested in temporary jobs as consultants.
The Advanced Defensive Program, formerly known as SDI, was also transferred to the Space Force and continued to develop new weapons, by now using knowledge gained from alien artifacts as well.
The Space Force officially began to serve as an active part of the United States Armed Forces on July 4, 1996. Space Command and Space Systems Command had been kept operational before this date, while the structure of the Space Force had been worked out.
Falling back to the Cislunar Infrastructure Development Plan, the Space Force was able to launch its own armed space station Liberty in January 1997, followed by the first Strategic Propellant Depot One in May 1997. The Space Force also launched a number of smaller manned and armed spacecraft, Nike One through Three, to act as mobile orbital defenses and to complement the newly renamed United States Craft USC Vesper.
Meanwhile NASA worked to relocate Copernicus Base into the Lunar Line Tube, which proved to be more of a challenge than expected. However the modular design of the lunar station helped out. A special rover with a crane was built and sent to the Moon, followed by a ‘flatbed’ rover.
The crane was used to remove the habitat and laboratory modules from their landing modules, then transported them to the Lunar Line Tube with the ‘flatbed’ and placed the modules on prepared foundations a hundred meter into the tube. To make moving between the habitats and laboratories easier, the foundations were equipped with transfer tubes and external lighting rigs.
The nuclear power module of Copernicus Base remained on the surface, to keep the radiators at maximum effectivity. A landing pad was also prepared for resupply and crew rotation.
By the end of 1997, the relocation had been finished. Just in time, as another meteorite destroyed one of the now useless landing modules that had carried a habitat module. The hit and now the near hit to the manned base made NASA begin to think of ways to reduce the risk of micrometeorites in the future.
With the relocation done, NASA returned to expand Copernicus Base, using several newly developed inflatable modules that provided a massive increase in habitable space. Each of the three modules had the space of three conventional habitat modules.
On the Soviet side, the space program did what NASA had already done during the 1970s, building up a working larger infrastructure in space to support their operations better.
Previously, all of the landers for the Moon or nuclear propulsion modules had been made for a single use only and had to be constructed specifically for an operation. Now NRO Energia, under Vasily Mishin, realized that this way would be too expensive in the long run. VEK 1 and 2 had been the first steps in the reuse of their orbital assets, but the Soviet Union needed to rival or better yet surpass the United States.
The N-1 already went through a number of revisions and had turned into an entire launcher family capable of launching payloads of 50 up to 150 tonnes. Now it was required to use the potential of these increased payloads for the best possible gains. To increase the number of launches, the Kapustin Yar Cosmodrome had been expanded to include an additional four N-1 launch pads during the early 1990s.
The Block N nuclear propulsion stage was modified, so multiple uses became an option. This would also require a refueling station, therefore a propellant depot was placed in orbit, capable of servicing the three Block N that were now used on routine missions to support the lunar base Zvezda. The addition of a Functional Cargo Block FGB turned these stages into lunar shuttles, named Buran One through Three.
As one of the first Veneran artifacts was assumed to be a fusion reactor, or at least a part of a fusion reactor, the Academy of Sciences was very interested in lunar Helium-3. Analysis of the lunar regolith had already shown that the location of Zvesda contained a higher amount of Helium-3 compared to the samples returned by the early manned and unmanned Soviet lunar mission. This meant that the Soviet Union was sitting on top of a prime source of Helium-3, it just had to be extracted and shipped back to Earth.
To this end, Energia began with the development of a new reusable lunar lander that could be fueled by a lunar orbital station, based on a DOS module. The new LOK station entered service in 1998, followed by the first reusable lunar lander Ptichka in 1999.
In Earth orbit MOK was joined by MKBS, an armed and much larger version of MOK in late 1996. Being a primarily military program an armed version of the TKS was developed as an answer to the American Nike spacecraft. Four of these ATKS were launched and stationed on MKBS.
Having gained good experience in using automated probes, especially the automated resupply version of the TKS spacecraft, the Soviet Union designed an automated weapon platform on the base of the FGB. The 70 tonne platform, named Polyus, was the first spacecraft class armed with a functional laser weapon, a 1 MW carbon-dioxide system. A guard system gun was also included with the system to allow the platform to defend itself against missile weapons.
Future projects were a second generation design of Polyus, using either a higher powered laser system or a dual laser system with a higher impulse rate.