Spaceflight in the 21st Century was marked by two periods of rapid expansion and one of complete stagnation. The first period is often known as the end of the first Space Age; the second is universally known as the Kessler Syndrome; the third is known as the Golden Age of Space Flight.
The end of the first Space Age was marked by the brief existence of a dynamic private space industry, led by four companies: Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, and Blue Origin. These four companies pioneered new methods for space travel that would later come to shape the Golden Age of space flight. Virgin Galactic at its height was the largest space tourist company by volume, sending over 100,000 people to space in 2014 with their groundbreaking SpaceShipTwo space plane. While air-launch technology would be eventually be abandoned, the wing feathering that SpaceShipTwo used to renter the atmosphere safely would become the main way for manned craft to enter the atmosphere. SpaceX was the first private company to achieve orbital flight, and replaced the Space Shuttle as the primary means of NASA to send cargo and astronauts to the ISS. By 2014, the Falcon X had entered service, and was carrying much heavier payloads to orbit, enabling the deployment of more robotic explorers to the solar system. SpaceX ultimately contributed to important discoveries in heavy-lift technologies and general launch systems. Bigelow Aerospace was instrumental in the deployment of inflatable space habitats, that would prove to be essential to off-world stations and long range craft. Prior to the Kessler syndrom in 2015, Bigelow had five stations orbiting the Earth.
Of all these companies, Blue Origin was the only to survive the "Space Bust," the economic collapse limited to the aerospace industry after the Kessler Syndrome. This was largely due to the company's array of military concepts, and their development of the Stratollites that would come to replace satellites. Blue Origin was known for developing nano-satellites and inexpensive launch systems that relied heavily on hypersonic air-breathing propulsion technologies. These technologies were eventually repurposed for military and in-atmospheric operations during the Kessler Syndrom and eventually placed back into space technologies.
In the late 2030s and early 2040s, the International Space Agency, formed in 2039, began launching a number of multi-national sponsored debris cleaners to orbit to remove the heavy particles that made spaceflight impossible over the last two decades. By 2042, largely thanks to advances in materials sciences, space debris was down to pre-1960s levels, and new laws mandated that all further craft leave as little debris in space as possible. A new network of nano-satellites were placed into orbit, providing a free global communication's network and positioning system.
With the creation of the ISA, and the rebirth of space flight, the Golden Age of Space Flight came into being. A number of former astronauts and former defense contractors established new companies to compete with Blue Origin, or at the very least supply new technologies for a space industry. Government investment spurred a slew of adventurers to the Moon and various asteroids to supply the Earth with the minerals it so needed to survive and grow the global economy. Spurred by this need for minerals and overcrowding on Earth, the ISA began pushing for more long range space programs. By 2049, humanity had landed on Mars, by 2055, humans had reached the Jovian Moons and established long term gas mining facilities. By the 2060s the Moon alone, had a population of over a million people and Mars was reaching half a billion.
In 2074, the ISA launched the Voyager III spacecraft to Alpha Centauri to explore Earth's nearest stellar neighbor. This first expedition confirmed one planet that humans could inhabit, with several cryospheres and other terrestrial worlds. Today the IEVs make regular runs between Alpha Centauri and Earth, supplying Earth's small colonies, and furthering exploration.
- Space Shuttle
- SpaceX Dragon Capsule
- New Horizons
- Von Braun: The Von Braun spacecraft were the first manned craft to begin making regular flights to Mars in 2049. Launched in Earth Orbit after being assembled at ISA space stations, the Von Braun craft were all roughly the size of an Ohio Class attack submarine. Powered by two Thorium reactors driving two next generation VASIMR engines, and carrying a single landing craft, the Von Braun craft origionally were intended to remain in orbit around Mars while ground crews established a limited encampment. Later missions had the Von Braun leaving the crew on the surface and refueling with hydrogen extracted from the Martian atmosphere.
- Shoemaker: The successor to the Von Braun spacecraft, the Shoemaker series were the first craft intended for long term voyages to the outer planets. Unlike the Von Braun, the 20,000 ton craft carried a greenhouse for continuous food and oxygen production, and was intended to act as a "mobile space station," upon reaching its destination. At 1km in length the Shoemaker spacecraft were the largest ever built up until that point, and carried a crew of 165. Powered by a single He-3 laser interial confinement fusion reactor, and propelled by four state-of-the-art VASIMR engines, the first Shoemaker spacecraft launched for the Jovian system in 2055, reaching Jupiter's orbit in the fall of 2057. Along with traditional crew quarters and greenhouses, the Shoemaker spacecraft carried four landing craft for exploring the Jovian moons. After the success of the first mission, several other spacecraft were configured for long term flights to the rest of the outer planets, the last being the Shoemaker 9 mission to Tyche, which took place short after the launch of the first IEV.
- Voyager III: Named for the origional Voyager spacecraft, dubbed the spiritual successor of humanity's first interstellar craft, Voyager III was the first man made object to reach another star system. Utilizing the VASIMR/Antimatter hybrid propulsion system, the Voyager craft was the first vehicle ever to achieve relativistic speeds, specifically large fractions of the velocity of light. Traveling at upwards of 90% the velocity of light, Voyager arrived at Alpha Centauri B in 5 years. These speeds could not be achieved by the future IEV, due to the greater mass of the vehicle and the limits of the human cargo.
- Interstellar Exploration Vehicle: At 3km in length the IEVs are the largest spacecraft mankind has ever constructed, and are the sole craft capable of making flights out to the Alpha Centauri System. The majority of the mass of the craft is located in the propulsion buss, which houses the anti-matter storage tanks and radiators that are essential for the excess heat generated by matter/anti-matter annihilation. The crew habitat and cargo module are positioned at the opposite end of the craft by nanotube tether. Aft of the propulsion bus is the Berillium shield that protects the craft from particle impacts, while a magnetic field guards against gas strikes. With two He-3 fusion reactors runing in tandem to power the magnetic containment and deflector fields essential to storing antimatter and shielding the craft from radiation during its years traveling between Earth and Alpha Centauri, the IEV remains the only craft ever constructed with multiple nuclear fusion powerplants.
- International Space Station
- BA 330 Skywalker
- Tranquility Outpost
- The ISS is completed.
The US Space Shuttle is retired after over 30 years of service.
- The SpaceX Dragon Capsule begins ferrying astronauts to the ISS.
- A VASMIR engine is affixed to the ISS, the station is now capable of propelling itself into higher orbit without assistance from docking spacecraft.
- The Russians launch their Klipper Space Shuttle to begin missions to the ISS.
- Bigelow Aerospace launches the BA 330 Skywalker space hotel.
- Virgin Galactic debuts SpaceShipThree. Roughly the size of the retired Space Shuttle it is the largest commercial spacecraft ever built.
- The largest trans-neptunian planet is discovered at roughly 31,000 AU from the sun. Dubbed Tyche, the gas giant has a mass four times that of Jupiter and is confirmed to be the body that causes the displacement of objects from the Oort Cloud that are linked to Earth's mass extinctions.
- A Russian early warning satellite goes offline after decades of neglect. Its orbit crosses into that of a smaller European GPS satellite and the two collide resulting in the largest debris field in the history of space flight.
- As more and more satellites are struck by the growing debris cloud a Kessler syndrome forms and it is determined by NASA, the ESA, JAXA, and RSA that manned space flight is no longer possible with the growing debris.
- The last astronaut aboard the ISS returns to Earth. The station's project managers fire the VASMIR engine one last time to send the station into Lunar Orbit in the hope of preserving it for future generations.
- The New Horizons space probe reaches Pluto. NASA begins preparing to send it into the Kuiper Belt.
- SpaceX finally folds. The company's assets are purchased by Blue Origin to be used for traditional aircraft manufacturing.
- NASA after three years of observing Pluto and Charon send New Horizons into the Kuiper Belt. The Agency disbands and control over the satellite and the ISS now permanently orbiting the Moon is handed off to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
- SETI picks up a unique signal from space very similar to the Wow! signal. It lasts for five minutes and distinct tones are detected that indicate some form of communication. The scientists record it and begin analysing the signal. It comes to be known as the Conversation.
- The first debris cleaners return from Low Earth Orbit, analysis of craft on Earth confirms that Space Debris is back down to 2010 levels.
- The International Space Agency is formed as a coalition of all former space agencies, it is based out of New Sheppard, Texas.
- POTA meets to discuss the potential for mining space based resources now that most rare earth minerals have been depleted.
- Space debris is finally down to 1960s levels; the ISA begins launching a number of new microsatelites, specially designed to leave the least amount of debris as possible.
- Blue Origin launches the first SSTO space plane.
- The ISA begins issuing grants to private companies to develop the means to being space mining.
- The ISA makes its first flight to the Moon aboard a Blue Origin shuttle. The crew docks with the ISS and begins stocking it with supplies; a landing will be attempted in early 2043.
- The first lunar base is established by the ISA. The ISS has become a supply station for lunar missions.
- New Horizons reaches Eris the largest Kuiper belt object yet discovered.
- The ISA begins sending mining equipment to the moon and several asteroid bases for mineral extraction. Rare Earth Minerals are listed as top priority.
- Lunar mining begins on a large scale by private companies under contract from the world's governments. The cost of resources drops to unimaginably low levels.
- With the Gold Standard now in danger of losing its authority, POTA adopts an international debit system of currency, ending paper money. Most countries still refer to money in terms of the old currency despite the change.
- The ISA launches the first manned mission to Mars. Astronaut Olivet Page becomes the first person to set foot on the surface of Mars, stating, "We've finally arrived, but the journey has just begun."
- Space mining on the moon and on near earth objects brings in a huge wealth to the Earth, driving the greatest economic boom in history. People begin flooding to the Moon and asteroid colonies to make fortunes in the space industry.
- The United States, with the backing of the Pacific Ocean Treaty Alliance, place into orbit around the moon a number of spy satellites to monitor any potential threats towards the Earth.
- The first manned mission to Jupiter is launched by the ISA.
- The ISA begins efforts for a sustained human colonization of Mars. The first civilian ship leaving for the red planet holds over a thousand passengers.
- The Moon reaches a population of some 1.2 million people.
- Mars reaches a population of close to half a billion people. This explosion of colonists is largely spurred by overcrowding on Earth and the success of subterranian housing.
- The ISA conducts the launch of the first space vehicle with a matter-antimater propulsion system, Voyager III, named for the third spacecraft of the voyager series that never launched. The spacecraft is the result of nearly two decades of R&D by the ISA and launches or the Alpha Centarui system on a seven year mission. Voyager makes contact with a habitable word orbiting between Centauri B and Centauri A. The planet is roughly 14% larger than that of Earth and 5% more massive.
- The ISA sends its first manned mission to the Centauri System. The massive ship, some 3 km in length, carries 100 people in suspended animation for the seven year trip. Leaving the Sol system with traditional VASIMR drivers, the craft fires its anti-matter engines near the orbit of Pluto. A Berrilium shield protects the crew for the duration of the mission.
- Humanity establishes its first colony on planet Terra Nova in the Centauri System. The atmosphere is 50% O2, 1% Water Vapor, 30% Nitrogen and 9% C02.