The Dominion War ended, and the inhabitants of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants breathed a collective sigh of relief as they tried to regain some sense of normalcy. Because the war effort required an enormous resource committment, much of the Federation's exploratory arm was completely dismantled. Ever-idealistic, the Federation sought to quickly rebuild that exploratory arm, and within five years after the Treaty of Bajor was formalized, the Federation sent a small flotilla of science vessels on a mission of exploration into the Gamma Quadrant. Satisfied the Dominion had withdrawn from the area immediately surrounding the Bajoran Wormhole, leaders of the Allied powers launched a joint mission to establish an Allied presence in the Gamma Quadrant despite a pervasive public opinion that such an endeavour was foolish so soon after a war that nearly destroyed the Alpha and Beta Quadrants.
The mission to establish an Allied presence in the Gamma Quadrant seemed to be proceeding well, and by 2388, an impressive infrastructure had been created. The Allied powers constructed a small outpost in orbit of Idran IV, a smaller, habitable planet in the Idran system at the Gamma Quadrant terminus of the Bajoran Wormhole. Plans were made to colonize Idran IV, and a small array of colonists arrived at Outpost Unity by the end of 2388. During a routine mission to survey a site on Idran IV's surface, surveyors tripped a previously undiscovered Dominion-set booby-trap that destabilized the planet's core. Idran IV annihilated, vaporizing the entire Idran system and Outpost Unity in the process. The Alliance leading to Outpost Unity quickly unraveled as each of its constituents blamed the other for the project's spectacular failure, and the Federation, the Klingons, and the Romulans all went into relative seclusion.
Shocked by the dire consequences of its idealism, the Federation found itself having an identity crisis, and by 2391, the Federation Sciences Commission was all but dissolved by the Federation Council. Resources that would have been allocated toward exploration and the furtherance of science were funneled into the purely military arm of Starfleet, sowing the first seeds of discord that would mainfest over the next few decades.
The Son'a, who never completely abandoned their hope of harvesting the metaphasic radiation encircling the Ba'ku planet in the Briar Patch, seized upon the chaos in an attempt to complete Ru'afo's objective from two decades earlier. An increasingly militant Federation once again found itself clashing with the Son'a over the Ba'ku planet, which was, by now, a Federation protectorate. In 2394, a frustrated, nearly defeated Son'a began to attack heavily populated outlying Federation member systems, causing their stars to collapse and go nova by firing their illegal subspace weapons into those stars' cores. By the end of 2394, Starfleet captured the last of the Son'a insurgents, but only after nearly a dozen stars had been collapsed, killing more Federation civilians than had been killed in the Dominion War.
The devestation caused by the Son'a sent the Federation into an ideological war of words, and the Federation fragmented into roughly three factions: the traditionalists, who sought a return to the pre-Dominion War mindset that put peace and knowledge above all else; the militants, who believed in the superiority of the phaser bank over the olive branch; and the pragmatists, who acknowledged that a return to the previous status quod was impossible because of the events that had transpired, but who believed that a balance could be struck between the traditionalists and the militants.
By 2401, the militant faction cemented its control over the Federation Council and government Cabinet positions, while the traditionalists and pragmatists each formed shadow governments to advance their views and protect the member worlds aligned with their viewpoints. Although the official government did not take kindly to the activities of the traditionalist and pragmatist shadow governments, they tolerated those efforts, recognizing that pushing back in any meaningful manner would likely beget a civil war that would destabilize the entire Alpha and Beta Quadrants.
And that was basically the order of things. The Federation's governing faction regarded its sword as mightier than its pen, and Federation society became increasingly Spartan. Intellectuals, however, maintained that the Federation could not exist within a vacuum, and must seek to expand its already vast cultural database, if for no other reason than to identify potential threats to its vitality. Reluctant to launch a formal mission of exploration after the gross failure in the Gamma Quadrant, the Federation Council authorized the Federation Sciences Commission to cooperate with the Daystrom Institute to launch a series of unmanned probes into deep space.
By 2404, the probes had been launched, and the telemetry they returned was mostly uninteresting. By 2409, an impatient Federation Council deemed the project a complete failure and dissolved the Federation Sciences Commission with the exception of a few listening posts that continued to process telemetry from the probes. For the next decade and a half, the entire endeavour remained largely forgotten as the Federation's dominant factions squabbled over how to govern and what the Federation's role in the galaxy should be.
All of that changed in early 2422, when one of the probes dispatched to an area of space previously believed to be void of any matter started reporting vast amounts of information on the region, and indicating that there might be a highly advanced society in that area. The small scientific community within the Federation became a din of activity, and scientists who presumed they would never again practice their trade were brought in to help analyze the wealth of new information delivered by the probe. For the first time in two decades, lines among the Federation's factions softened as they worked toward a common goal. However, in mid-2422, only months after the probe started reporting useful information, it was swept into the gravity well of a Red Giant star, and was destroyed.
Many observers feared the probe's destruction would end this newfound era of cooperation, but the excitement of the Federation's scientists could not be corralled, and the innate curiosity that had lain dormant for so many years ignited like a wildfire. By early 2423, motions had been placed before the Federation Council to authorize a manned exploratory mission, but none succeeded until later that year when a reluctant Federation Council appropriated resources for a manned mission by a marginal positive vote.
In early 2424, the Starfleet Corps of Engineers began refitting the USS Antietam, an old Nova-class scout, for exploratory duties, and Captain Michael Sheridan was selected to command the mission. On March 14, 2425, the Antietam departed Spacedock with much fanfare. It would take nearly a year at high warp to arrive at the region where the probe left off, and new innovations in communication equipment allowed the Antietam to remain largely in contact with Starfleet Command.
Once it departed charted space, the Antietam passed through several previously unexplored areas, where Captain Sheridan made first contact with several species that had remained within the confines of their systems despite having warp capabilities. The Antietam's launch marked a turning point in the Federation's history, and many began to believe that the mission would bring an end to the era marked by political squabbling and division among those who were once brothers.
On January 12, 2426, Starfleet abruptly lost all contact with the Antietam. Though it recently passed through a nebula, Sheridan and the Antietam reported nothing unusual about their nebula transit. By mid-2427, an increasingly concerned Federation Sciences Commission and Federation Council began contemplating how to respond to the Antietam's silence, and measures ultimately passed the Federation Council authorizing a second manned mission, driven in large part by the still-dominant militant faction's sense of duty to leave no man behind.
The new mission's purpose was two-fold: first, find the Antietam, if possible, and second, continue its mission. To increase the new mission's likelihood for success, Starfleet Command successfully lobbied the Federation Council and obtained permission to repurpose the nearly complete USS Phoenix, a prototype vessel for the class intended to replace the aging Sovereign-class.
Engineering crews at Utopia Planitia and Spacedock began retrofitting the first Phoenix-class starship for a mission of deep space search, rescue, and exploration. Facilities for housing and training large Marine contingents were ripped out and converted into science labs, while a flight deck intended to service a fighter wing was sealed and converted largely into family quarters.
As the Phoenix's system refits neared completion toward the beginning of 2428, Starfleet began making personnel assignments. To address the noticeable dearth of science officers in uniform, Starfleet turned to civilian enclaves of scientific expertise and offered leading experts from fields spanning exolinguistics to astrophysics the option of joining the fleet as officers via a direct commissioning program. Though this practice caused some understandable friction among career officers, it was accepted -- even if grudgingly -- by most as a necessary step in equipping the Phoenix for success.
With its crew slowly reporting for duty, the Phoenix began preparations for its shakedown in the spring of 2428, buoyed by the hopes of the government leadership and the common man alike.