Despite their enduring popularity, few Spacers are likely to have given much thought to the illustrious history and origins of the Tereshkova line of surface-to-orbit shuttlecraft.
Tereshkova, in Spacer political history, refers to a design of shuttle deployed by the Orbital Federation during the middle 2070s which was key not only in securing the Fed’s political independence from Groundsider nations and corporate interests, but in making the Federation a major political player during the opening century of the Interplanetary Era. The design also represented several key steps forward in spaceflight technology, especially in the mass-production of cheap and easily-maintained orbital spacecraft. Although the Federation disbanded in the 2170s, the legacy of the Tereshkova-Class of shuttles continues to be felt, both in the legal norms it helped to establish, and in the fact that the design itself, and derivatives thereof, is still widely-used.
As the Orbital Federation made its transition from a loose political and economic union in the 2060s to the first true spaceborne polity in human history in the early 2070s, it became abundantly clear to their engineers and political leaders that the Federation was incredibly vulnerable. Although the Orbital Fed offered a number of bespoke services to groundsider nations, corporations and general consumers, their primary export was clean electricity too cheap to meter, beamed down to various groundsider cities from geosynchronous orbit by maser. By the 2070s, these satellites powered almost one third of all major cities on Earth, and were a key ingredient in securing the Federation’s legitimacy.
In exchange, space habitats in orbit were provided with food and complex biologicals from the surface. Although closed-ecosystem life support systems (CELSS) were in principle possible in space — and were being widely tested on Earth’s surface in city-scale arcologies, as climate change drove widespread ecological collapse — most CELSS were large, heavy and unwieldy, and the only widely-successful life support systems adapted to space during this period were so-called Yoghurt Pots, vats full of algae and gene-tailored bacteria which broke down waste into a thin gruel of edible slurry.
In principle, these systems could meet the caloric requirements of the entirety of the Orbital Fed’s population — at the time nearly 14,000 people — but their existence would have been miserable, and even a single leak or tainted vat would mean many of those people starving.
No, the surface nations of Earth and the Orbital Federation were locked in a sort of toxic co-dependence — but one which favoured Earth heavily. If the laser launch array in Texas were blockaded or simply shut down by Groundside powers, the Federation would starve, if not immediately then within a few years. With the American political landscape still reeling from the string of civil wars throughout the 21st Century, it wasn’t inconceivable that although Texas was still nominally under U.S. control, the launch facilities in Tallgate might fall to one of the various factions within the ongoing civil conflict — many of whom were not sympathetic to the Orbital Federation.
And in any event, representatives of the Orbital Fed — including the Secretary General herself — would be expected to attend a United Nations summit before the decade was out, to broker trade agreements and sign treaties clarifying the Federation’s relationship with other UN polities, and returning to Earth using groundsider launch hardware simply wasn’t an option. There were domestic political concerns — certainly, the Federation’s citizenry wouldn’t much like being reminded of their dependence on the homeworld — but there were also legitimate security concerns, too. Given the relatively radical politics of the Federation’s leadership, there were fears that any landing relying on the Texan launch facility might be sabotaged, either by partisans in America’s decline, U.S. intelligence agencies themselves, or even foreign agents. The Federation needed a solution to all these problems, and it needed it fast.
The Orbital Federation needed to be able to break blockades on the laser launch array by landing in allied territories directly. It also needed to be able to transport politicians, diplomats and important citizens to the Earth’s surface on known, trusted hardware that groundside powers couldn’t sabotage surreptitiously. And, to secure this shuttlecraft’s independence, it ideally couldn’t rely on local refuelling services, which might be denied or tampered with.
The Tereshkova Class of shuttles elegantly solved all three of these concerns.
Despite the rise of laser launch technology in the 2050s, which had greatly simplified getting payloads into Earth orbit, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the science of rocketry did not advance during the 21st Century. One key area in which the understanding of rocket scientists had developed the most was the production and long-term storage of polymeric nitrogen fuels, whose energy density and thus suitability for rocketry far exceeded that of conventional rocket fuels like hydrazine and methalox.
This impressive performance envelope allowed polynitrogen-fuelled shuttles to reach orbit in a single stage with delta-vee to spare. In practical terms, this meant that Tereshkova-Class shuttles had a lot of options as far as landing sites. In principle, if the laser launch array in Texas fell silent, the Orbital Federation could land shuttles in any allied territory on Earth in order to load supplies for the habitats in orbit — which made blockades far less effective and offered the Federation a measure of security against Earth’s political instability.
This benefit, however, paled in comparison to the Tereshkova’s other impressive ability: it could refuel anywhere on Earth.
One concern the Orbital Fed’s engineers shared was that any shuttle was just as vulnerable to tampering or blockade if it landed on Earth. After all, it would need to be refuelled using local infrastructure and machinery — any of which could be sabotaged or leveraged for political gain. Their solution to this problem was a masterstroke of 21st Century engineering: since polynitrogen fuels could be refined from nitrogen in the air, why not simply carry your refuelling equipment with you? This willingness to employ innovative forms of In-Situ Resource Utilisation (or ISRU) would become one of the Fed’s calling cards in the opening waves of human expansion into the Asteroid Belt and the Outer Solar System.
As such, each shuttle carried a chemical reactor which weighed in at nearly six tonnes, and was capable of drawing in air through vents along the shuttle’s flanks. These chemical reactors, given enough electrical power, would convert nitrogen in the air into fuel — allowing Tereshkova shuttles to refuel without needing to trust Groundsiders and their infrastructure.
On the same basis, the shuttle had to be provide its own electrical power. Originally, there were designs — wild ones, admittedly, which would likely never have been built — to use nuclear reactors or RTGs to power shuttles. But ultimately, the engineers of the Orbital Federation realised that this was a problem they’d already solved: their wealth and legitimacy had come as a product of the vast Solar Power Satellites they’d constructed in geostationary orbit. Those had been built with certain constraints — the hard laws of physics and economics demanded that the satellites themselves, and the receiver antennae on the ground, be inconveniently large in order to be commercially viable — but of course, these shuttles weren’t being sold, and a handful of dedicated Powersats operating at a less-than-optimal efficiency would still be cheaper than facing the embarrassment — and potential loss of sovereignty — of relying on Groundsider hardware.
Four fold-out rectenna arrays allowed Tereshkova shuttles to be islands of their own, free from the tyranny of relying on local power and logistics for their operations.
Between their ability to fuel their own transit, and their status at diplomatic vehicles exempt from search and seizure by Groundsider governments, the Orbital Federation was able to argue that their shuttlecraft were technically international waters, irrespective of where they were docked. Although this legal precedent was flimsy at the time of its creation, in one of those amusing accidents of legal history, it grew to be a norm respected not merely on an international basis, but an interplanetary one, and the custom that shuttles were de facto international territory, at least outside of exceptional circumstances, survived the Starving Years and into the modern age.
Tereshkova-Class shuttles didn’t just insulate the Orbital Federation from the petty politics of Earth’s ailing nations and rising body of corporate interests; they also allowed the Federation to become a major player on the world stage. Tereshkova shuttles could break sieges by dropping supplies to encircled cities or territories. They could snatch up defectors from authoritarian regimes, or harbour political dissidents. And combined with the skilful use of their fleet of Solar Powersats as leverage, the shuttles allowed the Fed the ability to influence Groundsider politics and economics to their advantage — as long as they used a light touch.
Although the Tereshkova’s impact on the Orbital Federation’s independence could perhaps have been predicted, the design’s cultural impact over the following few decades was entirely unexpected. While the vast majority of civilian transit to space still passed through the North American Laser Launch Array in Texas, travelling to orbit by shuttlecraft was seen as the height of luxury. It was far more comfortable than riding a laser-ablative launch, offered a much greater degree of privacy and convenience, and of course it was considerably more expensive.
As spaceflight became ever more accessible in the opening decades of the 22nd Century, growing ranks of space tourists, wealthy émigrées and corporate commuters travelled to orbit aboard Tereshkova-Class shuttles. A very small number of VIPs, celebrities and corporate executives even owned Tereshkova shuttlecraft of their own, which only helped to further cement the iconic nature of this legendary design. This status would last until Anchorpoint, Earth’s first Space Elevator, was lowered from geostationary orbit to a ground station on the Kenyan coast in 2163. By then, the floodgates to the stars were open, and both the Texan laser launch array and the Fed’s shuttles were left behind by safer, cheaper and more comfortable mass transit to orbit. Within eight years, the population in space would swell by almost one hundred million, and the Orbital Federation would finally disband — an aging dinosaur which had died trying to adapt to a world which had left it behind.
Although Tereshkova shuttles would still regularly make trips from the Earth’s surface to orbit in the century and a half between the space elevator’s construction and the Starving Years, shuttlecraft still being much faster than riding the elevator, their numbers would gradually dwindle, and would never again reach their pre-elevator heights. Despite this, humans would still carry this versatile shuttle design to the stars, where it has seen newfound prominence.
It’s hard to understate the influence the Tereshkova Class had on subsequent centuries of spaceflight.
In the most obvious sense, the Tereshkova design — and a number of derivatives engineered for specific environments, mission profiles and logistical niches — has persisted almost four hundred years after the Orbital Federation disbanded, well into Age of Starflight, being one of the most common shuttlecraft in Human Space, and certainly the most iconic. During the Federation’s century-long reign over Earth’s orbital space, the design was made open-source; now, any spacer with a halfway decent autofac array can spin out a Tereshkova in a week or two.
Indeed, modern Tereshkova-derived shuttles, produced using stronger, lighter and cheaper materials than were available to the Orbital Federation in the 21st Century, often boast substantially higher payload masses, improved manoeuvrability, and the ability to refuel from a much wider range of nitrogen-bearing atmospheres. Since the discovery of the Terraformer Worlds in the late 2400s, Tereshkova-inspired shuttles have become far more popular throughout Human Space, given a wealth of new habitable planets to settle, explore and exploit — all easily within reach thanks to the wormhole nexus.
But there’s another impact, far more subtle and yet with implications which run deep, one which is often neglected: legal status.
The Tereshkova Class draws its energy from beamed power, its fuel from ubiquitous nitrogen in the atmosphere. It does not rely on the resources or labour of its hosts, and asks for nothing more than clear space on which to land. Because of this, and because of the Orbital Federation’s own political circumstances in the closing decades of the 21st Century, the Tereshkova was considered independent, a little slice of international waters bound up in steel and ceramic. And it is thanks to the Tereshkova’s unique place in all of spaceflight history that modern shuttlecraft of all kinds and classes and castes, whether they’re docked on worlds in the depths of the Empire, or the farthest reaches of the Periphery, are considered a territory of their own in all but the most dire crises.
A sovereign volume exempt from local law.
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