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Neal Stephenson On Rockets and Innovation

CmdrTaco posted more than 3 years ago | from the command-line-more-historic-every-day dept.

Technology 229

Dr. Gamera writes "Science-fiction author Neal Stephenson gives us his perspective on the history of the development of rocketry. He uses that history to illustrate the phenomena of path dependence and lock-in."

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Stephenson & Rocket? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35091418)

For a moment I thought we were back in the 19th Century at Rainhill

Re:Stephenson & Rocket? (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091554)

We are, among few things he does is basically hoping for "proper" airplanes from our times [goo.gl] (we CAN build them! Take a Harrier, remove wings and canopy ... doesn't make it a good idea) vs. boring reality [wikimedia.org]

Starting as an ICBM (the first operational ICBM, R-7 Semyorka) doesn't prevent getting "the most reliable ... most frequently used launch vehicle in the world" [esa.int] . One of the more inexpensive ones, too... (if anything, efforts at departure away from what physics & rocket equation tells us tended to end ... inefficiently)

Re:Stephenson & Rocket? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35092342)

Ah the Harrier. Great Aircraft. I worked on the Flight Test line at Dunsfold in the 70's.

Re:Stephenson & Rocket? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35093246)

Why is it OK to make fun of that delusional fantasy but Space Nuttery from the Space Age, that's like a Holy Plan for the human race? It's just as laughable and deluded.

"we sing about them at every football game" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35091572)

What the hell is this: "we sing about them at every football game"
I'm not aware of this... I've been to quite a few Saskatchewan RoughRider games and I haven't heard anyone singing about rockets.
is this some sort of beer drinking song?

Re:"we sing about them at every football game" (1)

rwven (663186) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091752)

"The rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air..."

Re:"we sing about them at every football game" (1)

rickb928 (945187) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091784)

They don't do that in Canada. Hey, they just recently stopped singing that God save the Queen. I think. We got past that a couple hundred years ago, though more violently than Canada did. Woops, I'll be darned, they ARE different from us...

Re:"we sing about them at every football game" (1)

rwven (663186) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092614)

I suppose one must take context into account when rtfa.

Re:"we sing about them at every football game" (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35093796)

How about having the author WRITE for a broader context. Americo-centric nonsense

designed by a horse's ass... (1)

efraker (1109649) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091612)

I suspect you've all seen this e-mail forward, but it was basically what this article reminded me of. http://www.astrodigital.org/space/stshorse.html [astrodigital.org]

Re:designed by a horse's ass... (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35091864)

Yes, we've seen it, as well as the refutations pointing out that the lack of rail standardizations proves it a total fabrication.

Do try to keep up.

Re:designed by a horse's ass... (1)

ron_ivi (607351) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092664)

Doesn't prove it's a "total" fabrication. It may be the case that just some rail specs descended from horses, and other perhaps from donkey asses, shovel sizes, misread specs or the whims or crazy designers..

Re:designed by a horse's ass... (2)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092834)

Either way it's on the level of "human tools discovered to be close to their creators in magnitude of size!" Well duh...

That was an interesting opinion -- (1)

Bookwyrm (3535) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091634)

While it is kind of easy to look back along the history of nearly anything complex and cherry-pick things to support a given point, the article raised some interesting points.

It would be interesting to consider the development of the Internet in the same lines and the subsequent lock-in.

Re:That was an interesting opinion -- (1)

decipher_saint (72686) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093150)

I was going to say, I mean if people weren't trying to set land speed records in rocket-powered cars would Von Braun have been as interested in rocketry at all? Who would be the champion for that technology if there were no little people with big dreams??

Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (3, Insightful)

smellsofbikes (890263) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091644)

It's a neat article, as usual with Neal, but the ending is odd. He says the current state of rocketry is at a local maximum, it's not going to get appreciably better, and there may be other ways of putting stuff in orbit that are better, and then he says he doesn't know why we aren't trying those other better things. This, after spending the previous twenty paragraphs writing about how the US has spent four trillion dollars to get to the top of this local maximum, and the old USSR spent about the same, and in the process we've established a huge military-industrial complex based on the money still flowing into that development path, with lots of political inertia greased by manufacturing and administrative money going into congressional districts... and he wonders why we're not considering spending another trillion dollars on a different, unproven system that would probably involve taking money from the people who are now getting it? He's already answered his own question, and that's surprising because he's a very bright person and does a good job of analyzing the subject.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (3, Insightful)

rickb928 (945187) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091796)

Lemme put it this way. He did edify and inform you enough to come to that conclusion.

He's brighter than you thought, maybe?

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

rwv (1636355) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091820)

I think the point of the article is to illustrate that he's pulling his hair out wondering why SpaceX and other up-and-coming space organizations are reinventing the wheel. He's saying rockets are hugely inefficient for moving matter into orbit and you'd get more bang-for-the-buck by inventing something new (i.e. a space plane, a space elevator, or even a simple stairway to heaven).

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35092080)

What are you comparing rockets to in order to arrive at the conclusion they are "hugely inefficient"? This story is absurd. If someone could create another way to get things into space which is more reliable, in the event of a failure causes less environmental damage, and costs less, it would be done. That is a no brainer in our militaristic greed based world.

Space Plane is exorbitantly expensive and guess what...uses those "hugely inefficient" rockets to reach space. A space elevator is science fiction. Stairway to Heaven....Led Zeppelin broke up years ago. There simply is no tech out there which can come close to the reliability, efficiency, and costs of rockets. that is why everyone is using them.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

holmstar (1388267) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093496)

A space elevator is science fiction.

What's your point? Rockets capable of getting to orbit were science fiction not that many years ago. There are, at least theoretically, materials strong enough to build one, so the rest of the issues are merely technical challenges to work out, but nothing that's impossible. We aren't talking about teleportation or warp drives here. A space elevator is possible with currently conceivable technology.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

kschendel (644489) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092142)

Yeah, I wasn't impressed. Rockets may be inefficient, but they are a hell of a lot better than anything else we have currently -- at least, anything that doesn't require large quantities of unobtanium. Space elevators are right on the edge of what is maybe barely possible in a few years, never mind the past 50.

He does mention the key fact about getting to orbit -- the need for a massive horizontal velocity -- but it almost sounds like he doesn't really comprehend the energetics involved.

He had some valid points about payload sizing, but as far as I know that has been a non-issue for years if not decades.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

rwv (1636355) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092530)

Rockets required bits of "unobtanium" during the 60s. That's why the article points out that $8 trillion was spent between the USA and the USSR. Neal seems to be asking why we continue to pour money into rockets when we can be pouring money into building a space elevator that can carry stuff to orbit at $10 or $100 per pound instead of $10,000 per pound.

Part of the folly of the Space Transportation System (i.e. Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavour) was the it had unexpected maintenance costs that were partly linked to the reliance on the SRBs. The cost-savings of having a reusable fleet was never realized. Neal is saying, "You need to develop a non-rocket-based technology if you actually want to make space travel cheap!!!"

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

amliebsch (724858) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093026)

How so? As Neal himself points out in the article, liquid-fuel rocket technology had already been under development for decades, and the principles and mechanics involved pretty well-understood by the 1960's.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093052)

Neal is saying, "You need to blindly pour tons of money into any fantasy wunderscenario that's pushed around, while forgetting how some of them were seriously looked at again, and again, and again"

There was nothing unobtanium-like during the 60s about R-7 Semyorka, the first operational (in 1957) ICBM. Which is used to this day as Soyuz rocket, "the most reliable ... most frequently used launch vehicle in the world" [esa.int] .

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (2)

kschendel (644489) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093712)

"Rockets required bits of "unobtanium" during the 60s."

Not really. I don't doubt that there were some advances in high temperature materials, but jet engines were driving the same research as well. The stuff in 60's engines were nowhere near the theoretical edge that a hundred thousand kilometer long carbon fiber nanotube is.

The early rocket engine problems were mostly related to learning about injector voodoo (the F1), the physical properties of liquid hydrogen (RL10 Centaur), and understanding the bearing and sealing issues related to high powered turbopumps (any number of early engine explosions). None of these required anything like the fundamental advances in material science that an elevator will need.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

amliebsch (724858) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092344)

The thing is he's saying that without presenting any reasons for believing it to be true. It's certainly *possible* that money spent on a space elevator would be more productive than money spent on rockets. It's also possible that it could turn out to be *less* productive. His argument only makes sense if he has actual reasons for believing the former more likely than the latter, but he doesn't present any.

His argument is about on the same level as someone arguing that you should dump all your money into lottery tickets. It's a no-brainer - so long as we are assuming that you win, of course.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

suutar (1860506) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093454)

It sounds like what he's arguing is that (e.g.) space elevators can yield a big reward, but rockets cannot. Pushing money at space elevators is riskier than pushing money at rockets, but if rockets aren't going to be able to take you where you want to be, what good are they?

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35094392)

http://quicklaunchinc.com/
http://www.jpaerospace.com/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IXYsDdPvbo&feature=related

Quicklaunch Inc has the physics and engineering worked out to make a 2000% improvement on rocket's Payload Fraction($/kg).

Spaceguns(light-gas guns) originally fell out of favor because of sonic boom type complaints from locals, and because the G-Forces involved were unsurvivable by humans(but not fertilized embryos...) and because of sonic boom type complaints from locals.

The first problem doesn't apply towards moving material supplies in to space(water, RP1, other rocket fuels, aluminum etc.) and they've resolved the second problem by putting it in the ocean.

Robots and Satelites don't mind G-forces nearly as much as fleshbags.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

Thelasko (1196535) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091874)

He says the current state of rocketry is at a local maximum, it's not going to get appreciably better

He's also assuming other fields don't develop new technologies that will benefit rocketry.

For example, microprocessors have become smaller and more efficient. Did the space industry pay for 100% of this improvement? No, but it did benefit from it.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

nomentanus (838275) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093090)

His argument does not assume this. It may assume that the wholesale replacement of fundamental technology in one field doesn't frequently happen from a whole different field, or that that process happens but is slowing. And he's no doubt right on both those counts. Microprocessors have made rockets a bit cheaper and lighter, but they haven't replaced rocket technology in some bizarre way.

However your argument assumes that there's no lock-in in other tech like microprocessors! I just have to giggle at that assumption. Silicon just by itself is a massive and frequently discussed instance of lock in.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

MozeeToby (1163751) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091896)

Yes but the cost is sunk, which is something that I would hope the people in charge of budgets understand. We could throw another four trillion dollars at rocket technology and only get a 20% performance improvement for our money, or you could spend a fraction of that cost to investigate truly revolutionary launch technologies. As much as it pains me to say it, every new rocket, new capsule, new extension to one program or another just takes us farther down a road that does not lead to cheap, reliable human spaceflight.

Meanwhile other launch technologies are given token funding or less. Imagine if we really and truly decided to put funding towards one (or better yet, several) of the 'non-standard' launch technologies. The problem is that they all appear on the surface to be the realm of science fiction, while in fact could have been developed decades ago if the political will had been there. Nuclear powered rockets, ground based laser rockets, launch loops, sky hooks, and space elevators... the general public thinks these things are impossible, and maybe some of them are, but I for one would be willing to risk a few billion dollars of government spending to find out for sure.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35092034)

So, if you explain why something happens in the short run, it therefore follows, that it must happen in the long run, and forever? His point is that in the past, our society busted through lock ins. We aren't still using whale oil for illumination, fer instance.The discovery of wood-based, and then coal-based gas illumination broke that lock-in without enormous investment, albeit thousands of years after the invention of oil lamps. You'd do better to accuse him of impatience, then try to back that up, rather than as much as state that it's a matter of logic that rockets can't and won't be replaced, ever, or for eons. He actually argued both that lock-in happens easily, and that previously, we were much better at breaking those logjams.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

dr.newton (648217) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092112)

Not everyone considers loss aversion a fundamental law of nature.

It doesn't matter how much we spent on that stuff. We should still be doing what makes sense for us here and now.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (3, Insightful)

red_dragon (1761) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092208)

It's a neat article, as usual with Neal, and the ending is odd, also usual with Neal.

Fixed that for you.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

necro81 (917438) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092464)

I think you are missing a key part of his conclusion:

But none of the bright young up-and-coming economies seem to be interested in anything besides aping what the United States and the USSR did years ago. We may, in other words, need to look beyond strictly U.S.-centric explanations for such failures of imagination and initiative.

He has laid out a good case explaining why the U.S. isn't dumping its investment to start over. What he is wondering about is why no one else is trying it, either. Think of China: they have resources and means to develop something wholly new. But all they are doing is building solid- and liquid-fueled rockets to fling soyuz-like capsules into orbit. Why?

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

smellsofbikes (890263) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092920)

Well, a quick answer would be that this is an emergent characteristic of evolutionary processes: competition forces everyone to climb the local maximum, and once they're at the top they stay there because they have to. Anyone who tries to go somewhere else has to descend from the top, and that's competitively unsuccessful. So everyone fights for the very topmost spot, forever, or until the entire ecosystem changes enough that it's no longer the local maximum, and at that point everyone dashes for new local maxima.

In this case, since the entire ecosystem can't really change, we're just stuck, for exactly the reasons he says, until extremely large entities that can afford to be uncompetitive for a long time go looking for another local maximum, and they're not willing to, for, again, exactly the reasons he says. I'm not seeing any mystery here, just a grim outcome of competition and selection.

A new player would change the rules (1)

petes_PoV (912422) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092738)

If another state, without an incumbent rocketry industry, was to get serious they would effectively start with a clean sheet of paper. They would not have to go to the trouble of developing all the preceding rocket based technologies, and could leapfrog to the next hill (albeit not to the top of the hill - at least not to start with). If that paid off and they were able to put payloads into orbit for a tenth, or a hundredth of what conventional technologies were charging that would be such a disruptive technology that the old regime would be out of business within a decade.

The key for that new state would be to keep their developments a closely guarded secret, purely to increase the time advantage they had until every other spacefaring nation could work it out for themselves. The question then becomes, do the other states try to play catch-up and slavishly emulate what the new guy is doing, or do they try to leapfrog them onto the hill after that?

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

tessellated (265314) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092966)

...but the ending is odd.

Obviously you haven't read much from Neal; after having read three or four of his novels you come to expect oddness in the endings.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093160)

It's a neat article, as usual with Neal, but the ending is odd. He says the current state of rocketry is at a local maximum, it's not going to get appreciably better

Well, that portion of the article is mostly bunk because the information based it on come from someone with a vested interest in replacing the current system with his own pet system. (I.E. the article is heavily biased out of the gate).
 

there may be other ways of putting stuff in orbit that are better, and then he says he doesn't know why we aren't trying those other better things.

Mostly because those 'better things' almost universally aren't once you get past the the power points and down into the actual accounting and engineering. They either a) don't work* like their proponents think they do, or b) require billions upon billions of upfront investment to save the cost of a few hundred thousands of dollars worth of first stage fuel. (In many cases it's both.)**
Hence the weak and odd ending - he's taken the bunk he's been fed and treated is as gospel truth. When he realizes that reality doesn't match the vision embodied in the input bunk, he treats reality as faulty rather than examining his input and assumptions. (I.E. GIGO.)
 
* When I say "don't work" I don't mean "requires a bit of R&D", I mean "requires magic pixie dust, unobtanium, and/or repealing the laws of physics".
 
** This is the infamous "chicken-and-egg" scenario well known to the intelligent space advocates, it's going to cost a mega bundle to get rockets up to airliner levels of reliability and cost where in theory the resulting demand will justify the investment - but currently the demand is so low there's no reason to make the investment in the first place. This is why so many advocate dubious schemes like subsidized fuel depots - as an artificial demand and an indirect subsidy for launch providers.

Re:Odd, unsatisfying conclusion (1)

bhcompy (1877290) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093862)

You're surprised that something written by Neal Stephenson has an odd, unsatisfying conclusion ? Everything written by him ends that way(and sometimes with statutory rape)

Definition of path dependence and lock-in (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35091666)

Funny, that the article fails to define the two concepts that its supposed to illustrate. Bad (popular) scientific writing. I would not have expected this from someone who supposedly knows how to write (albeit fiction).

Wow that was just bad. (1)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091718)

Really that was just really bad. Satellites have never been "limited" to the size and weight of Hydrogen bombs.
Frankly it was just some kind of odd ramble that had no real facts at all. The History was also just dumbed down to about the level of a fourth grade book report.

Re:Wow that was just bad. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35091842)

have you read his books ... it is the same at least they are aptly named. The Confusion ... INDEED

Re:Wow that was just bad. (1)

urusan (1755332) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091920)

Really that was just really bad. Satellites have never been "limited" to the size and weight of Hydrogen bombs.

Except that's not really what he said...the very next paragraph elaborates on this point.

Re:Wow that was just bad. (1)

rickb928 (945187) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092012)

He's right, you're wrong. Satellites are limited to the capacities of the launch vehicles available, and those vehicles were designed for the bombs. Or the bombs aer designed to the limitations of the vehicles. Same problem for satellites, though they didn't drive vehicle development until fairly recently. Even now, it's as much packaging as rocket that limits satellite design. The USAF seems pretty interested in the X-37 to deliver military satellites, and I wonder how big the

Delta/Thor rockets are still very popular for satellite launches, and are the result of the PGM-17 program, the USAF Intermediate-range missles. Replaced soon by Atlas rockets. We know these well as the launch vehicle for various space probes and Mercury capsules.

Personally, I would have never gotten on top of a Redstone for even a suborbital test, but then again, IANATP. Al Shepard deserves a cookie for that. Grissom, of course, blew the hatch and screwed the pooch, allegedly, though expecting that thing to float seems optimistic in hindsight.

Re:Wow that was just bad. (2)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092136)

May I introduce you to the International Space Station - an artificial satellite of a mass greatly exceeding capabilities of any launcher (and before the inevitable: no, it's not simply a fiction of rocket limitations - we build even ocean going ships in segments nowadays; modularization and, eventually, mass production, is simply a very good idea)

And FYI, the new toy of USAF, X-37, is launched by "dumb rocket" (with Russian main engine...); it's a "spaceplane" mostly because of its envisioned niche usage scenarios, so it can afford wasting most of its mass for airframe.

Re:Wow that was just bad. (1)

rickb928 (945187) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092482)

The ISS is a satellite, but launched in pieces that fit on rockets or in the Shuttle.

Nice try, though. Somehow, limitations of launchers still prevails. Until we develop better space construction techniques, we're stuck.

Re:Wow that was just bad. (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092938)

...and ISS modules don't hit the limits of current launcher technology. We are well on our way to the most sensible approach to construction (seriously, how did you miss that was the point? W8, you don't mean physical fit, don't think other methods could be much less streamlined, right? Transporters?...)

Re:Wow that was just bad. (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092486)

You're dangerously close to pointing out the exception that proves the rule.

Sure, the multi-billion dollar government research platform is modular, but where are all the modular commercial satellites?

Re:Wow that was just bad. (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092686)

Don't ignore the possibility of other limiting factors and/or how larger satellites are not needed for most scenarios. Generally, we are not using the heaviest rockets around to launch commercial satellites.

Heck, even quite average launchers are often used to put more than one satellite into orbit.

Re:Wow that was just bad. (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093154)

The quote in the article (about satellite size and H-bombs) is about the existence of ICBMs dramatically lowering the start up costs of the early satellite launchers, not about weapon sizes dictating launch capabilities throughout the history of space flight. So we have gone a bit off the rails. The part where the weapons development absorbed much of the costs is quite obviously true, the discussion about the primary driver of greater lift capability is somewhat muddier, but it seems to me that National pride projects (mostly launching humans) have been the big source of funds.

Re:Wow that was just bad. (1)

RockClimbingFool (692426) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093334)

What about modular systems?

Directv, GPS, Iridium? Are you going to say those don't count because they aren't physically connected?

Re:Wow that was just bad. (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093586)

I would say they don't count because they aren't modular systems due to launch mass restrictions, they are modular because that is the sensible way to get good geographic coverage.

Re:Wow that was just bad. (1)

cowboy76Spain (815442) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092724)

The missiles were designed for intercontinental flight... launching a manned capsule to the moon requires way more thrust.

Of course, technology designed for missiles was useful when building space rockets, but there is more to it.

Also, I find the assumption that "had not been than the URSS was ruled by a dictator, there would have been no weapons arm race". Nonsense. The second comer is always the next adversary, let it be military or economically. Even UK and France, being allies to the USA, chose to develop their nukes in order to mantain some autonomy. And yes, probably they had help from the USA, but that was offered only because the URSS was the great danger.

Re:Wow that was just bad. (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093152)

If one looks at early days of Manhattan project (and slightly before it), it's a bit less clear regarding who got help from whom. Or when checking out Miles M.52 aircraft, in relation to Bell X-1.

Re:Wow that was just bad. (1)

BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093362)

The Delta and Atlas rockets used today pretty much only share the name of their predecessors. I am not sure there is a single piece of technology on either of the current vehicles that was employed by their original programs, or, hell, even their predecessors two generations removed.

Re:Wow that was just bad. (1)

ISoldat53 (977164) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092710)

Just like his books then.

Why not, indeed? (4, Interesting)

rickb928 (945187) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091764)

Stepheson makes this point late in the article:

"There is no shortage of proposals for radically innovative space launch schemes that, if they worked, would get us across the valley to other hilltops considerably higher than the one we are standing on now—high enough to bring the cost and risk of space launch down to the point where fundamentally new things could begin happening in outer space. But we are not making any serious effort as a society to cross those valleys. It is not clear why."

It's somewhat clearer why, to me.

I want to buy a more fuel-efficient car, and keep my current, less-efficient car. My current car is useful for many things, but commuting to work could be done by another, more efficient one. Here, however, is the rub. Despite the improvement in fuel economy, it is still a net increase in cost to me for a fairly long time. Acquisition, insurance, and upkeep consume most of the fuel savings. Yes, it would be better for he environment also, but that doesn't immediately or directly impact my costs very much. So I put off buying that car.

Our current methods of delivering object into space work well enough, and the alternatives are both unproven and not sufficiently advantageous to warrant immediate adoption.

However, as we re-enter manned space exploration, we will be looking for heavy-lift options that don't actually exist today, and those present the opportunity to develop new methods. Avoiding the vertical portion of a rocket launch also avoids the need for massive thrust to overcome gravity that directly. Stephenson alludes to this, and 'space planes' are the current focus, along with some multi-mode concepts. NASA'a failing Ares program is a fair example of lock-in that Stephenson is writing about. Being more open to the development of ultra-high-speed vehicles and their engines might offer both better alternatives and true advances. But that takes ingenuity and a willingness to risk that NASA doesn't seem to possess right now. Bad climate to propose trillion-dollar space programs, though we've been willing to propose trillion-dollar stimulus packages for more mundane projects, such as propping up failed financial institutions.

Imagine the impact of a trillion-dollar space plane project. Would US students consider a career in engineering if they saw both the opportunity to be part of a cool new future, and the employment options as well? Would this give US aerospace companies something else to sell instead of weapons systems, and is that a good thing? Would it spur international competition, and is that good? Would it divert China's resources into something besides crushing the world's manufacturing competitors? Does that matter? Would a trillion dollars given to this project do more good than giving it to the bankers? Will the bankers also flourish in the glow of this project?

Re:Why not, indeed? (3, Insightful)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091932)

There's one key word in that quote - "if". "There is no shortage of proposals for radically innovative space launch schemes that, if they worked..."

When we really seriously look at spaceplanes (say, HOTOL or Skylon studies), it turns out they aren't likely to end up any better (in best case scenario!) than "dumb rocket" using comparable technology, materials science ... on the level which we don't have yet, and which is required to make the spaceplane even borderline doable!

While, perhaps, we haven't utilized yet all the possibilities of dumb & simple approach [wikipedia.org] , in some ways we are worse than first effort [fourmilab.ch]

Re:Why not, indeed? (1)

tekrat (242117) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092162)

For all the logic in your last paragraph, it ignores the obvious: That America isn't about making game-changing leaps in technology anymore. It *is* about a few people, trying to amass as much money as they can, as quickly as they can.

Thus, it is about giving a trillion dollars to bankers, because they are the ones controlling the government, and they don't care about "building" anything, other than the number of digits in their personal accounts.

Re:Why not, indeed? (1)

nomentanus (838275) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093316)

I like this comment because extreme wealth disparities are in fact a huge cause of lock in. Maybe, as some argue, wealth disparities don't affect happiness since that is created by relative differences in wealth, not absolute. But the already very rich can only lose by game changing innovation, so the sharply increasing disparity in the U.S. does heavily reinforce lock-in.

Eventually, such wealth concentration becomes self-referential:

"nearly a quarter of the 400 wealthiest people in America on this year’s Forbes list make their fortunes from financial services, more than three times as many as in the first Forbes 400 in 1982. Many of America’s best young minds now invent derivatives, not Disneylands, because that’s where the action has been, and still is, two years after the crash."

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/opinion/26rich.html?pagewanted=2

And yes, Houston, we have a problem:

"One study concluded that each percentage-point increase in the share of national income channeled to the top 10 percent of Americans since 1960 led to an increase of 0.12 percentage points in the annual rate of economic growth — hardly an enormous boost. The cost for this tonic seems to be a drastic decline in Americans’ economic mobility. Since 1980, the weekly wage of the average worker on the factory floor has increased little more than 3 percent, after inflation.

The United States is the rich country with the most skewed income distribution. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average earnings of the richest 10 percent of Americans are 16 times those for the 10 percent at the bottom of the pile. That compares with a multiple of 8 in Britain and 5 in Sweden."

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/business/26excerpt.html?pagewanted=2

Horizons (1)

ISoldat53 (977164) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092828)

The main problem to advancement is horizons. His solutions are looking at horizons that take generations to come to fruit. But, political horizons are two years apart. The status quo is the safer bet. The future belongs to someone else.

Re:Why not, indeed? (1)

nomentanus (838275) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092992)

So you repeat his argument, with your own extremely similar example; and then say that big science and big projects cure all. And, yes, sometimes they help a bit by creating novel circumstances that allow the development of say, the safety helmet (Golden Gate Bridge.) Not to mention Tang. But usually big projects follow new technological breakthroughs and novel engineering designs, they don't create them. The rocket tech developed in and after WWII caused the Apollo project, not the other way 'round.

Right now, a huge breakthrough in interplanetary propulsion, plasma propulsion, is being funded, a bit, by NASA. To it's credit: but way too little funding given the extraordinary advance that this new tech represents, and the huge projects it would allow us to perform - say by returning a very rich asteroid to earth orbit. Only if we dump far more money into the lock-in breaking research now can we have the big projects later.

Re:Why not, indeed? (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093172)

say by returning a very rich asteroid to earth orbit

Say what?

Better at Sci-Fi than Science History - skip it (1)

advid.net (595837) | more than 3 years ago | (#35091866)

I think he should stick to sci-fi instead of writing bad journalism with a poor story of rocketry.

He has many points wrong, he thinks he has guessed how it went and why but failed to it.

At least he should have read Von Braun book about rocket science, but obviously he didn't.

I stoped reading his "perspective" here :

centrifugal force counteracts gravity

...

Re:Better at Sci-Fi than Science History - skip it (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35091928)

"I stoped reading his "perspective" here :

centrifugal force counteracts gravity"

That is actually not a horrible laymans explanation.

Re:Better at Sci-Fi than Science History - skip it (1)

PvtVoid (1252388) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092876)

I stoped reading his "perspective" here :

centrifugal force counteracts gravity

Uh, why? That's a perfectly accurate statement. One simple way to write the condition for a circular orbit, for example is that the gravitational and centrifugal forces are equal and opposite.

Fuel Depots (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35091882)

One word, "Fuel Depots". Well that's two words, sorry.

See Rand Simberg's thread on this article here: http://www.transterrestrial.com/?p=31999

Fail (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35092098)

Stephenson really needs to go back and re-read the actual history of events, not the Cliffs Notes version. There are some embarrassing errors in there, including the mistaken idea that the hydrogen bomb was developed specifically for use with ICBMs. In fact, all of the H-bombs used in nuclear tests were either dropped by high-altitude bombers or placed (in the case of the thermonuclear prototypes in the Ivy Mike and Castle Bravo shots) in specialized installations on the ground. None of them were delivered by ICBM.

In short, the effectiveness of the ICBM is a fallacy that started with Robert MacNamara and has been perpetuated by ill-informed historians ever since.

Total Fail (1)

NEDHead (1651195) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092130)

What a bad article! I am not even sure what the point of writing it was. There was neither a useful proposal for an alternate approach, nor even a clear call to action of any sort.

I don't think his premises support his conclusion (3, Insightful)

amliebsch (724858) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092132)

Suppose you accept his premises that our current state of rocket technology evolved in part due to key improbable events. As a result, we've continued that technology, to "climb to the top of that hill" as he puts it. That doesn't, by itself, automatically mean there must be higher hills to climb. We may have purposefully or accidentally climbed the highest hill we are currently capable of climbing. Perhaps we would have been further along with some other technology if we hadn't climbed this hill, but it might not have been better overall. Right? I mean, it could have turned out like our quest for magnetically confined fusion.

Blind people develop superior hearing to sighted people. I'd still rather have my vision, and I don't think that's entirely due to path dependency.

Same mistake with the combustion engine. Yes, we are getting close to maxing out the technology. But it's not clear that, if we had not developed it in the first place, we would have come up with something more effective in its place. It's not even clear we would have come up with something *as* effective. It's not even clear we even have anything plausible *yet* that would be as effective.

The fundamental mistake in this article seems to be an assumption that the grass is greener in the counterfactual, but he presents no evidence to persuade us that this is actually true.

Re:I don't think his premises support his conclusi (2)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092368)

That doesn't, by itself, automatically mean there must be higher hills to climb. We may have purposefully or accidentally climbed the highest hill we are currently capable of climbing. Perhaps we would have been further along with some other technology if we hadn't climbed this hill, but it might not have been better overall.

It might be actually slightly the other way around - did we already forget the absolute dominance of "spaceplanes" in scifi of 30s, 40s or 50s?! (even design attempts - Silbervogel, or early winged visions of von Braun) Flying saucers even, at some point...

No doubt fueled by rapid advances in aircraft technology at the time. What almost everybody wished for. And we still do, it's easy to remember and relate common experiences of air travel [wikimedia.org] , while forgetting how it's "supposed to" look like [goo.gl] (airplanes from "our" times as envisioned ~130 years ago, no doubt influenced by rapid advanced in marine technology), when approached in the same style as "spaceplanes" (actually, I wonder how much the Shuttle was influenced by designers and decision-makers growing on spaceplane scifi ... and we know how that ended, it didn't deliver on any of its main points as advertised; not a lot of flying boats around, too)

Re:I don't think his premises support his conclusi (1)

necro81 (917438) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092610)

That doesn't, by itself, automatically mean there must be higher hills to climb.

But in the two areas he focuses his conclusion on - rocketry and energy - there are demonstrably higher hills to climb. There are other architectures and paradigms that, on paper or in experimentation, guarantee better efficiency, lowered risk, lower cost, etc. If we, collectively, only had the fortitude to start climbing again.

Re:I don't think his premises support his conclusi (1)

amliebsch (724858) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093134)

Strange, then, that he didn't present these in his argument, don't you think? I just disagree that this is about "fortitude." It is about being sensible. The way to develop emerging technologies is *incrementally,* by exploring possibilities and slowly increasing the funding of the ones that show promise, as long as they continue to show promise. We have in fact been doing this, but none of the competing technologies have *in reality* shown much promise yet. Many of them are still at early stages of basic feasibility, because ancillary technologies (like materials) have only recently become sufficiently developed.

Re:I don't think his premises support his conclusi (1)

amliebsch (724858) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093536)

I also agree with your "demonstrably." It's more like, we're standing on a hilltop. We think we can see - barely - higher hilltops through the mist. But we can't be sure it's not just a cloud.

Why aren't we trying something new? No unobtanium (2, Interesting)

edremy (36408) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092250)

Alternates fail simply due to the lack of materials.
  • Spaceplane? The Lockheed VentureStar fits all the bills- except that there's no tank material that can hold LH2 at the needed temperatures and still be light enough to get to orbit on a single stage.
  • Elevator? Unobtanium all the way. Some theoretical studies show that carbon nanotubes *might* have the needed tensile strength, but given that we can't reliably grow flawless ones a millimeter long the 22,000 mile thing is a bit of a tough problem.
  • Big gun? Workable, but you can't send anything fragile, including people

I think if he looks a bit more deeply it has very little to do with lock in and everything to do with the fact all the wonderful SF ideas out there simply can't be built with our current level of technology.

Re:Why aren't we trying something new? No unobtani (1)

Tekfactory (937086) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092662)

Don't forget the;

Roller Coaster Scramjet

Lighter than air or neutrally buoyant Space elevator

High Altitude Lighter than air Rocket Launch Platform

White Knight X carrying Giant rocket

Re:Why aren't we trying something new? No unobtani (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35092946)

At the start of the space program they couldn't build rockets that would reliably not explode. Over the coarse of it they developed a wide range of new materials and technologies (ceramic tiles on the shuttle, velcro, hydrogen fuel cells, and any number of polymers for example), which made what was impossible with the technology of the day common enough that people think it's boring.

The point of the article is that alternative launch methods may be beyond today's technology, but developing the technology of tomorrow would be a more worthwhile use of the resources that would otherwise go towards milking that last couple tenths of a percent of efficiency out of the technology of yesterday.

Re:Why aren't we trying something new? No unobtani (2)

amliebsch (724858) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093236)

Ironically none of your examples are correct.

- The heat shield tiles were originally developed for ICBM warheads (using composites technology developed in other fields)
- Velcro was a commerical invention having nothing to do with the space program
- Hydrogen fuel cells were invented in 1838. The ones used by NASA were invented by a commercial company, G.E., in 1959.

So it really is more of a case that increasing technological development enabled the space program, not the other way around.

Re:Why aren't we trying something new? No unobtani (1)

BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093874)

The point of the article is that alternative launch methods may be beyond today's technology, but developing the technology of tomorrow would be a more worthwhile use of the resources that would otherwise go towards milking that last couple tenths of a percent of efficiency out of the technology of yesterday.

See the funny part is that we are developing the technology of tomorrow. NASA is throwing money into contests designed to lay the groundwork for building a space elevator. The Air Force is currently testing hypersonic propulsion methods that could one day be utilized on an alternative launch platform. NASA and the Navy are both dumping money into tech like rail guns and mass accelerator cannons to see what can and cannot be achieved with them. Virgin, SpaceDev, and half a dozen other companies are looking into building space planes, eventually.

Anyone who says that we aren't attempting to develop alternative space access methods currently is not looking hard enough. We are working, across the globe, to lower the cost of access to space by whatever means necessary. The problem is, getting out of our gravity well is hard. So developing this technology takes time, decades even, like rockets. Do we have space elevators, space planes, and orbital cannons? No. Are we working to get there one day? Yes. So I really don't understand what the complaint is, other than impatience.

Re:Why aren't we trying something new? No unobtani (1)

pellik (193063) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093106)

You seem to have missed the part about how our current level of technology is the result of 60 years and 4 trillion dollars of rocket technology innovation. Of course other ideas are a long way off, but before WW2 our current technology was just as intimidating.

Re:Why aren't we trying something new? No unobtani (1)

Overzeetop (214511) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093802)

A couple of decades before WW2, Robert Goddard suggested all of the rocket propulsion ideas to the US military, and they decided not to pursue it because they didn't believe the basic science which underlay his work. The Germans realized that he had, in fact, proven some basic concepts and expanded on his work.

$4T has mostly gone into production and reuse of a great deal of the original innovation, not the innovation itself, and it's still dicey to send a person into orbit, all things considered.

Technology has advanced an many areas surrounding the "other" options far more than rocket technology in the past 40 years. The problem is that there are limits to what we can do without radical advances which - based on our current knowledge - would likely violate some basic physical principles.

Re:Why aren't we trying something new? No unobtani (1)

Xylantiel (177496) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093846)

Actually a launch loop [wikipedia.org] seems pretty do-able to me, it just required a tremendous amount of investment. It would make access to space almost "free" as a result. This is the kind of thing he is referring to as prohibited less by physics and more by accounting.

Replace rockets sound great... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35092582)

Oh you don't actually have a plan you just wanted to bitch. The space elevator is a great idea in theory but we need to build one hell of a rope and the material science aren't up to the task yet. A space plane? You mean a plane with rockets that would at best be a minor improvement if we could perfect it. So rocketry isn't exactly cheap or fuel efficient, but it does seem to get you out of one hell of a deep gravitational well.

Maybe we could build ionic craft in orbit they can hit higher speeds than rockets, but not fast enough to go anywhere interesting in a lifetime.

Truly interesting work in this field is going to be theoretical math and science for at least most of our lives.

A nice addition to Jacob's (and Smolin's) Thesis (1)

nomentanus (838275) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092702)

A great article by Neal Stephenson, that I was lucky enough to stumble upon yesterday, after months of thinking over related difficulties in science, and particularly physics (in part, as Lee Smolin has written about.) I'm going to say that Jane Jacobs' argument in "Dark Age Ahead" subsumes Neal's, although Mr. Stephenson adds a great deal. She argued that what was exploratory science has now been replaced by a lot of people who look the same, since they still wear lab coats a lot[ but who are just spouting cant, merely copying previous “scientific” opinion, or just making it up on the spot; and are dreadfully reluctant to challenge whatever has previously been held to be “obviously true” - whether there was ever any evidence offered in support of that opinion or not. In other words, an academic priesthood that has a stunning degree of priestly inertia – the opposite of what science is supposed to be.

Lee Smolin argues much the same of physics in “The Trouble with Physics”, and I'd like to argue that the field of medicine is still worse for priestly nonsense. (I ask you, in what other field would the advocacy of something like “evidence-based medicine” be novel, and revolutionary?)

Jacob's argument easily extends to saying that only very large technological changes force the “science” priesthood to adapt and change occasionally, by revealing large new realms of incontrovertible evidence. But, ouch, now Neal Stephenson, using rockets as an example, argues that technology may be ossifying more than we suspect, too, making the logjam complete.

The historical extension of this argument is that progress slowly moves around the globe because every civilization can advance only so far until it lapses into immovable complacency headed by economic or academic special interests who are doing just fine as things are, thanks. Then the torch passes to another civilization; for example, China to India to Arabia to Europe, over the last few millenia. Yet today, globalization ties us together so closely that there is now nowhere left for that torch to go. Globalization means globalized lock-in, too.

In other words, to return to Neal's example: “Why did the Chinese invest in developing a rocket capability rather than try to skip ahead to a better technology, since they had no infrastructure or educational investment in the old tech? Why were they locked in?” Arguably, however, developing economies are often even more locked in to obsolete technologies, for which no alternative has yet emerged. The gains in capacity by copying are so great, for so little investment (starting buying rocket tech at a discount from Russia) and with such great political benefits, that the outcome is all too predictable, both in technology, education and science.

I wish there were some way to convince the Chinese that no society is rich until it can afford to fund research efforts that fail frequently, publicly, and thoroughly. Then again, I wish I could convince us! Here in the U.S., centrally planned science funding that is ultimately supervised by an easily embarrassed Congress has everything to do with lock in, since innovation at the margins is the only reliable way of obtaining research funds, period, end of sentence, end of marked innovation.

Re:A nice addition to Jacob's (and Smolin's) Thesi (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35093406)

You have just described Nietzsche's "Last Man".

Re:A nice addition to Jacob's (and Smolin's) Thesi (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093922)

Said article is based upon bunk proposal of somebody who wishes for current working systems to be replaced by his system. Do you expect us to grant every such wish (when looking closer at engineering, even at physics, tells us they can't work...)

From what I see, some people also tend to belittle all of current science and scientists mostly when too many of its aspects run counter to some "opinions" of said people... while the humanity is doing quite good [tufts.edu] (there is nothing wrong with "inertia" in such case). You can't know if we're not approaching relative stability of practically possible technology ... what is indeed the normal state for our species (interspersed with very few short bursts of progress). At the least, logic dictates that wishful thinking has limits.

(medicine has social problems BTW - people, the patients care about their lives too much to simply trust evidence)

Hybrid space plane? (1)

scharkalvin (72228) | more than 3 years ago | (#35092980)

I've always wondered why to get to space you HAVE to start on earth with rockets. Air breathing engines can get us up to almost 100,000 feet in one or two stages. A large 'first stage' could use a combination of turbine engines to get up to around 50,000 feet at sub-sonic speed, then switch to scram-jets to get to hyper-sonic speed and 100K+ feet. Then a rocket powered second stage would go the rest of the way into space while the first stage glided back to earth (or flew under it's own power if there was still fuel left).

IIRC the original plans for the space shuttle were along these lines.

Re:Hybrid space plane? (2)

sznupi (719324) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093516)

Check put Pegasus rocket - it does to a large degree what you want. And is one of the most expensive, per kg, launchers around.

The general problem is how "enthusiasts" forget about physics, about rocket equation, about how majority of the acceleration must happen outside the atmosphere, how there's a square attached to speed in kinetic energy (which comes from the energy of propellant). Read about HOTOL or Skylon, too. When rigorously looked at, ending not better (in best case scenario!) than a normal rocket using similar materials (which we don't have yet, and which are required for a spaceplane to even barely work - all those fancy, complicated flight sequences accomplishing... to lift structures... which are necessary for said sequences)

Re:Hybrid space plane? (2)

BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093692)

That's definitely a possible method to achieve orbit. However, you need to realize that the big hurdle in getting to orbit is not altitude, it's velocity. Yes, you can hoist a big ass rocket up to 100,000 feet and launch it from the back of a hypersonic plane. It turns out, however, that you still need a really big ass rocket (I know, lot's of technical details there) to achieve orbital velocity no matter how high you launch from. That said, it tends to be a lot cheaper and easier to launch a big ass rocket from a stationary, land based platform, than it is to launch it from a flying, attitude-subject-to-weather-conditions plane.

So is it possible? Yes. Are we trying it? Yes, some companies/organizations are. Will it be the final answer to space access? Well, maybe, but it will probably prove to be just as complicated and expensive as rocket launches. Then again, maybe not. We'll find out in another couple decades when the technology comes to fruition.

Physics (2, Interesting)

RogerWilco (99615) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093038)

I think the article is ignoring some basic physics that has driven us to these outcomes, both his rocket and his oil dependency example.

To get anything into orbit needs a very good weight/energy ratio. The only thing that can provide this itself are your typical rocket fuels. There's two other options:

- Atomic: this usually goes out the window when you consider manned vehicules due to the weight of shielding, and for unmanned vehicules the environmental effects.

- Cheat by leaving a significant part of your mechanism on the ground. Space cannons, magnetic rails and the like. The problem here might indeed be one of technology. even a very fast car (Thrust SC2), might go about at the speed of sound. Sounds pretty fast? It's still nowhere near enough what you'd need. The escape velocity is about 11 km/s, the speed of sound about 300 m/s. Now we need to think in energy, so we need to use E = 1/2 mV^2. Or in other words we need to compare the square of the velocities. 300^2/11000^2 = 0.00074 or about 0.075% of the energy required.
Going much faster and the friction with the atmophere melt your vehicule.
So to get anywhere with a space cannon type system, it needs to be on a very high platform, probably 10km or more, and then be big enough to accellerate a payload to 10-20 times the speed of sound.

When you look at the basic physics, you very quickly end up with rocket-like devices.

A similar thing holds true for our dependency on oil. It again boils down to weight/energy ratio, but with much bigger safety, usability and logistics constraints.
The math is not as straigthforeward, as it's mostly economics, but only rocket fuels give much more power to weight ratio then the conventional fossile fuels.

Re:Physics (2)

nomentanus (838275) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093528)

And bees can't fly. Until you look at the problem another way. For example, ablative materials, or a two stage shot to reduce initial atmospheric resistance, etc, etc, etc. Who needs to be told that the need for a search for new tech that isn't obvious, can't be contradicted by saying that there is no blindingly obvious path to that tech right now? Boring a hole in a magnetron blew apart the equation that "proved" that producing microwave radar was forever impossible (see cavity magnetron) - but first you have to imagine that there is something your present equations haven't imagined or encompassed. What we have here is a failure of the imagination...

He's right on how it started, wrong on why stuck. (1)

Animats (122034) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093054)

Arthur C. Clarke, who'd been pushing space travel for decades via the British Interplanetary Society [bis-spaceflight.com] and his SF works, was interviewed during the runup to one of the Apollo launches. He said "If we'd have known this was going to cost twenty billion dollars, we would have given up and gone home." Before Sputnik, space travel was a hobbyist thing.

Chemical rockets to oribt just barely work. Most of the mass is fuel. For a single-stage-to-orbit rocket, with the fuels with the best possible energy density (LOH and LOX), 97% of launch weight must be fuel. With two stages, it gets better, but not much better. So rocketry is about weight reduction, which is why everything is so fragile and failure rates are so high. If the mass ratio were better, rockets would be built with aircraft-type weight budgets and would work much more reliably. But, launching from a 1G planet, we're stuck with those numbers. That's why Richard van der Riet Wooley, Astronomer Royal in the 1950s, said "Space travel is utter bilge".

Many alternatives have been tried. Launching from an aircraft works; Pegasus is launched that way, as is the Virgin craft. But it's not a big win. Big guns? Feasible, but only for stuff that can handle a few hundred Gs, like water or air shipments.

Takeoff with a suborbital spaceplane? That was Ronald Reagan's idea in the 1980s. Ben Rich, head of Lockheed's Skunk Works and designer of the SR-71 propulsion system, decided that Lockheed wouldn't bid on that. The materials problem was too hard. "We used titanium. You know something stronger?".

Atomic rockets are feasible, and have been ground-tested. Early plans for Apollo had a nuclear powered second stage and a Nuclear Assembly Building at Canaveral. It's messy, but it would work. The cost back then was calculated as half a human life per launch from cancer, amortized over a large population. That might not stop China.

Fusion would be great if we could do fusion power. (The "helium-3" enthusiasts tend to gloss over that fact. He3 fusion is harder than Dt-Dt fusion, which we can't do either.)

Launch lasers are a neat idea, but it takes a gigawatt to launch a metric ton. That's not impossible; one could in theory have a huge collection of lasers at Mojave, and, launching late at night, could use all 6GW from Hoover Dam, plus extra power brought in from the LA area. The Apollo lunar module was about 10 metric tons. The biggest continuous laser ever built, though, produced a megawatt for 70 seconds, So we need 4 more orders of magnitude, or 10,000 such lasers, to do a launch.

I recently had this discussion with someone who's entering the X-Prize competition. He's a bright young guy with an interest in space. But he can't see any new ideas working, other than even more clever weight reduction.

Re:He's right on how it started, wrong on why stuc (1)

Cytotoxic (245301) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093906)

I thought the "space balloon" idea was pretty cool. The idea is to use a series of balloons to lift very large payloads to the edge of space. The final balloon would be very fragile and huge (to handle the super-thin atmosphere) and shaped as a lifting body. Ion thrusters would slowly accelerate the craft (and payload) to orbital speed. I don't know how much unobtainium is involved in the construction of the balloons, but it sounds pretty cool any way. I don't know that anyone has ever spent any real money on testing the idea.

It's not true. (1)

mosb1000 (710161) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093098)

Liquid fuel rocket research did not start in NAZI Germany. It is very likely in my opinion the technology would have been used to launch payloads to orbit initially no matter the course of history. It's inventor [wikipedia.org] specifically imagined using the technology for launching payloads to orbit, and it was the only technology even remotely capable of achieving that at the time. H.G. Wells imagined [wikipedia.org] shooting a payload out of a giant cannon, but the Germans were working on that [wikipedia.org] too. Even today, the imagined alternatives (Scramjets [wikipedia.org] , space elevators [wikipedia.org] among others) may prove to be impossible, infeasible, or more expensive. Irregardless, research on such alternatives is ongoing, and it disingenuous to imply that it somehow is not.

Engineering Culture (5, Insightful)

BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093248)

I like how one of the things Stephenson blames in his article for the rocket lock-in is, "engineering culture," that is resistant to change. I often find that nontechnical folk (and no, sci-fi writing does not count as a technical pursuit) use terms like, "engineering culture," or "scientific elitism," to describe phenomena brought about by actual technical details. In other words, that engineering culture doesn't develop simply because we engineers are resistant to change. It develops because we engineers crunch the numbers and have to deal with reality.

Anyone who thinks that engineers working in the space launch industry are resistant to change just for the shits is pretty misinformed. When it comes right down to it, we're the ones who would love to find a new Pandora's box technology that could get us into space faster, cheaper, and safer. Hell, we have devoted our lives to pursuing the development of the space industry. If anyone wants to see men and women living on Mars, manufacturing in orbit, and fucking onboard inter-galactic colony ships, it's us. Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury that sci-fi authors have of writing about some great new idea and just assuming it will work. We have to test material strengths. We have to plot thermal loads. We have to damp harmonic oscillations. We have to produce enough energy to overcome gravity. Those aren't trivial tasks. And we don't get to defy the laws of thermodynamics and gravity with some hand-wavy bullshit about, "couldn't this idea totally work in theory?!"

So yeah, there are lots of proposed theories and ideas on how to get to orbit. Great, congratulations Mr. Stephenson, you have an imagination. And, awesome, you can see sunnier hilltops across the valley that reach higher than the one we are standing on now. That's a great fantasy land. I hope you enjoy living in it. But while you draft up clever metaphors based on cherry-picked "facts" and unrealistic assumptions, those of us working in the industry, you know, the ones doing the math, actually have to look at the numbers. And those distant, high hilltops you see, well they might not be as high as you think. And all those, "innovations," on how to get to space, well they might not be as Earth-shatteringly ingenious as you think.

I'm not saying there's not room for improvement, there definitely is. But until someone shows me some numbers that prove a space-elevator, a launch loop, or a space fountain can be built, today, without unobtainium (in the form of some material, or some epic power source), I am going to delegate those ideas strictly to fantasy-land for now. And as for things like space planes, hypersonics, multi-propulsion-type vehicles, and so on, we are trying them, to an extent. And, believe it or not, just like rockets, they are still fucking difficult to get right. That's why it takes a long time to develop them. In the end, chucking something out of our gravity well is no easy task, no matter what method you take. And it is expensive, in both time and energy, no matter what technology you utilize. So stop lamenting about how poor off we are compared to where we could be. We're doing everything we can with what we've got. If that's not good enough for you, vote to give us more money or design a small, portable power-plant that can produce a proper metric fuckton of thrust.

In the end, engineering culture is just a term being used to say, "technical shit that I don't understand well enough so I'lll use it as a scapegoat to justify my preconceived notions"

Re:Engineering Culture (2)

nomentanus (838275) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093672)

I'm pretty sure Neal knows that individual engineers actually spend a little time blue-skying, mostly on their own. After all, he cites the fact that engineers have brought forward possible alternatives. But other engineers cheerfully recommend against investing the large sums necessary to prove the tech and make it an economic competitor. He is saying more about investment, and funding. But re Engineering culture, I had a father who was an engineer, and while he was much more open minded than most of his ilk, he was nonetheless astonishingly closed minded and very quick to tell me that, say, flat display screens were an impossible tech that would never exist, no matter how long the universe lasted, 'cause you couldn't flatten a cathode ray tube. People self-select themselves for engineering school because they have a very deep psychological need for certainty, not because they love career-changing surprises.

Re:Engineering Culture (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35094494)

Word!

There is more effective fuel - 8 times payload (1)

SergeyKurdakov (802336) | more than 3 years ago | (#35093640)

Rockets are no nearly perfect - given new fuel http://nextbigfuture.com/2010/12/swedish-researchers-have-discover.html [nextbigfuture.com] shuttles could have 4-8 times more payload. And this is actually huge step. Next - launch could be performed from towers few kilometers hight or even mountains - it will take money - but still will make quite a change. There are other possibilities such as quad airship launch (walrus was designed for 500 -1000 tonnes - so the rocket could be 4000 tonnes of weight and could be launched, say from 15000 meters hight ), there are other, non rocket ways to launch things into space - but even rockets could be times more effective, than now.

We do have an alternative (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35094054)

There is an alternative technology that Neal is probably thinking of. All studies of it done to date suggest it is better in every possible respect than rockets. Interestingly, it requires technology that was not developed until the 1990s - which means that even if history had gone differently we might not have it today.

It's called laser launch. The vehicle still works like a rocket - there's propellant on board, and it gets superheated and escaping propellant generates thrust. However, since the energy source and nearly all of the technical complexity of the launch system stays ON THE GROUND where it can be as big and cheap and redundant as it needs to be, it reduces the cost of the system by orders of magnitude. The easiest and simplest laser launch system is a spacecraft with a block of metal bolted to the bottom.

The lasers fire in pulses that create planar shockwaves acting like a rocket nozzle without the nozzle. Spacecraft lifts off. Technically the spacecraft could work without any onboard electronics or control systems of any sort. That is to say, no aerospace hardware AT ALL. Nothing made in a cleanroom with reams of paperwork speccing every part. Independent laser moduules would be made by whichver cut rate contractor offers the best price this week...a few errant beams or failed modules would not affect the launch.

Since concentrated light can increase the temperature of the exhaust more, the rocket would be much more efficient and need less propellant for the same payload.

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