This article originally appeared in Jump Point 7.3.
The Reliant light freighter and production variants are among the most successful spacecraft designs of the past decade. Although the model lineup debuted in 2946, the design’s story begins in 2910 with a technology-sharing agreement between Musashi Industrial & Starflight Concern (MISC) and representatives of the Xi’an Empire. While the specific details of the Xi’an technology offered as part of the detail remain a trade secret, the ensuing debate over light spacecraft development at MISC is well documented. Prior to the agreement, MISC had primarily focused on its Heavy Industry division (MISC-HI), responsible for the Endeavor, Starfarer, and Hull series. The license of alien technology represented a major sea change intended to introduce smaller personal craft in the vein of Roberts Space Industries’ (RSI) Aurora and its associated designs. MISC supported several internal pilot projects to determine what shape these new spacecraft would take, with the ultimate winner of the process being the design that became the ubiquitous Freelancer. However, the Freelancer was not the only project studied at this point. An alternative design, then identified as SHIP B, proposed a much more radical adaptation of Xi’an design aesthetics and flight configurations.
SHIP B’s project leader was Dr. Rico Norden, who had transferred from MISC-HI after a lengthy career shepherding the Hull C through several major design revisions. Norden was insistent that his design was the superior choice to help the company to stand out from the many new competitors in the arena. SHIP B featured a wide, movable “flying wing” design that was unlike anything built by humans at the time. In addition to the visual connection to the Xi’an technology the company hoped would put its spacecraft ahead of competitors, Norden argued that SHIP B’s unique design would allow it to maximize cargo storage while permitting the use of smaller landing pads. The proposed design, he further argued, could even rely on traditional flight aerodynamics during emergencies when in atmospheric mode. Norden campaigned ceaselessly for his selection, calling in every favor he had earned in his long career as one of the company’s senior engineers. His campaign was ultimately a failure: the executives instead decided on the more traditional Freelancer outline as their platform, intending to slowly ease the use of Xi’an technology and design mechanics into the human sphere rather than rush ahead with the potentially off-putting alien design language. Feeling humiliated from his failure to convince supporters of the value behind his design, Norden chose to transfer back to MISC-HI rather than work on the competing design. After another failed attempt to revive the wing design on a larger scale, he retired the following year.
A quarter-century later, MISC was in an enviable position: the technology lease agreement with the Xi’an had continued successfully, there was a steady call for HI ships, and the Freelancer had been established as trusted spacecraft for hauling, exploration, and more. With a steady flow of capital, the company had a newfound desire to further encroach on RSI’s everyday spacecraft. The team quickly decided that the climate had changed in two-plus decades and that there was a call for spacecraft that stood out and embraced alien design elements. Working from the original SHIP B development work, the newly-titled Reliant Team developed a smaller version of the original flying wing freighter intended to appeal to independent pilots starting their careers. Though an unusual silhouette, the design was extremely modular, with the development of four different variants happening almost simultaneously. The Reliant program began in 2942 and concluded with the premiere of the first production prototype in a ceremony on Saisei in 2944.
Initial development proceeded rapidly thanks to existing work on aerodynamics and results from early jump tunnel studies for SHIP B. MISC’s deal with the Xi’an government had continued to expand over the preceding two decades, allowing more innovations to be included than were integrated into the original Freelancer or planned for SHIP B. The first prototype successfully left the atmosphere in April 2945. The process was surprisingly flawless for a ship that would have multiple flight modes and such a wide variety of intended roles, with development only slowing during component integration due to transponder issues stemming from the need to protect a shorter, wider ship than off the shelf technology had been intended for. These and a limited number of teething issues relating to the spacecraft flight mode transitions were resolved successfully and the Reliant continued to hit milestones until its formal reveal the following year. Guest of honor at the 2945 product launch ceremony was Dr. Norden who, in his retirement, had been fully unaware that his cherished vision of a wing-based freighter was finally coming to fruition. Tears in his eyes, Norden witnessed in awe as the descendant of SHIP B came into view.
After an additional period of space-worthiness testing and formal certification of the production prototype, MISC would go on to formally launch the Reliant as part of their 2946 lineup, offering all four of the variants developed during the research period. The initial prototype would form the basis of the Reliant Kore, which MISC would premiere as a “minihauler” (referring to its smaller stature than the Hull line). Owing to its unique silhouette, the Reliant Kore could store more standardized cargo pallets than similarly-sized spacecraft – an appealing option for smaller enterprises or private crews just starting their careers. The hope was to present the Reliant not as another alien oddity, but more as something representing the next evolution of human industry; something the company would go on to repeat throughout the design’s rollout period. Owing to the overall development timeline, each initial variant would share the same chassis as the Kore. To develop the remaining three variants (a number determined by the available production lines at the time), MISC created three focus teams tasked with looking for ‘holes’ in available spacecraft lineups to try and create unique variants to fulfill these niches. The teams focused on reviewing high volumes of news stories and interviewed existing ship crews to determine where they found the experience lacking:
The easiest to determine was the Tana, a military-focused model intended for remote frontier garrisons unable to operate top-of-the-line Anvil or Aegis hardware. The focus team concluded such locations would benefit from a ship that would double as an interceptor for fending off raiders and as a low-level hauler. The Sen was created in response to interviews with Endeavor science crews who professed a need for smaller, more maneuverable support craft that could be fitted with specialty hardware for outbound scientific operations. The final version was the most unexpected: the Mako was intended for news organizations broadcasting from space. The need for the Mako was determined by a lengthy review of spectrum broadcasts that identified the low-quality video from combat incidents and the significant increase of such incidents in the first place.
For the Reliant’s formal rollout, MISC opted to avoid marketing the Xi’an connection or the similarity between its flight modes to those of the Khartu-al. Instead, the company opted to follow in the footsteps of its highly-successful “Built for Life” campaign and position the Reliant as a working spacecraft. To promote this, the company wrote off a production run of ships and donated them to various companies and professionals, each accompanied by a documentary film crew. Four Kore haulers were offered to a pair of companies seeking financing for short-term shipping routes, a pair of Makos were donated to the top two major broadcasters on Terra, a Sen was dispatched as part of a solar corona survey expedition, and a half-squadron of Tana was given to a group of colonists preparing to settle a frontier moon (the location of which was unidentified in the marketing). As the donated ships made news wherever they went (and in some cases broadcast that news themselves), the net impact was impressive, giving the public the sense that these new spacecraft were suddenly everywhere. MISC dealerships were flooded with requests for more information and the Reliant quickly became the company’s most successful original spacecraft launch. By the second model year, the Reliant had settled in as one of the company’s most desired models – no small task for the ship that followed the famed Freelancer.