The Gas Station

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(Followup to Launch time)

November 2017

Two men were sitting on a console in the large control room of ESA in Darmstadt.

“You think we will be able do this?”

“Yes, I think so. As long as the governments back in Brussels don’t do something stupid, we will go through the mission as planned.”

“Do you think the US will protest again?” “No, they did not protest that much when we finished the fourth ISV.”

“Is everything assembled at our depot?”

“Yes, the last checks were completed three days ago. All astronauts have been sent up and everyone is just waiting for the ‘go’ signal.”

In the first half of 2017 the four Interplanetary Space Vehicles of ESA and JAXA had been sent on several smaller missions to Venus and the Belt. The longest mission had been the voyage of the ISV Nobu Shirase around Saturn. ESA had called it an endurance test and dropped a number of scientific satellites around the planet, but called the ISV back home soon after.

But after this none of the spaceships had left ESAs space depot again. Some people said ESA and JAXA were tired with senseless flying around. Others said, the EU governments were not willing to pay for it anymore.

But the second step on ESAs “10 year plan to get back into space” began exactly as the last step. In the middle of a storm of reporters, camera flashes flickering off like lightning without thunder.

ESAs press speaker and the representative of JAXA were grinning into the cameras, it was time to hit the naysayer with another club on the head. And he would hit them hard!

“Welcome ladies and gentlemen.” he started with a smile.

“In the last six months since our flyby mission around Saturn there have been voices that said the cooperation between ESA and JAXA has burned out. That we are without a goal to reach. Today you are here to learn that nothing could be further from the truth.”

He looked to his Japanese colleague, which continued.

“When the Thor Heyerdahl came back from Mars, we had proven that the solar system is still open for exploration, even without Handwavium. But as important as this, we also showed everyone the potential of Fusion reactor JAXA provided for the spaceship. After we returned several governments approached our consortium to see how fast we could build a reactor to supply electrical power to them. There was only one problem. The supply of Helium-3!”

Several reporters nodded. The debate about Nuclear Fusion had heated up since the first prototype of the Honda Fusion Reactor two years ago, but died down soon after. The problem was that to get a pure aneutronic fusion reaction, you had to use pure Helium-3 as fuel. Digging over thousands of square miles on the Moon to mine it was out of question, so the only source were some Fen who did the insane job to dive with their ships into Jupiter to get it.

And nobody wanted to make their power generation totally dependent on the goodwill of a few Fen.

“We all know the discussions about Lunar sources of Helium-3, but to say it again, it will not happen. The Moon is not empty anymore, and the amount of Helium-3 in the dust is just too small.”

The ESA press speaker nodded to his colleague.

“ESA and JAXA have been in contact with our governments for a proposal to fix this problem. Since then, we have shipped hundreds of tons of steel and ceramic up to our orbital depot, together with the finest hightech our countries can provide. A group of forty astronauts are waiting in orbit to begin the largest space mission Europe and Japan have ever done before. We decided to call the mission ‘Aurora’.”

The room was filled with quiet murmurs now while everyone was trying to guess what was going on. Behind the two speakers, a large monitor activated, showing the image of the planet Saturn with the title ‘Aurora 2018’.

“Aurora’s main goal is to allow the commercial use of fusion reactors for clean and cheap energy! This evening, the Thor Heyerdahl, the Leif Erickson, the Nobu Shirase and the Ferdinand Magellan will depart from our depot and will be heading for Saturn. They will be carrying the first pieces of equipment to set up a permanent space station there, where some of the brightest engineers of our countries will live. If everything will go according to plan, we will deliver the first batch of Helium-3 within 12 months.”

“Why Saturn? Isn’t this awful far away?” one of the reporters asked.

“There are three planets where one could mine Helium-3 in the solar system if you don’t want to dig through millions of tons of lunar rocks. Jupiter, Saturn or Uranus.

Uranus is too far away for our current ISVs, we cannot get there and back without refueling, which make missions to Uranus too dangerous currently.

Jupiter is a lot closer than Saturn, but it has also a much higher mass, which makes it harder to get into a low orbit and back out of it.

The decision to build the station around Saturn was made as a compromise between distance and depth of the gravity well. The fact that one of the larger Fen factions have their capital there makes it a safer neighborhood too.”

“Darmstadt Control, this is the Thor Heyerdahl. Mission checks have been completed, all four ships are reporting condition green. We are ready for the phase one of the mission.”

“Thor Heyerdahl, this is Darmstadt Control. Mission countdown restarted at T minus 15 minutes, prepare for staged launch sequence.”

After the flight of the Thor Heyerdahl ESA and JAXA had decided to change the design of their new spaceships. Armed with the data gathered during the long flight, several small had been made to the engine section of the ship. Simultaneously they had cut the Thor Heyerdahl into four parts, connected by large docking rings.

As her sister ships, the Heyerdahl now were made up by an front crew section and an aft engine section. Depending on the mission different cargo or carrier modules could be placed between crew and engine section, together with one or multiple modules for carrying reaction mass.

All four ISVs had been equipped with a large cargo and a single reaction mass module, which allowed each of the ISVs to transport a total of one hundred metric tons of cargo to Saturn. And each of them was filled with equipment up to the limit.

‘And that’s just the first part of the cargo. We will have to come back to get the second part afterwards’ the captain of the Thor Heyerdahl thought.

‘When we are finished, the new station will be twice as large as the ISS. I wonder how long it took ESA and JAXA to carry all this mass up to the space depot. If this mission does not succeed, it will be one of the most expensive failures in the history of spaceflight.’

Fenspace owned surface orbital transportation had made spaceflight a lot cheaper than a decade ago, but this expedition was still expensive as hell.

But pushed by the increasing oil and gas prices and the sometimes less than reliable sources for both the EU and Japan were looking hard for other energy sources.

The radio speakers went active again.

“Thor Heyerdahl, this is Darmstadt. You are green for leaving orbit, we expect you back in two months. Gute Reise!”

Eric Hunt grinned.

“Thank you Darmstadt. We are beginning with the staged launch” he said and turned to the pilot of the Thor Heyerdahl.

“Mrs Meier, get us out of here.”

The woman at the control panel nodded. “Aye aye captain, all engines switching to ECON mode.”

Instantly the freefall in the ship was replaced by a tenth Earth gravity as the ship accelerated forward.

The Thor Heyerdahl felt crowded for the first time of its existence. The ship had more room for the crew than any other hardtech spacecraft before, but with a full crew of ten people on a voyage that would take nearly a month it was not really that comfortable.

After eight hours of flight, the ship had left the Earth-Moon system and was heading for deep interplanetary space.

“That’s it, we are out of the crowded region” Eric Hunt said and opened his seatbelt. “Mrs Meier, please tell our escort from Space Patrol we are grateful they made sure our flight corridor was free.”

He stretched and then turned on the intercom.

“Okay, everyone listen up. We have have reached interplanetary space, the autopilot will take over for the next two weeks. Mr. Soetsu, please do a full diagnosis on the reactor and our engine systems, I want to know if everything is running well. The rest of you will do a checkup of the whole ship including the cargo rooms. If something got loose, we should fix it now before we get into trouble. I want to send a report back to Earth within the next two hours!”

“Mrs. Meier, you have the watch. Keep an eye on the sensors and call me if we get visitors.”

The Thor Heyerdahl suddenly was filled with activity, as the crew began to move through all parts of the ship to check the crew module and the cargo space.

“Crew quarters are okay.”

“Living room is okay.”

“Entertainment system looks okay.”

Eric sighed, some of the crew were really fanatic in this regard.

“Engines and Reactor within expected parameters,” the message he had waited for arrived, “fuel and reaction mass without leakage or problems.”

“Thank you Mr. Soetsu, good to hear that. I will be in my room preparing the report for Earth.”

When the door to the cockpit closed again, the ships engineer Masuno Soetsu looked at Sarah Meier.

“Do you have a clue why he is that tense? I mean, we will be sitting in this tin can for a whole month, with nothing to do except for checking if the ship is still there!”

“He is most times this way, have known him for years” Sarah replied, “he says that sticking to the rules is the key to success. It will get better when we are a few days away from Earth I hope.”

“If you say so.”

“And the king stays on the hill again, as always!”

Masuno Soetsu was in a great mood. It was the twelfth day of their travel towards Saturn, and the fourth of their local gaming competitions. While ESA’s budget had been strained for years, they had seen the need to keep the crew of the ship busy.

Which meant that the five small cabins of the Thor Heyerdahl were each equipped with a state of the art gaming console. Luckily he had brought a number of recent games with him from Japan.

“Damned, do you really only have this shooter games with you Masuno? It would really be great to play some other games together.”

ESA and JAXA had supplied them with a fine collection of games. Unfortunately somehow they had forgotten to give each system the same games, which made multiplayer tournaments difficult.

“Hey,” Masuno replied with a grin, “you should be thankful that I remembered to buy five copies of each of my games, otherwise we still wouldn’t have five player games!”

“Maybe we should contact the other ISVs what games they have? Maybe we can trade!”

“People, calm down a little bit” Eric Hunt said, “we are less than three weeks away from Saturn, you can ask the rest of the ISVs about their games when we arrive. The Fen might even borrow you some game consoles, because the consoles are NOT meant to be removed from the ship. Oh, and without Internet access to Earth, you cannot modify the software.”

“This stupid online DRM” someone murmured.

A few hours later most of the Thor Heyerdahl’s crew was asleep, only Sarah Meier had ‘night’ shift in the cockpit.

She looked over her email for the last time, then turned on the communication console. After a short series of commands, the ships directional radio antenna turned away from Earth and sent out a high powered digital burst of data.

The Thor Heyerdahl was racing through Interplanetary Space, accelerating towards it target at Saturn. Tomorrow the ship would finally reach the midpoint of the journey and it would spend the rest of the way flying backward and braking to get into the desired orbit around the ringed planet.

Captain Hunt was sitting in the cockpit, watching a video message from Earth.

“Captain Hunt, this is Kurt Coller.”

‘Oha’ Hunt thought as the video continued, ‘the boss at Mission Control itself is calling me.’

“I would like to inform you that ESA and JAXA have agreed to allow an interview about your flight on board of the Thor Heyerdahl. Two days before you reach Pan a ship with someone from Port Luna will meet you.”

‘Reporter? Aprils fools day?’ flashed through Hunts mind.

“According to our mission planning, you should be down to maneuvering speed and preparing for transferring to an orbit around Pan, which will make docking easier. The ship of the reporter has an ESA certified airlock adapter and enough space for up to four people. We will send you a detailed report about the ship attached to this video message.

I know this is an unusual thing, but showing some good will in this interview might help us to get better relations to the Fen, which will be very important in the next years of your mission.

Kurt Coller out.”

‘At least I got a warning’ Hunt thought and sighed. He wondered if there was any kind of job left on Earth where you could not be ambushed by a reporter. But then a knocking at the cockpit doors made him turn around.

“Mrs Meier, still up that late?”

“Yes... I just a reply to an email I sent a few days ago and wanted to talk with you about it.”

Eric Hunt smiles and pointed at the empty copilot seat.

“Just sit down, I always have time for my crew.”

“You know, a major problem out here in the middle of nothing is signal delay” Sarah began to explain, “it is a headache if something bad should happen and it is also an inconvenience for communicating with Earth.”

Eric Hunt just nodded.

“When we were at Mars last year, I gave the video disk I brought from Earth to one of the Trekkies as a gift. We talked quite a lot over the next days and he said I should call him when I am in space again.”

“So you sent him a mail?” Eric Hunt asked, “Did you got a reply?”

“Yes, I got a reply... I had told him about our travel and about some of the changes they made to the Thor Heyerdahl compared to our visit on Mars. He said that he would still owe me for my present and he will send us a mobile wifi access point.”

“A what?” Eric said a little bit confused. “I hope you will explain him that there is a no handwavium policy for the ships of our mission. But I still do not know what we should do with anything like this.”

Sarah grinned.

“It seems the Trekkies built a few drones with integrated Wifi and Interwave. Its a small automated spaceship that will follow us and give us faster than light communication! Even with Earth!”

Eric Hunt first instinct cried ‘no way’, but he took his time to think about the situation.

“So you say its a personal gift from someone else... it contains Handwavium, but it will stay away from our ship. We don’t have to modify anything here, but we get a faster connection to Earth.” He scratched his head. “And we might count it as working on our connections to the Fen on Mars?”

“Yes, exactly!” Sarah replied.

“I am pretty sure there will be some politicians back on Earth that will not be that happy if the hear it, but...”

Sarah blinked a few times, “but?”

“... but as you mentioned they are not here and there is quite a communication delay. I am pretty sure Mr. Coeller will be delighted to be able to work around this cage of rules. Just do not mention it directly in the reports, right? We might be in some trouble otherwise.”