Ship Focus: Epona Transatmospheric Shuttle
Type: Ground-to-space transfer vehicle.
Original manufacturer: AUSCOM surplus, later USRE shipyards.
Current pattern status: Open-source.
Propulsion: Chemical reaction drive (oxygen-hydrogen, kerosene, red flowers or metastable nitrogen).
FTL capable: No.
Length: 20 meters.
Payload : Upwards of two tons.
Crew: up to 6, generally between 2 and 4.
Also known as the Contraption, the Creature (affectionate).
Space access is easier than ever in the interstellar age -- be it via reusable two-stage-to-orbit launchers in use on most worlds, tailsitting fusion landers or even hypersonic dirigible for the most adventurous, bridging the gap between the ground and low planetary orbit is as mundane a journey as international travel was in the industrial age. Arguably more, in a sense; while few Terrans have ever taken a plane in their life, half of them have travelled beyond the Karman line. However, even in this era of (relative) energy abundance and exotic aerospace designs, the age-old dream of horizontal take-off, horizontal landing single-stage-to orbit spaceplanes has yet to be fully realised. Such crafts aren't technically impossible, they are just useless, as their perceived benefits do not make up for the stringent payload restrictions and added complexity.
The Epona is the exception to the rule. This early Low Age design was salvaged from AUSCOM surplus a century ago and has since then managed to carve out a niche in the sprawling world of surface-to-orbit trans-medium craft. This little shuttle is roughly the size of a jet fighter, takes off and lands like one, and effectively pilots like one...all the while reaching all the way into low planetary orbit and only requiring basic servicing and facilities. This miracle of simplicity is made possible by a clever mission profile that comes from the depths of decaying collapse era militaries and their energy-constrained mindset. The Epona takes off with a minimal fuel load, ascends to the higher atmosphere, performs aerial refuelling, then ascends to low planetary orbit at Mach 15. Purists would argue that this makes the Epona a single-stage-and-a-half-to-orbit, as the tanker acts as an an intermediary section, but semantics matter little in the face of performance. As it takes off very light, the Epona can skimp on wing area and landing gear strength, allowing it to retain a very small and limited profile; and as it is also a plane, it can ferry itself, relocate easily (if needed via suborbital hop) and "launch" far away from its deployment site.
By design, the Epona is too payload-limited to replace "proper" space shuttles, let alone TSTO heavy lifters, but it found a niche as a cheap, simple way to get a few spationauts and their gear to low planetary orbit. Easy to manufacture, it is bought in bulk, with many communes operating a fleet of ten to twenty Eponas on a rapid rotation schedule. The little spaceplane is especially prized on lightly-developed planets such as Vyiranga or Tyra, where operating fixed launch sites proves too expensive for all but the largest outfits. Higher-tech configurations, such as the use of metastable nitrogen propellant or orbital skyhooks, allow the Epona to act as a "true" single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane, but its use as a "bush spaceplane" is the most prevalent. Eponas have been operated from dusty runways on Earth, tabular icebergs on Smyrnia-Silesia, limestone tepui on Masan, aircraft carriers on Elora, ancient continental ribcages on Tyra or Sequence temples on Draugr. Rarely mentioned or even considered, they're a background element of orbital operations, mundane but ever-present.
Much like other "Karman skimmers", the Epona has often been weaponized, either as an anti-ship platform or a suborbital bomber, but as far as official history is concerned, it has never been used in actual combat except -- as expected -- on Smyrnia-Silesia.
Illustration commissioned to aircraft artist Fisher.
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