The Second Space Age of Man is often referred to as “The Golden Space Age”; heavily romanticized with epic tales of adventure, danger, and discovery. Whole books and movies have been dedicated to its legends of heroes and peril, as the early Martian astronauts struck out into the vast unknown in great ships with little more than a hope and a prayer to aid them on their way.
But the romance of history often betrays the reality. While it’s true that there were many discoveries during The Second Space Age, and it’s often believed that epic figures, such as Tia Mara the Pirate Queen or The Solar Barons, are based in some sort of factual events, what is often underscored is the not only tedious task of navigating the stars, but – even during The Second Space Age – how truly dangerous that journey could be.
The conquering of the time barrier, the relative breaking of the light speed limit, is generally considered the herald of The Second Space Age of Man; when the great generational star ships departed the Martian system in route to distant stars in a quest to spread out throughout the cosmos, find new resources, and establish mankind as a truly interstellar species. And these massive ships were testaments to the technical achievements of their creators; powerful and complex, carrying thousands of people into the inky unknown safely within their guarded vaults.
Except they were actually anything but safe.
As with most human endeavors eagerness and self-confidence carried the day when actual fact and hardware weren’t available. So while these early, mighty ships were able to travel a thousand light years in only a couple of centuries they only had the most rudimentary provisional support for some of the most prevalent and dangerous hazards to face in space; prolonged exposure to micro-gravity and cosmic radiation chief among them.
Some of the early designs tried to incorporate habitat rings that depended on centrifuge motion to supply a form of artificial gravity. The initial concepts had a habit of jamming up or even tearing tracks and motors during trips; often leading to whole rings having to be abandoned mid trip, which could lead to nightmares of redistribution of supplies and living spaces to accommodate the needs of the ship crew and passengers. In some notable cases – as in the flight of UF 1121 “Hermes” – the main actuator assembly had a catastrophic failure in which it tore through the outer hull of the habitat ring causing a total environmental collapse of the habitat, massive loss of life, and the scrubbing of the settlement mission.
As designs took advantage of new technologies to initially internalize centrifuge habitat rings, before the technology became eventually unnecessary and obsolete, the second hazard to long term space flight provided a much greater challenge; cosmic radiation.
Emanating from many cosmic bodies and events, cosmic radiation travels for light years in currents through space, often nearly undetectable until it is almost on top of you. Its radiation is potent; able to penetrate many structures and materials, and can – in some cases – kill you within minutes of exposure. And outside the protection of an atmosphere low level constant exposure is an ongoing threat that can have devastating consequences to even the most robust organism.
Initial ships during The First Space Age of Man didn’t travel too far beyond the confines of Mars, earth, and the greater Solar System. These shorter, more close to home journeys weren’t at as much a threat. Establishing of the station colonies during and after The Greatest War utilized burying structures under asteroid surfaces in order to take advantage of the natural protection of the surface.
As travel began to be longer, and at greater, more exposed distances, bulkheads became heavier and more reinforced, and crews spent most of their trip enclosed in shielded pods; often in a form of induced stasis. Better sensors and early warning detection systems meant crews could stay out, and active, longer; being able to retreat to the safety of radiation bunkers within ships. But these options weren’t always reliable and effective, especially when bombardments could last days. And the cost and logistics of building ships with such bulky hulls and costly shielding severely limited the implementation of a stellar fleet
While the development of new plating technologies and the introduction of circulating hull water jackets helped to alleviate the issue some, the final solution came from one of the most unexpected sources; engine design.
The challenge with developing a functional and practical gravity drive came with the high magnetic fields the engine would create during operation. These would have disrupting affects on a wide variety of machinery and computer systems vital to ship operation; not to mention the potential hazards to the health of the crew. During hangar tests and simulations engineers from Orbital Sciences, in conjunction with the Sierra Nevada Corporation, began to experiment with reconfiguration of the engine nacelles and field coils when they found that, under certain parameters, they could form a controllable field around the engine, shunting off magnetic forces and interference to manageable levels.
While this was useful in protecting ship operations, it was the secondary effect that caught the team by surprises; they had inadvertently also created the prefect radiation shielding. The field’s output was acting in much the same way as the field of a planet would, absorbing and deflecting nearly all but the most potent of radiation.
The Boeing 999 was the first ship to employ a combination of the engine field output shielding (EFOS) in combination with new advances in hull fabrication and the circulatory water jacket scrubbing process. A test ship, it demonstrated the effectiveness, and affordability, of the design and revolutionized space travel. Eventually ship manufactures begin to develop their own EFOS systems, and by half way through The Second Space Age of Man, The Golden Space Age, man saw impressive strides to the stars, laying not only the foundations for the romance of the era to follow, but setting the stage for the formation of The United Corporate Commonwealth, and man’s true place among the stars.