This ran a bit long, but then again, it's been awhile...
Frustrated with the information leak that let Drax Aerospace land a water miner on the Mϋn before them, Orbital Dynamics locked down all information regarding Asteroid VDP-762 while engineers worked around the clock to build components for the AstroTug. But Orbital Dynamics had another payload to fly first…
Launching into the orbital plane of asteroid VDP-762 taxed Skyranger’s delta-v and ate into its payload capacity. The crew- Scott (CDR), Jeslong (PLT), and Frolie (ENG) quickly deployed their payload- the Asteroid Sampler. Thirty-three minutes later, Asteroid Sampler made its transfer burn to reach VDP-762, and another nine hours later, it made a course correction burn to end up next to the asteroid. It had another five days until it rendezvoused with the asteroid.
Meanwhile, with little propellant remaining, Skyranger waited on orbit for a couple of days until the space center lined up with its orbit. Given the inclination and the planet's rotation, Scott opted to aim for KSC and, if necessary, land at the space center before refueling before heading back to Welcome Back Island. Unfortunately, their navigation was off, Skyranger missed KSC by 115 km, and Welcome Back Island was 100 km westward. But with the Mk-33’s jet engines, it was a simple matter to fly back to the island and land- though everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Skyranger touched down and taxied into its hangar.
Three days later, on Itzcoatl 22, 2000, Asteroid Sampler “landed” on VDP-762 next to the Beagle Asteroid Probe and deployed its drills. When the Sampler Team attempted to extract ore, a software glitch of some sort prevented that from happening. The engineers tried restarting the game resetting the control software, but that didn’t work either. They began reading through KSP logs the drilling software until they found configs adding resources from CRP that were removed that were causing NREs the line of code causing the drills to break, deleted the CRP configs fixed the error, and then uploaded the patch a day later. Once they verified the upload, the Sampler Team restarted KSP cycled through the drill startup procedure once more.
To their delight, the software patch fixed the issues, and Asteroid Sampler’s ore tank began filling. They let the probe acquire 10 units before shutting off the drills and running the ISRU. Fortunately, the converter had no problems extracting liquid fuel and oxidizer from the ore and filling the probe’s tanks. Two more test cycles definitively proved that Asteroid Sampler could extract useful resources from VDP-762. As a result of their accomplishment, Sara personally congratulated the team on a job well done.
That afternoon, Orbital Dynamics filed a mining claim for asteroid VDP-762, citing the Prior Appropriation clause of the International Outer Space Accords, just like Drax Aerospace did with Drax Crater...
With VDP-762 legally in their possession, Orbital Dynamics needed to turn on Asteroid Sampler’s ISRU periodically to demonstrate useful resource extraction- or pay a claimant fee by no later than Ahuit 1 to retain possession of the asteroid. But the next launch would begin securing their hold on the asteroid.
Skyranger launched into an inclined orbit with one of the most complicated payloads that the company had designed: AstroTug. Taking up nearly all of the Mk-33’s cargo bay and almost all its fuel to launch, AstroTug was a large, self-contained, automated drilling platform, complete with holding tanks for ore and ISRU converters that transformed the ore into usable propellants. It couldn’t fly to Asteroid VDP-762 on its own, however.
Skyranger waited another nine hours for its orbit to line up with Welcome Back Island- or as close as it could considering their dangerously low delta-v and orbital mechanics. After burning all but a scant few units of its propellant, Skyranger deorbited and landed back at the island.
The next series of flights brought up modular propellant tanks for AstroTug, but due to the propellant densities of liquid fuel and oxidizer, and Skyranger’s maximum payload capacity of 20.5 tonnes- more like 10 with safety margins to the inclined orbit- they could only be partially filled. While the central core tank flew without issues, the first side-tank had several problems as Skyranger struggled to achieve the correct launch trajectory and once more had precious little delta-v with which to deorbit and land. The crew waited 2 days in orbit to get a reasonable landing corridor, and even then, they had a long flight to return home.
Playing it safe, the next side tank delivery flight carried no propellant to give Skyranger extra margin. It helped. Skyranger needed 730m/sec of delta-v to make the required plane change due to navigation errors during liftoff, but she rendezvoused with AstroTug successfully and delivered the second side tank without incident. Forty-five minutes later, the Mk-33 deorbited and returned home safely.
The last flight brought up the tug’s propulsion module, which sported a single KR-84 Ocelot motor. The Mk-33 skid across the sky as the crew struggled to get onto the right orbital path. They made orbit, but Mabo had a 475 m/sec plane change maneuver to make afterward. Thankfully, the rendezvous burns were slight by comparison. The delta-v margins were dangerously low, so the crew took their time approaching AstroTug, and locked out Skyranger's mid tanks for emergency margins.
Skyranger rotated the module out of its payload bay and handled the docking. After a 3-day wait, the Mk-33 deorbited and landed home safely. Everyone breathed a bit easier.
The tug was fully assembled at last, but it needed some help getting to its target…
After waiting for several weeks, MIDAS-E finally embarked on its voyage to the outer solar system. The Kerbin Departure Stage burned first and dropped away, followed by the Arrow 5 Upper Stages. While the twin Arrow 5 Upper Stages headed out of Kerbin’s Sphere of Influence, the Kerbin Departure Stage was stuck in high orbit- but its reserve propellant was enough to deorbit it. It fell back to Kerbin two hours later and burned up. The prototype and the AUS did their jobs well; MIDAS-E had more than enough propellant to circularize its orbit between Jool and Lindor in another four years…
The Ministry of Space had been launching tanker craft since just after the very first landing on the Mϋn. Their Arrow 3B delivered the first Arrow Transfer Vehicle into orbit to refuel a Duna 1B upper stage that became the Duna Minmus Tanker, which in turn refueled the first Mϋnflight to Minmus. Arrow Transfer Vehicles and their derivatives continued flying throughout the Mϋnflight era to refuel mϋn-bound spacecraft and into the Shuttle era to resupply Starlab. They continue to fly in the present day, delivering propellant, important cargo, and scientific payloads into orbit. So, when Orbital Dynamics quietly approached the Ministry of Space about delivering propellant to AstroTug, they were absolutely delighted.
In building their new tankers, the Ministry of Space took the opportunity to upgrade their Arrow 5 launch vehicle. They replaced the S2-33 Clydesdale solid rocket motors with karbon filament-wound SRB-5 Photon solid rocket boosters. Originally created by the vonKerman Space Agency for their Photon heavy lift launch vehicle- which was going to be their answer to the Kerman States’ Shuttle Launch System- the project was cancelled due to budget issues. The Photon SRBs were the only product to survive the budget cuts. But with no launch vehicle slated to use them, the empty casings languished in a storage hangar for years. With the Arrow 5 upgrades, they had a new purpose.
In addition to the lighter and more powerful solids, the mcKermans replaced the second stage’s pair of venerable RE-I5 Skippers with a single KR-84 Ocelot and replaced the third stage’s RE-L10 Poodle engine with a single RE-10J Wolfhound. For the tanker configuration, engineers simply removed the fairing and added a conical fuel tank topped by a shielded docking port. The changes ensured that the Arrow 5 Tanker entered orbit with most of its propellant- even with the inclined orbit.
After waiting for AstroTug’s orbital plane to rotate under the launch site, the Arrow 5B lifted off the pad and rocketed into the sky. The Photon solids jettisoned right on time, as did the propulsion module- though the parachutes failed to deploy, and the module crashed. The new Oscelot motor worked as expected, and the new Wolfhound finished orbital insertion of the tanker. Five and a half hours later, the tanker arrived at AstroTug. Despite the high orbit inclination, the tanker arrived with nearly three-quarters of its propellant load- enough to fuel up the center tank.
Since Orbital Dynamics bought two Arrow 5B tanker flights, and the first one worked, the second flight launched a couple of days later and nearly topped off AstroTug’s fuel tanks. That gave it more than enough delta-v to rendezvous with and latch onto VDP-762.
Forty-five minutes later, AstroTug made a 1,530 m/sec burn- half its propellant- into a transfer orbit towards VDP-762. A day later, it made a small correction burn, but it still had another 4 days to rendezvous with the asteroid…
After 40 days in space, Season 2 of Space Kamp wrapped up in orbit and the cast and crew piled back into Ascension for the trip home. With almost two dozen Mk-33 flights under their belt, Ascension’s return was uneventful. Though they were sworn to secrecy, Kendos (PLT), Willorf (ENG), and Maxbret (SCI) eagerly accepted their offer to join Orbital Dynamics. Mabo immediately started them on the company’s astronaut orientation.
The cast and crew deplaned to allow the next flight crew- and a whopping thirty-three tourists to board the SSTO after the ground crew prepped the ship for its next mission.
A day later, Ascension lifted off the pad once more and headed to Homestead Hotel…
Bill looked out beyond the confines of the crew access arm at the Ministry of Space’s launchpad, then gazed at the sky. He looked around again and sighed. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but deep down, he just knew. He motioned to Jeb to switch to the private channel. “The sky is… different,” Bill said.
Jeb turned and looked at his old friend. “Huh?”
“The sky is different,” Bill repeated. “It’s… not sure how to describe it… more vivid. And this launch pad. It’s not like it used to be. The design is different. It’s like what I said about Starlab. The KSP modules used to be off-white. Then they were gray.”
Jeb reached up to scratch his receding hairline, and then stopped himself when he remembered that he had his helmet on. “You’re kidding, right? The modules have always been gray,” Jeb said. “This is the same pad design as when Phoenix Aerospace first created it. And the sky? Same as always.”
Bill shook his head. “No, it isn’t-“
“Buddy, you keep talking like that, and the doctors will ground you,” Jeb warned. “You want to go to Laythe? Then keep quiet about that mulch. You want to end up like Gerrim?”
“Gerrim injured her arm, Jeb, not her mind. And I’m fine. I’m just saying that the SAVE looks different. It feels different, somehow. Like it’s been- I don’t know- upgraded with new features, like, a… native alarm clock app...”
“If you two want to go sightseeing, all you have to do is ride that rocket next to you,” Gene broke into the private channel and chided.
Bill froze. Did Gene hear their conversation?
“You heard the General,” Jeb said, breaking the silence. “Let’s go upstairs.”
Phoenix Aerospace’s Crew Demo flight was originally scheduled for two months later, but the medical emergency couldn’t be resolved in orbit with the current technology. It was a good learning experience as KSC tried to improvise, but it was time to bring Gerrim home.
Given the difficulties with Phoenix Aerospace's automation systems, KSP insisted on having one of their own pilots fly the mission, and Jeb was the best they had.
“Feels like old times,” Jeb yelled over the thundering rockets as the modernized Edna booster launched Firebird, a modernized derivative of the K-24 Kerbal Return Vehicle- itself derived from the K-20 KerbalSoar- that Bill and Jeb had flown many times.
The launch went flawlessly, with the Edna Jettisoning its side boosters on time for a landing on their barges, dropping off the core stage for a fiery reentry, and finally, separating its upper stage from Firebird so that the space plane could finish circularizing its orbit. The launch ended up in a 116.6 km by 128.9 km orbit.
The crew took several minutes to run through their post-launch checklists. A few minutes later, they were orbiting the night side of Kerbin. Bill took a quick look out the window before returning to the work on his laptop.
“I was out at the Boneyard the other day,” Jeb said, referring to the retirement home for old spacecraft. “It was sad seeing all the K-20s and shuttles lined up. I miss the days of blasting off to the mϋns, not sure if we’d make it there and back. Now all we do is go spinning around Kerbin. I tell you, Laythe can’t happen soon enough… You ever miss the old days?”
Bill felt a moment of vertigo as his senses adjusted to the microgravity. To steady himself, he looked out the window. Then he gasped. What he saw wasn’t there a moment ago. My Squad, Bill thought to himself, it’s full of stars! “There are so many now,” he muttered.
“Uh, so, uh, so many, uh, retired spacecraft,” Bill stammered. “The Shuttles were uh, retired before their time. Sure, they were showing signs of aging- Freedom especially since she was the first- but they still had a lot of life left in them. We should’ve kept flying them instead of retiring them and handing Shuttle flights over to Drax. That reminds me, is your ‘source still saying that Drax wants to fly six Mϋnrakers? That sounds like something that a secret agent’s evil genius villain would do.”
“Manuela? No, she says that that Mk-33 from those Orbital Dynamics guys has them rethinking their whole strategy. They didn’t expect that SSTO to work, let alone so well. It’s making them look bad. That Mk-33 looks like a fun ride, though Mabo says it’s almost boring to fly. Anyway, I think they’re looking into a runway to orbit design.”
“Ah. So, uh, are you two still dating?”
Jeb sighed. “What? Oh. Uh, no... Manuela is great but uh, we don’t have a lot in common. We’re still friends, but I realized that I’m looking for someone…”
“Closer to your age?”
“…Yeah...” Jeb fell silent for a bit before continuing. He sighed. “I’m feeling old, Bill. I’m getting more tired these days. Some of the luster of flying has faded- though I think that’s more to do with spending a decade spinning around Kerbin. But after Laythe, I might take a desk job or retire…”
Ninety minutes after launch, Firebird arrived at Starlab. A few hours later, after the crew exchanged pleasantries and Gerrim briefed Bill on Starlab’s current condition, she said her tearful goodbyes to the crew and took her place in Firebird’s crew cabin. Not long after, Firebird departed, deorbited, and landed back at KSC.
“I didn’t even need to use the jets,” Jeb remarked.
“AstroTug has arrived at VDP-762,” Neilming said at Orbital Dynamics Mission Control as he read the telemetry data. “AT is 84 meters from the target. Grappling claw has armed. AT is awaiting capture confirmation.”
Seanlock Kerman gave the go ahead, and AstroTug aimed at the asteroid. Seanlock replaced Chadly as Resource Mission Manager after his predecessor leaked proprietary information about the Mϋn’s water content without permission. The research paper that Chadly published resulted in Drax Aerospace beating Orbital Dynamics to the Mϋn and becoming the first commercial space agency to extract water.
“AT has targeted VDP-762’s center of mass,” Neilming continued. “Seventy meters and closing, AT is still targeting CoM… Relative velocity is 1.1 meters per second, crossing fifty meters… Thirty meters… Twenty… Claw has buried itself into the regolith… Capture! AT has captured VDP-762 on Moc 17, 2000 at 10:23:10 Universal Time. Current altitude is 3,903.3 kilometers.”
Everyone in ODMC cheered. “Alright, settle down everybody,” Frobert Kerman, Flight Director for ODMC shouted after a couple of minutes. “We still have work to do.”
The AstroTug team ran and verified the tug’s post-capture routines including shutting down the main engine, setting the reaction wheels to neutral, and turning off the RCS thrusters. With the checklist completed, the tug activated Stability Assist for station keeping, and the team watched the readouts for any excessive wobbling.
“Smart Assist is causing excessive vibrations through the vehicle,” Neilming declared upon reading the telemetry. “AT switched to standard SAS. Star Tracker has acquired the Mun, and the onboard computer has computed Ascending and Descending Nodes. VDP-762 is an hour away from DN, but of course the vehicle’s tanks are showing 5 meters-per-second of delta-v currently available.
“Vehicle is now attempting to orient the asteroid to the maneuvering orientation for a simulated engine burn. AT is successfully reorienting VDP-762… Asteroid has been successfully reoriented. Center of Thrust is in line with Center of Mass and the maneuver node within the acceptable error of margin.”
More cheers went up in the ODMC, followed by Frobert calling for order.
“Had we had sufficient propellant, we could make an engine burn. Very nice,” Seanlock praised. “Deploy the drills.”
A few seconds later, Neilming confirmed the order. “AT confirms drills have deployed,” he said.
“Excellent,” Seanlock said. “Go ahead with the converter startup sequence.”
Neilming sent the commands to AstroTug, and it happily complied. First, it started its fuel cell and confirmed the expected positive flow of electric charge. Then it started both drills and reported a positive Ore flow rate of 0.1 units per second. Next, it started the Convert-O-Tron 125, and reported a 0.01 unit per second conversion rate.
“Those numbers look low,” Scott said.
“Not to worry,” Neilming responded, “we can increase output on the drills through a ModuleManager patch.”
Scott thought for a few moments. “Sara, we just got a big payment for those tourists, can you spare some change for some tanker flights?”
“Let me think on that,” Sara responded. “In the meantime, great job, team!”