2174 Asteroid Heist.
The biggest theft of the century and the "Rain of Gold".
In 2172, the asteroid mining company Seren-Enterprises maneuvers the core of a small comet from a near-Earth solar Orbit into high Earth orbit. The comet is 90 meters in size. It contains two million metric tons of water ice and an exceptionally high proportion of rare earths. The whole operation takes 14 years with fusion flare engines consuming most of the comet's water ice.
Seren-Enterprises intends to mine raw materials for the orbital industry in cislunar space. The main customers are L4/L5 constructions, lunar production facilities, and research stations in earth orbit. In addition, the comet contains various precious metals including 50,000 metric tons of gold that is only needed in small amounts for industrial purposes. The project is running under the highest secrecy. The comet and the extraction facilities are hidden under a cover of aluminum foil.
Then in early 2174 the asteroid is occupied by well-equipped units of unknown origin. Seren-Enterprises is denied access. For ten months Seren explains away the delay in delivery to customers as being caused by operational problems without reporting the incident to the authorities.
At the end of the year the so-called *Rain of Gold* begins. The thieves land gold with deorbiters in remote areas collecting the cargo. These unregistered landings attract the attention of civil and military authorities worldwide. After three weeks in which the authorities try to negotiate with Seren-Enterprises units of the Space Guard try to land on the comet. There they encounter strong resistance and are repelled.
Now the hijackers change their tactics. They drop gold to the Earth, again into uninhabited areas, but now uncontrolled and without deorbiters. Much of the gold vaporizes as it enters the atmosphere. Drops of molten gold and nuggets rain down over wide areas starting a gold rush in the Sahara, Alaska, Siberia, and Australia.
The thieves land a total of 9,000 metric tons of gold. This accounts for about one percent of the world's gold reserves at the time. The world becomes aware that any organization in the future will be able to bring almost any amount of precious metal to the Earth. The price of gold collapses.
It quickly becomes known that 2,000 metric tons of gold had already been sold at the old market prices via futures contracts. The total value is equivalent to the gross national product of a small country. Later it turns out that the real purpose of the asteroid theft was not to sell gold, but to manipulate the markets, were the thieves probably earned much more.
In the chaos of the *Rain of Gold* the thieves leave the asteroid. Their identity remaining in the dark, some facts point at state actors. There are many leads and clues, but no clear evidence. The real masterminds will never be publicly revealed.
2191 100,000 in Space.
100,000 people live in orbit, on the moon and in interplanetary space.
Many work to extract raw materials from the moon and from near earth asteroids. Their work being dangerous, not everyone returns.
Actually, modern technology made working in space much safer. It protects against the deadly radiation outside the earth's magnetic field. Life support is much more compact and reliable than 200 years ago during the first "spacewalks". The spacesuits are also much more damage resistant due to new materials. However, in the asteroid mining business, there are so many risk factors that accidents still happen. Taking serious efforts many risks could be reduced, but this would amount to extraordinary costs. So, companies trying to provide a perfectly safe work environment would not competitive.
Human spaceflight has always been a trade-off between safety and cost. Absolute safety is not possible. Though the risk can be reduced with investments in equipment and personnel. The actual cost depends on the risk of failure that the stakeholders are willing to take.
In the early days of spaceflight, when the media closely followed all manned missions, attempts were made to limit the risk of fatal accidents to 1%. That means one dead astronaut on 100 missions. To achieve this goal early space organizations had to invest about 500 million dollars for each astronaut. 200 years later that much is no longer necessary. With 100,000 people in vacuum jobs it would not be possible either.
Despite much better technology and scale economies which make everything cheaper, vacuum applications are still expensive if certain safety standards are to be met. Safety and costs are still to be weighed against each other. 200 years after the first clumsy steps in orbit, missions have become safer, but a job in orbital resource extraction is still orders of magnitude more dangerous than other jobs.
At the end of the 22nd century a mission risk of 0.1% can be achieved at reasonable costs. The term "mission risk" is defined as a stay in orbit for several weeks with some external work, as it was 200 years before. This 0.1% risk is nominally 10 times better than in the early days of space travel. In practice this number is deceiving because the job description has changed. The first astronauts conducted three missions on average. In doing so, they accumulated a total risk of 3%. That was considered to be justified by the dream of travelling into space as an astronaut.
Now, modern vacuum workers are more likely to have 10 such mission assignments per year. Extra vehicular activities are a lot more numerous often being the normal daily work after all. The missions are not as precisely planned as they were in the early days and the performance demanded per shift has increased. On the other hand, workers staying in space for a long time, there is no need for risky ascents to orbit on slow-burning 1000-ton bombs and no less risky meteorite-like landings.
The advantage of not being subjected to dangerous ascents and descents is offset by the fact that vacuum workers have to risk their lives in EVAs every day. Over time, their total risk may amount to 10% or 20%, and for some even 30%, depending on equipment, training, and work ethics.
While the space agencies of Earth’s governments and the military in close Earth orbit keep standards reasonably high, the situation in commercial asteroid mining is somewhere between problematic and precarious. Asteroid mining companies basically have to find a balance between security costs and replacement costs, ultimately between the cost of keeping workers alive to do their jobs and the cost of bringing in new trained workers from the Earth's gravity well. The lives of the workers themselves play a secondary role in their calculations.
Among the 100,000 people in the vacuum are tourists, military personnel and orbital construction workers. Only about one-tenth are on dangerous resource extraction jobs where accidents are commonplace. A full fifth of those vacuum workers does not return alive. The job is correspondingly unpopular. On the other hand, it is highly paid. Salaries do not play a major role compared to all the other costs of space operations. Morale is low. Everyone knows that the job is a kind of Russian roulette. They either return rich or they don't return at all.
At the end of the 22nd century prices for orbital raw materials sink due to increasing competition from more mining companies. With shrinking margins investments go down, worsening the security situation even more. It then becomes almost impossible to recruit enough well-trained engineers for asteroid jobs. Only people who have no choice, who are heavily indebted or, for whatever reason, want to disappear, still volunteer for these jobs. That is why some states and companies resort to recruiting prisoners serving long term sentences.