A Heavenly Gift
Dear President Chavez,
I am Dr. Brian Fuller, director of the USNA/UER joint deep space exploration program and project head of the Alpha-Centauri Expedition program. It is my honor and privilege to present this cursory report, bringing you up to speed on mankind's most ambitious project. First, a little background material is needed, forgive me if much of it seems to be mundane common knowledge or boring technobabble, but it is necessary background information when evaluating the current state of our combined deep space exploration and colonization efforts.
To a people who cling to the rival views of spiritual faith and scientific certainty, I believe that it can be judged by all as a heavenly gift; it is called "endurium." As I am sure you are aware, Mr. President, endurium metal was discovered back in the year 2080 by a prospecting probe launched by the Strauss Corporation's asteroid mining division. Deep within the main asteroid belt located between the planets Mars and Jupiter, this probe registered an "unknown" on its spectral analyzer as it prospected a deep crater in a seemingly ordinary asteroid.
Within a year of its discovery, the CEO of the Strauss Corporation had the first sample of the gleaming, black metal sitting atop his desk as a paperweight. Within two years, the corporation was awarded exclusive mining rights to the asteroid. And within three years of its discovery, the first space barges of the raw ore began to arrive at the corporation's many orbital refineries circling over both Mars and Earth.
The raw ore is difficult to mine; requiring heavy-duty laser picks to sheer off thin flakes of the material from the cavernous walls of the asteroid. While the ore's impurities are removed easily enough, the metal itself can be melted down only with the most powerful of laser smelters, thus hampering the company's production output. Lastly, the coveted metal is exceedingly expensive, leaving only the richest of corporations and nations with the means to purchase it.
However, despite these difficulties and its steep price, endurium is a highly sought after treasure. In fact, it is so sought after that by the end of the twenty-first century, the Strauss Corporation reportedly earned more profit from the mining of endurium than from all of its many nickel-iron asteroid mining operations combined, and is currently the wealthiest corporate enterprise in human history.
Endurium itself is an engineer's dream. Once refined, the dark metal is not only lighter but also stronger than titanium. It is more radiation resistant than lead and quickly expels heat. The tough metal is also electrically conductive and can easily be magnetized. In short, Mr. President, endurium is perfect for one thing; building spaceships.
Of course endurium has its military applications as well--better protected, lighter and faster tanks are currently manufactured, and stronger hulls enable submarines to rest at the bottom of the deepest fathoms of our Earth's oceans.
Gratefully, the world's two most powerful nations, the United States of North America and the United European Republic, have not seen more than a brushfire conflict to put out since the India-Pakistan war of 2029. And thanks in no small part to your own political efforts with the Indo-Chinease Empire, Mr. President, the Earth, for the most part, is at peace.
Ever since the tragic "Mayflower incident", there has been a great resurgence in the public interest of space exploration, and of course the discovery of endurium has only added to fuel that interest. However, it is fair to say that this renaissance in space exploration actually began many years ago when mankind first set foot on Martian soil in the year 2033. Public enthusiasm at the time was high as Mars was touted as a new world for humanity to explore, exploit and conquer.
Vast fortunes were made by companies as a result of research and development of terraforming techniques and equipment. Much of this research spilled over to the public's benefit. Breakthrough advances in farming, energy, resource conservation, robotics, education and much more blossomed after European astronaut Shelly Wright put her boot prints on the dusty, red surface of Mars. Over the last several decades, however, enthusiasm for the Mars colonization program has waned greatly.
Although heartbreaking, the more recent "Mayflower incident" has galvanized the public's attention and helped to once again to energize the various international space programs. It now seems that after enduring a sluggish program of expensive probes, financial hardships and tragedy, the USNA- and UER-sponsored space programs are finally gaining the public and private support needed to take the next big step--spearheading the movement of humanity into deep space. And the tip of this spear, Mr. President will be made of endurium.
Of the innumerable things that the refining of endurium has made possible, the development of an antimatter drive engine is by far the most significant.
With the hardy metal, magnetic traps used to store the antihydrogen fuel needed for the drive-engine are made. Endurium is also crafted to form the massive, magnetically-insulated engine nozzles used to harness the awesome power of the antimatter reaction. Additionally, tough, endurium-skinned hulls are currently on the drawing boards. Once shaped around our new engines, we will have entirely new breeds of spacecraft to chariot mankind through the vastness of space.
Before the antimatter drive, before endurium, interplanetary space ships relied on the nuclear fusion drive. For interplanetary travel, the fusion drive system works well enough. A ship can leave Earth orbit and reach the colonies on Mars in little more than a couple months. But now with the advent of the antimatter drive, some ships will be able to cruise at more than half the speed of light. This breakthrough in space propulsion will make interplanetary travel much faster and thus speed mankind's expansion into the Sol star-system. Of greater significance is the fact that the antimatter drive has also made one other thing possible--interstellar exploration.
With the nuclear fusion drive, an interstellar voyage to our nearest star system would have taken thousands of years and required generations of people to live out their entire lives within the confines of an inconceivably-massive spaceship. Until recently, many of our greatest scientists had come to the sad realization that the human race would most likely live out its existence, stuck within its home star system. While as a species we would spread ourselves out amongst the many planets and numerous moons of our solar system, in the end we would forever be confined to it. Now that we have discovered endurium, all that has changed. Now mankind can explore other star systems. Now interstellar travel can be accomplished within just a few years. And now the human race is not doomed to perish when Sol shines the very last flicker of its fading light.
Mr. President, mankind already knows where it will explore first. A fourth generation space telescope, hovering over the dark side of Earth's moon, has already unveiled much of the nearby galaxy. However, this telescope's main purpose is to actually image planets orbiting other stars.
The newly-completed Sagan telescope is a miracle of modern science and has spied many worlds orbiting other suns. Most of these worlds are large Jupiter-like planets. Around some of these planets, small, orbiting moons have been detected.
But of particular interest to us, Mr. President, is the observation of Earth-like planets, planets that are already ripe for human colonization.
Disappointingly, though, it seems that finding an Earth-like world will be a very rare occurrence. As my colleague and department head of the Sagan research program, Dr. Orin Fletcher, once publicly stated, "It's like trying to find a sapphire in a gravel pit. Nevertheless, our own solar system had two such planets at one time and with terraforming and another couple hundred years, it will once again. There must be more of these habitable, Earth-like worlds out there!"
Indeed the famed astronomer was correct, Mr. President, as we soon discovered more of these habitable worlds really are out there. Incidentally, on Dr. Fletcher's sixty-first birthday, an earth-like planet was detected orbiting the star Rigel Kentaurus, also known as Alpha Centauri. I was privileged to be a witness to this event, Mr. President, and I can attest that never were there any larger tears of joy to stream down a human face than those that seeped from the eyes of Dr. Fletcher as he stood in the control center, gazing upon the telescope's holoview relay. Through the blur of tears, Dr. Fletcher observed the image of an earth-like planet and its equally earth-like moon, both of them blue and swirled with white. At long last, Dr. Fletcher also saw a victorious conclusion to his lifelong search.
A spectral analysis of the planet and its orbiting moon concluded that they are of course made of the same composition of elements as the Earth. Importantly, there is also the presence of methane, carbon dioxide and oxygen contained within the atmospheres of both of these new worlds, suggesting the possibility of life.
The planet is a bit smaller than Earth but its oceanic moon is much larger than the one that orbits our own homeworld.
Although the new worlds are surprisingly close to one another, their atmospheres do not seem adversely affected by the complex gravitational influences. The orbital relationship between the planet and its moon seem to be predictable as well as stable.
Technically speaking, the newly discovered worlds are a "double planet system," much like the Earth and its own moon. These new worlds have been given the names of "Pholus" and "Nessus" after the centaurs of Greek mythology.
The star system itself is a trinary star system. The alpha star, which the newly discovered planets orbit, is nearly identical to Sol in every way. The beta star is somewhat smaller and of a different spectral class, but still a good candidate for harboring habitable worlds. Then there is the gamma star, a lonely dwarf star that from a great distance slowly orbits the two inner stars.
The alpha and beta stars are far enough from each other that planets within a few Astronomical Units--or A.U.'s--of each sun, should be pretty much unaffected by the other's gravitational pull.
As before mentioned, the alpha star has at least the double planets orbiting at one point one A.U.'s, while the beta star has at least one gas giant, given the name of "Chiron", orbiting at one point seven A.U.'s. Thus far, Mr. President, no other planets are detectable in the system; however that doesn't necessarily mean that there are no more.
With an over-arching goal and more importantly, the means to fulfill it, mankind began construction of its first interstellar spacecraft just a few years ago. Specialized equipment has been quickly developed and expedition crews selected from a worldwide pool of highly-qualified men and women. Impressively, within only twelve years of the discovery of endurium in the pocket of a small asteroid, mankind's dreams of space exploration, colonization and discovery are about to become a reality.
The Strauss Corporation of course is contracted to supply all the endurium needed to build our fleet of four interstellar spacecraft, and responsible for the fabrication of their various endurium components. Additionally, in exchange for tying up the entirety of its endurium production capacity, Strauss Corporation has been awarded exclusive mining rights to all celestial bodies discovered within the Centauri and Bernard's star systems for the next two hundred Earth years.
The USNA and UER space agencies assemble the antimatter drives and the spaceship hulls in high orbit, while also providing the personnel to man each ship as it is completed. Our Japanese allies supply the cargo drop pods and all of the food, supplies and necessary equipment for each of the interstellar expeditions.
All of the spacecrafts' hibernation systems are subcontracted to an Australian research company known as Blackwell Biocorporation.
Blackwell Biocorp wields the cutting edge in biotechnology and has been instrumental in the development of the hybrid grains and other genetically manipulated flora that are now beginning to flourish in the thawing Martian soil.
When news spread of the creation of an expedition to the Centauri star system, Blackwell Biocorp and a handful of competitors submitted prototype, onboard, hibernation systems for our consideration.
I must say however that Blackwell's biostasis canister system, with its enriched premium-grade biogel suspension, easily outshines the rest. Blackwell uses what it calls "the bad babysitter" approach to keeping an astronaut's mind and body healthy during a long interstellar voyage...toss him into a dark closet with some food and then force him into a deep sleep. The biogel not only nourishes, hydrates and oxygenates the astronaut's body but also dramatically reduces the bone and muscle atrophy that is inevitable in a weightless environment.
The astronauts are simply placed into a two and a half meter by one meter, Plexiglas tube and suspended within the biogel. A deep sleep is induced upon them via electrical brain wave manipulation. During the voyage, the ship's onboard medical A.I. computer monitors every aspect of the astronaut's physical state along with the biogel's viability, via sensor particles suspended within the biogel and sensor nodes along the inside of the biocanister frame.
Through the induced sleep, along with the biogel actually maintaining the astronaut's body, the aging process is nearly slowed to a halt. With a continuing flush of biogel, an astronaut can expect to age roughly one month for every year in biostasis, thus making the range of interstellar expansion within one human lifetime far greater than could previously be achieved.
However, the biogel does have its drawbacks. It must be continuously recycled through a rather elaborate filtration system. Otherwise, toxins extracted from the astronaut's body through natural metabolic processes will eventually overcome and clog the system, allowing those same toxins to be reintroduced back into the body. This would in turn ultimately lead to the astronaut's death from septic shock, a poisonous and slow way to die.
Biogel must also be stored in a separate vat for each biocanister to eliminate the possibility of cross-contamination in the case that a filter actually does fail. The biogel is also sensitive to light. Any prolonged exposure to bright light will cause a deterioration of the biogel itself and a decline in the effectiveness of its preservative properties. However with tinted plexiglas or a medical darkroom, this problem is easily negated.
Keeping astronauts in biostasis for long, interstellar voyages also solves other nagging problems. The amount of food needed to maintain a single astronaut is significantly reduced, allowing more room aboard ship for equipment and other supplies. The possibility of mental illness during a long space voyage is now far less likely. And through A.I. computer control, the crew can easily be awakened from their slumber should an emergency happen to arise.
Our first expedition will be small, Mr. President. This is, after all, only a first phase scouting expedition. There is currently no need to send an expensive, nigh-irreplaceable colony ship, full of our precious people, blindly into the unknown. The risk of losing such an important and valuable resource without knowing what to expect during the voyage and at voyage's end, is just far too great.
Our scout ship must to be sent out first. By sending the scout ship, the risk versus benefit of sending a fully loaded colony ship can be assessed by our mission planners with a great deal of the guesswork eliminated.
The scout ship's communication A.I. system will maintain constant contact with the mission control center in low Earth orbit. Data stream communications traveling at the speed of light will be exchanged between the scout ship and mission control for as long as possible. Gradually, as the ship speeds further and further into the depths of space, its datastream signal will grow more faint and take longer to reach the Earth. As the signal becomes too weak to be received, the ship's A.I. will dispense a multipurpose Nav/Com cylinder to boost the signal and send detailed information about the surrounding space back to our mission control.
The scout ship will carry hundreds of these small cylinders loaded in a dispenser magazine along the ship's spine, laying them out at intervals along the way. Essentially, Mr. President, this is a communication breadcrumb trail leading back to Earth.
Of course the scout ship can never carry enough Nav/Com cylinders to reach the Alpha-Centauri star system. In order to communicate with Earth from the Centauri worlds, a very powerful data stream broadcaster will be assembled on each planet. Messages can then be sent from this broadcaster to either the orbiting scout ship or one of several multipurpose, GPS/Com satellites that are to be placed in high orbit above the alien worlds.
From there, the datastream broadcast signal can be relayed along the Nav/Com cylinder chain back to one of several orbital relay stations over Mars and Earth.
From the Centauri star system, it will take four point four years on average to exchange communications with Earth, a very long correspondence indeed. But until a clear path to the Centauri system has been navigated and habitability confirmation of either of the dual, Centauri worlds is received, no colony ship should be sent and other colonization options should be considered.
Our scout ship UNSS Pegasus is the first of her class. I understand that you have only seen holovids of her. Mr. President, let me assure you that scout ships themselves are not small craft; colony ships are just huge by comparison. But at two hundred twenty-five meters, the Pegasus is nearly the length of a Mars-class colony ship.
A cylindrical, five-deck, habitation module makes up the fore section of the Pegasus, along with a twenty-five meter, electromagnetic field mast.
This mast juts like a tusk from the ship's dark, endurium hull protecting the vessel from stellar dust and micro meteoroid impacts. The Captain of the Pegasus likes to think that this mast makes his ship look like a mythical unicorn, a powerful rhinoceros or even a brilliant hummingbird. But in reality, due to necessity of design, I'm afraid the spaceship more resembles an ugly, black mosquito.
The first deck of the habitation module houses the ship's command center. From here, all of the ship's systems and functions are monitored and adjusted. These various systems are tied into a gray, U-shaped command desk behind which are three seats for the Captain, his Executive Officer or "X.O.", and the ship's engineer.
A spectacular view of vast open space can be seen from the single, thick and elongated view port semi-circling this deck.
Also housed within the command cabin is the ship's governor A.I. brain. When initiated, this artificial intelligence gathers information from the numerous A.I. subsystems spread throughout the body of the ship. Having gathered this information, the ship then reacts on these artificial senses in order to best ensure its survival.
Artificial intelligence in one form or another has been navigating space ships and monitoring their crews for over eighty years now. And although certainly not fool-proof, accidents under the guidance of these intelligences are a rare occurrence.
The governor A.I. of the Pegasus is of the latest technology and design. So confident are our mission planners in the infallibility of this A.I., Mr. President, that the Pegasus will run on autopilot for nearly the entire duration of its nine-year voyage.
After having arrived at its destination, the ship's governor A.I. will awaken the fourteen members of its human crew and begin scanning the surface of the alien planets for ideal drop pod landing zones.
From the second deck of the habitation module, the crew will enter the long, horizontal access tube making up the spine of the vessel, as well as the bulk of its length. There they will have access to each of the ships six large drop pods via internal hatchway doors and conduct a final pre-planet-fall inspection. This tube is caged within an endurium lattice support frame and runs aft for eighty meters before ending at the access hatch to the ship's small engine trunk.
It is at this point that a large endurium disk skirts the remaining aft portion of the ship. This physical barrier provides a shield protecting the habitable areas of the vessel from the intense radiation that spills from her three immense engine nozzles.
It is my sincere hope that you have the opportunity to view the Pegasus in person Mr. President, before she leaves us forever. Those few who have seen her in orbital dry-dock have marveled at her size. By necessity, she is a true giant when compared to the smaller, interplanetary scout ships. She must be larger because even though the Pegasus will only be carrying a fourteen-member crew, this proud ship will be taking them further from the human home-world than anyone has ever gone before. So far in fact, that even after our mission control center receives the expedition's datastream broadcast signaling their successful arrival, fresh supplies and assistance from Earth will still be a minimum of nine years away. The Pegasus will therefore have to carry with her all the supplies and equipment needed for the expedition to be permanently self-sufficient.
Nevertheless, Mr. President, I firmly believe that the Pegasus will accomplish her mission, safely carrying her precious crew along with their necessities to the Centauri star system. There, these brave men and women will forge a new life on an alien world. With the hopes and blessings of all mankind bestowed upon them, the expedition to Alpha Centauri will lay the foundation for the first human society to flourish under the light of another sun.
END OF AFTER-ACTION REPORT.