The human expansion into Sol System was tied intimately to the vigour of the early European Federation. As truly great nations always have, the Federation sought dominance in every field: the Europeans saw themselves as carrying the torch of progress for all humanity. One endeavour for which the EF was strongly placed was the exploration and colonisation of space: the European aerospace corporations were among the most successful in the world.
The first phase of the newly invigorated European space programme was the dispatching of an armada of robotic probes to explore Luna, Mars, the Jovian and Saturnian systems, and various comets and asteroids. The most spectacular probe was Trieste, a submarine-equipped lander for exploring the Europan ocean. The robotic explorers were a tour de force of engineering excellence and were soon returning a wealth of data. Robots, however, were not a real substitute for human scientists; this, and the promise of immense national prestige, soon lead the Europeans to consider sending out human teams in the wake of the robotic pathfinders.
The EF certainly had the will and economic strength to begin an ambitious human space programme, but had very little experience with human activities in space. Europe's Russian neighbours, on the other hand, had considerable expertise in long-duration human space missions, but were almost bankrupt. Furthermore, the European aerospace corporations had already forged strong links with the Russian aerospace-industrial complex. The partnership seemed a natural one, and Russia became an associate member of the European Space Agency in 2017. The space industry and its spin-off technology played an important part in the development of the Russian economy, helping Russia to take its place as a wealthy capitalist nation by the late 2020s.
In 2016, ESA had started preliminary work on a series of vehicles designed for establishing a human presence on Luna and Mars. To enable rapid development, increase reliability and reduce costs, common vehicles would be used for Lunar and Martian missions. The eventual mission profile was sufficiently close to NASA's Mars Semi-Direct architecture that the European and American governments decided to merge their programmes. The greater scale enabled by a joint mission more than compensated for the loss of exclusive control. Thus, the Ares project was born.
The central components of the mission hardware were a surface habitat module, a crew return vehicle, a nuclear propulsion stage and a methane-oxygen fuel factory designed for operation on Mars. The first part of any mission would land an Earth Return Vehicle on the target site. Missions to Luna would use a fully fueled ERV; Mars missions would fuel the ERV by manufacturing methane and oxygen from atmospheric carbon dioxide and a supply of hydrogen. When it had been confirmed that the ERV was ready for the return trip, the crew would follow in a Surface Habitat module at the next launch window. Following the operations on the surface, the crew would return to Earth in the ERV. A fueling station and habitat would be left on the surface to add to the facilities available for the next crew.
In January 2022, the first joint ESA-NASA mission to Luna landed a habitat in the Mare Nectaris using a chemical rocket stage. Three further crewed flights from Cape Canaveral and six cargo flights from Tyuratam in Kazakhstan and Kourou in European Guiana followed later in the year. One of the cargo modules landed a large optical telescope and another carried the first Lunar radio telescope to the farside. The Nectaris outpost that would grow into the Galileo Lunar Observatory by the end of the decade. The next year, a prototype helium-3 mining system was landed; the pilot operation became the first Lunar industry to show a profit.
By the mid 2020s the nuclear rocket for trans-Mars orbital injection had been fully tested and all the modules needed for the journey to Mars were ready. With the technological elements of the mission in place, the programme faced a political setback from North America: when the Alvarez administration began cutting funding to federal programmes to finance the escalation of the war in Brazil, Ares was an easy target. As a face-saving alternative to reducing the scope of the missions, leaving it as an essentially European programme, the US President suggested placing the project under the leadership of the United Nations Space Agency. This step allowed the mission to benefit from the injection of Chinese and Japanese money to compensate for the shrinking American involvement.
In 2027 a pair of Energia-2 rockets lifted off from Kourou Spaceport and launched ERVs on a direct trajectory towards Mars, accompanied by four cargo ships carrying rovers, drilling rigs, construction vehicles and other equipment. They were followed two years later by the first habitat modules: the UNSA ships Discovery and Endeavour. Early on 20 November 2031 the Discovery aerobraked into Martian orbit and later that day the four person crew descended to the surface. An entire world watched XXXX step out onto Isidis Planitia: "Another small step for a man; a greater leap for Mankind." The next day Endeavour touched down in Chryse, opening another region to human exploration.
The two groups remained on Mars for 18 months, surveying the terrain around their bases: the great volcanoes of Tharsis, the Noctis Labyrinthus and the Valles Marineris. The Pioneers managed to extract water by drilling into geothermally heated aquifers, grow their own food in inflatable greenhouses, and manufacture brick structures from the Martian soil before their return to Earth. The mission was an unqualified success and the crews were welcomed back as heroes.
Mars: 1 2 3 | 4 5 | 6 | Now
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