Skip

Space Stasis
February 2, 2011 11:56 PM   Subscribe

Space Stasis - What the strange persistence of rockets can teach us about innovation. By Neal Stephenson.
posted by 00dimitri00 (38 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
To recap, the existence of rockets big enough to hurl significant payloads into orbit was contingent on the following radically improbable series of events:
1. World's most technically advanced nation under absolute control of superweapon-obsessed madman
2. Astonishing advent of atomic bombs at exactly the same time
3. A second great power dominated by secretive, superweapon-obsessed dictator
4. Nuclear/strategic calculus militating in favor of ICBMs as delivery system
5. Geographic situation of adversaries necessitating that ICBMs must have near-orbital capability
6. Manned space exploration as propaganda competition, unmoored from realistic cost/benefit discipline
It really is fascinating to think of all the things that had to go right in order for us to get here, in terms of technological advancement, until you remember that we're talking about flying space penises capable of destroying entire cities. Clearly, a vicious, psychotic dictator was a help, but it would've happened at some point.
For a few more billion dollars we might be able to achieve a microscopic improvement in efficiency or reliability, but to make any game-changing improvements is not merely expensive; it's a physical impossibility.

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.
This is the sort of thing that's always somewhat surprising to take in. Of course, he's completely right: we just can't improve what we have. At this point, we have to innovate completely new ways to get up there if we want to make the next leap. But with the pace of technology in so many other parts of our lives accelerating as it is, it's somewhat surprising to be reminded that we're hitting ceilings (heh) in other parts.
posted by disillusioned at 1:03 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


It is funny how, on the one hand, he cites government wastefulness and says there is horrible graft in the process. But, on the other hand, he says that regular rockets can't get any cheaper--physical impossibility he says...
posted by Chuckles at 1:37 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's an interesting article. I think the point about path-dependence is good, but I'm a bit skeptical about the alternative methods. It could just be that rockets are a really good solution to the problems of getting something into orbit.

Basically there are three problems: two pretty easy, one very hard.
  1. Overcoming gravity. This is actually pretty easy: low orbits are low and you don't need much energy just to get high enough. A balloon or a normal turbojet will get you most of the way. Getting 200km up will take about 2 Megajoules per kilogram
  2. Overcoming air resistance. This depends on how fast you're going through the atmosphere, and the cross-sectional area of your vehicle. If it's not too big or too fast, this is pretty easy too.
  3. Attaining orbital velocity. This is the hard bit. To stay in orbit, you need a minimum speed of 6.5 km/s, or 14,540 miles per hour. That's fast. You need about 32 Megajoules per kilogram of energy, about 16 times as much energy as it takes just to get high enough. The fastest jet in the world, the Blackbird goes at 2,193 mph: we need to go nearly 7 times faster than that.
Now, a lot of people imagine that height is the hard part. But it's actually speed that's the big problem. That can give them a misleading idea of how good the alternatives to rockets are.

Some alternatives involve using balloons or air-breathing jet engines (like HOTOL) to get above the bulk of the atmosphere. But those are the easy problems. Once you've got up there, you're still faced with the hard problem of getting up to speed.

Using jet engines to get partly up to speed sounds attractive, but you'd need something vastly faster than exists at present.

Some alternatives involve using linear accelerators or catapults on the ground to get up to speed. That's better in that you're solving the hard problem. The problem is, doing this in the atmosphere means you massively increase problem 2, overcoming air resistance. You also give yourself new headaches in terms of frictional heating.

The space elevator solves all these problems, but you need a tether about 25 times stronger than exists at the moment. Materials scientists haven't just been sitting around thinking "let's make weak, heavy cables": they've been trying to make the strongest and lightest materials they can. It doesn't seem likely they'll manage such an improvement any time soon.

However, rockets are a really good solution to all of these problems. Attaining height is easy: a pathetically puny rocket can manage that. Overcoming air resistance is fine: the cross-sectional area is small. While we think of rockets as fast, the engineer can run it as fast or slow as he likes in the atmosphere, adjusting the speed for maximum efficiency. And they're very good at going fast.

So, I think he makes a good point about path dependence. Without both the strategically daft V2 program and then the cold war, we might well not have the rockets we do.

But I think the alternative isn't that we would have a more efficient way of getting into space. It seems more likely that we would just never have got into space at all.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:55 AM on February 3, 2011 [13 favorites]


So.. didn't the US actually fall back into 'a valley' when Saturn V was scrapped before all the wild Apollo Application ideas came into view? Or, in the very near future, when the Space Shuttle program will be scrapped? It seems to only go backwards as far as manned space programs are concerned.
posted by Harry at 1:57 AM on February 3, 2011


This is a good article. Also, I wonder if the space elevator solution is much more or less difficult than the build a factory on the moon solution?
posted by mhjb at 2:12 AM on February 3, 2011


From the article: So they might have fizzled out, were it not for the fact that there just happened to be another victorious nation, controlled by a dictator, every bit as evil as the V-2 maker, but not so crazy, who insisted that his nation, the USSR, had to have atomic bombs too.

I would argue that the only evil country was the USA, who created the bombs in the first place. Soured me a bit on the piece.
posted by ymgve at 3:54 AM on February 3, 2011


Wait, what? Not Nazi Germany or the USSR? Have I been trolled?
posted by Justinian at 4:09 AM on February 3, 2011


Yeah, the evil dictator thing is pretty stupid. Stalin was fairly resistant to the idea of nuclear weapons (it's not even clear that he really understood what a game-changer they were in a strategic sense). Only once the Americans began waving their nuclear dicks around did Stalin commit any serious resources to nuclear weapons development--he was afraid that US nuclear diplomacy would force him to give up his postwar gains in Eastern Europe. See David Holloway's excellent Stalin and the Bomb for more on this.

Also, Stephenson overstates the significance of the V-2. There was a worldwide consensus among space enthusiasts as early as the '30s that rockets were the way to go for space exploration, mostly because no better technology was available and Tsiolkovsky had already published his formulas.

On the Soviet side of this, see Asif Siddiqi's fantastic new book The Red Rockets' Glare. (An interesting story there more or less confirms what Stephenson says about the relationship between rockets and their space payload: apparently the only reason the Sputnik launch was feasible was that Sakharov had, in a failed early design for the hydrogen bomb, dramatically overestimated the weight of the payload that had to be carried, forcing rocket engineers to dramatically increase the power of their engines.)
posted by nasreddin at 4:27 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


7. Rockets are AWESOME!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:31 AM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


we remain trapped by mysterious and ineffable forces.

Gravity? Inertia?
posted by 3.2.3 at 4:34 AM on February 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


You don't just need to overcome the overwhelming force of gravity necessary to move something far away enough that it will enter orbit. You also have to do this in a way that most effectively combats atmospheric resistance. It's not just the mass of the Earth holding everyone back, there's also that pesky layer of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide that enshrouds everything in tasty, life-nurturing air. We wouldn't have to design our rockets like giant darts if we didn't have all this air clinging so desperately to the shell of this interstellar peanut M&M.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:47 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I refer, of course, to the sudden and completely unexpected development of nuclear weapons, undertaken over the course of a very few years by a top-secret crash program atop a mesa in New Mexico.

Until an accident released aliens from Xen.
posted by Splunge at 4:53 AM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


To some extent, this reads to me like a fan of hovercrafts lamenting about "wheel lock-in". ("Wheels are as close to perfect as they're ever going to get. For a few more billion dollars we might be able to achieve a microscopic improvement in efficiency or reliability, but to make any game-changing improvements is not merely expensive; it's a physical impossibility.") Oh, if only Og the caveman had invented turbo-jets or anti-gravity, just think of what cool vehicles we'd have!
posted by fings at 4:56 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Another thing about space elevators is that they're great for anything that you don't mind sending through the Van Allen Belts at a leisurely stroll. They're great if you want to put a couple hundred tons of water into orbit to act as shielding, fuel and for life support uses in your mission to Mars but if you want to drag a crew up there you're going to need something else (or some really impressive shielding) (or current shielding and a tower made out of some awesome material).

That's not to say they're useless - I've seriously considered creating a space elevator stock portfolio as a great conversation piece / better odds than the lottery type investment.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:15 AM on February 3, 2011


Neal Stephen stands on the sidelines and bitches. He concocts a particularly cruel and superior narrative of recent history, where he uses all the wisdom of hindsight to make it seem as if all the blood and tears and genius poured into rockets and space flight over the past 60 years were a foolish exertion, like a dance marathon or potlach, and only he, with his laser-like penetration, can discern the true pattern that history should have taken.

You could apply this same process to any human endeavor to make it seem paltry and worthless and mean.

You can see him taking a lazy shot at the petroleum industry, trying to make it appear as if using oil to produce heat was some bizarre and random historical aberration, like tulip-mania, and you can imagine him going after, say, music ("because some mad Roman dictator liked to pluck a harp 2,000 years ago, we now sit in concert halls and listen to armies of men and women drawing horsehair bows over $2 million antique wooden boxes surmounted by taut lengths of synthetic animal intestine, creating vibratory excitations written down with turkey feather by melancholy Germans of the early 19th century and express our appreciation through rapid and repeated collisions of the palms of the hands -- a completely wasteful use of both the auditory mechanism and human hands that only I am intelligent enough to discern"), movies, or ... sex (it's easy to make intercourse sound ridiculous, but most people prefer it to the solitary alternative). Human strivings and doings can be made to look blind and ridiculous by clever people with time on their hands and a lemon up their butts. Especially if they only have to wave their hands in their air to suggest some much better alternative they they alone seem to be aware of.
posted by Faze at 5:23 AM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


it's easy to make intercourse sound ridiculous,

Which Stephenson does, repeatedly, throughout his many door stoppers
posted by rebent at 5:37 AM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thinking about this a bit more, everything you need to know about the cold war can be summed up as follows:

After Viet Nam the Battle of Stalingrad, your uncle the Soviet Union had a weird habit of sleeping under the bed and getting up "for patrol" every time the house would creak. Unfortunately, they (and the United States) were getting therapy from Dr. Killjews who dodged being executed for his epicrimes against humanity by promising which ever side captured him that he had key information about what grim fate the other side had in store for them.

Given WWII as a prologue and that as scene 1, rockets may be the booby prize, but it's a lot better than the ending I would have expected.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:46 AM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Very well written, flowing style, very easy to read.
Great performance by Stephenson who, strangely, stumbles only on the last convoluted sentence. I suspect an editing divergence, probably about word count or even a completely different ending.
Fun read. Thanks, 00dimitri00.
posted by bru at 5:55 AM on February 3, 2011


what
posted by nasreddin at 5:55 AM on February 3, 2011


This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. A Future Tense conference on whether governments can keep pace with scientific advances will be held at Google D.C.'s headquarters on Feb. 3-4. (For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the NAF Web site.)

i want in on this gravy train.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:24 AM on February 3, 2011


So basically, yay Hitler!
posted by briank at 6:26 AM on February 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Human strivings and doings can be made to look blind and ridiculous by clever people with time on their hands and a lemon up their butts.

You say that like it's bad or wrong to characterize history in this light. Blindness and looking ridiculous seem like very human traits to me.

Meanwhile, it occurs to me that Guns, Germs and Steel answers a lot the questions posed by this article wrt how "innovation" as a fallout of freakishly unique circumstances and little else.
posted by victors at 6:37 AM on February 3, 2011


how
posted by victors at 6:39 AM on February 3, 2011


I wonder why Stephenson thinks the Germans developed the V2 which started off his nifty narrative? It couldn't possibly be that, totally apart from WW2 there were people like Goddard and Von Braun who were looking toward rockets as vehicles for space travel, could it? It couldn't possibly be that Hitler sank all that money into the militarily futile V2 program because of something, call it a vision, which was causing people to look in that direction, could it? And it couldn't possibly happened, had WW2 never happened, that those people might have found funding in some other way to create ever more powerful rockets, starting with atmospheric research and possibly extending a technology capable of reaching high altitudes with high payloads to reach orbital velocity with a small payload, demonstrating the concept? Naw, none of that could have possibly happened. If it wasn't for the H-bomb our biggest rockets would still be part of fireworks displays. Of course.
posted by localroger at 7:05 AM on February 3, 2011


I wonder why Stephenson thinks the Germans developed the V2 which started off his nifty narrative? It couldn't possibly be that, totally apart from WW2 there were people like Goddard and Von Braun who were looking toward rockets as vehicles for space travel, could it? It couldn't possibly be that Hitler sank all that money into the militarily futile V2 program because of something, call it a vision, which was causing people to look in that direction, could it? And it couldn't possibly happened, had WW2 never happened, that those people might have found funding in some other way to create ever more powerful rockets, starting with atmospheric research and possibly extending a technology capable of reaching high altitudes with high payloads to reach orbital velocity with a small payload, demonstrating the concept? Naw, none of that could have possibly happened. If it wasn't for the H-bomb our biggest rockets would still be part of fireworks displays. Of course.

This is spot-on. If you read Siddiqi's, book this is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union--people who were amateur rocket enthusiasts in the 20s and 30s became the leaders of rocket development in the 40s.
posted by nasreddin at 7:09 AM on February 3, 2011


Thank god that you good folks are here to point out what a bad guy this Hitler character seems to have been. And DAMN! What a Hitler apologist this Stephenson bozo is. Right? Without you guys I would have missed the whole purpose of this essay which is, of course, what else? "yay Hitler"

Stupid, blind me for thinking the article could have possibly been about anything else, like say, the stasis of today's space programs. Clearly, the author had no business pointing out facts of history when the hypothetical scenario of a WWII not happening at all and rocket scientists would, you know, magically "find funding" in the 40's is the only way any decent, humane anti-Hitler writer would have considered approaching the subject. Imagine the audacity of this Neal clown coming out and saying that if it wasn't for Hitler, there never would have been an Apollo program. He did say that, right?? Well, I can't quote him but since you all believe that's what he said then that's what he said and fuck him -- and this Hitler guy.
posted by victors at 8:16 AM on February 3, 2011


Well victors, in TFA Stephenson says pretty explicitly that without Hitler's crazed obsession with superweapons there wouldn't have been a V-2 and without the V-2 the technology wouldn't have existed to make the leap to ICBM's and without ICBM's there would have been no capability for the launch of manned vehicles so basically, yes, Stephenson draws a line from Hitler to Apollo and makes the argument that without Hitler, Apollo would not have happened.

And the counterargument which some of us have made is that no, there were people interested in powerful rockets before the war started, which is why they were available for Hitler to waste his resources on in the first place. Even without the war 1940 was a year when most adults could remember a world without either widespread electric distribution, broadcast radio, or the entire genre of science fiction. A lot of people were ready to throw money at the future. The possible usefulness of an artificial satellite was already obvious to a lot of people, and it's not necessary to launch something the size of an early H-bomb into orbit to prove the concept.
posted by localroger at 8:52 AM on February 3, 2011


makes the argument that without Hitler, Apollo would not have happened

quote please. otherwise, please stop saying that.
posted by victors at 9:09 AM on February 3, 2011


To recap, the existence of rockets big enough to hurl significant payloads into orbit was contingent on the following radically improbable series of events:

1. World's most technically advanced nation under absolute control of superweapon-obsessed madman
It's only the entire premise of the article.
posted by localroger at 9:21 AM on February 3, 2011


I was disappointed in the article, especially the focus on "improbable" events:

1. If you are in control of a technically advanced great power, you will have an interest in defending it. There were a number of advanced weaponry technologies pursued by Germany, the V-rockets only being one. (They were also quite useful as a terror weapon, and not much worse than Allied air bombing campaigns in strategic effectiveness: Coventry/Dresden, etc.)

2. Atomic bombs were not that astonishing. Numerous great minds had foreseen their development and famously, FDR was urged by the greatest mind of the 20th century to make ours (influence of this communication is disputed). We developed ours precisely because we feared parallel development by Germany.

3. See (1). The USSR developed atomic weapons because they quickly found themselves in a superpower competition with a country that already had them. It did not take being "superweapon obsessed" to understand the importance of having a deterrent. In fact, it appears that the civilian leadership was a little reluctant to pursue this path.

4. ICBMs did not really become the delivery of choice until after rockets were already established for space launch systems.

5. I suspect it's more likely than not to have great geographic separation between superpowers for a variety of reasons.

6. The space race is different from other exploration-type competitions of the past (Northwest Passage, Antarctic, heart of Africa, etc.) only in its economic scale. While many previous explorations were done by private explorers, often they had government support anyway. National pride isn't a new phenomenon.

So if we instead see 1-6 as more normative events the rocket begins to look pretty inevitable. I mean, lots of our existence is somewhat random, but I'm much more of a trends person than a great man/improbable event person. The nuclear weapon didn't result from a madman (his effort failed, anyway), it resulted from a concerted effort bringing together many diverse talents drawn from the cream of one nation's scientific and engineering elite, supplemented by those of other nations, drawn to that nation by longstanding policies and principles that predated the atomic effort. It isn't quite a why-didn't-this-happen-sooner, but I don't think it was that unlikely in the general sense.
posted by dhartung at 9:33 AM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sort of compelling, but I didn't like the whole convergence thing. Pretty much all technology is a result of seemingly unexpected convergence:

Automobiles

- Abundant fossil fuel and technology to extract, capture and process oil had just come to maturity. Before this you had very, very expensive whale oil which was dwindling itself out of existence.

- The ability to apply industrial processes to complex engineering and the educated workforce to accomplish this.

- Innovations across the entire spectrum of car design: from electric starters to drum breaks made what was once complex easy for an average consumer to operate.

Computers

- WWII drove the need to produce complex calculations quickly and efficiently. From artillery range tables to calculations for atomic weapons.

- The use of airplanes (itself a new invention) in warfare necessitated training apparatus that cost less than losing a trainer per so many pilots.

- Advances, again, in material science to produce early memory and later, microprocessors.

- Large population necessitated the need for complex numeric computations. From flight reservations, to census taking. Things which were simple on a small scale suddenly needed hundreds of highly trained workers.

Obviously, this is just off the cuff, but I find this sort of reporting lazy.
posted by geoff. at 10:09 AM on February 3, 2011


Faze, Neal was actively involved in Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin project. Like, attempting to build a spaceship. (One of SpaceX's competitors.)

If you're so pro-rocket, what are you doing?
posted by cstross at 11:13 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


See, I thought point one was a subtle jab at Reagan.
posted by lumpenprole at 11:32 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The thing is, it took a lot of research and development to get from the small rockets of the Thirties to the large satellite launching rockets of the Fifties. In our history, that was paid for by the militaries, who wanted rockets of all sizes to use as weapons.

So what would have happened if the military hadn't funded all those steadily-larger rockets over that period? There doesn't seem to be much civilian demand for medium-sized rockets.

One possibility is that as in our world, the civilian sector would have developed large rockets to launch communication satellites like Telstar.

However, that would have been vastly more expensive and difficult for them. Our Telstar was launched from a Thor-Delta rocket, consisting of a second stage sitting on an ICBM: they used military technology. In that reality, they would have needed to design their own large rocket from scratch, without the experience of the medium-sized rockets in-between, without the benefit of all the R&D money the military had been pouring into rockets in our world.

So, it might well not have been cost-effective to do that. The early communication satellites might not have been profitable enough to pay for such a difficult rocket programme.

That's what the path-dependence means. Without the military demand for a succession of steadily bigger rockets, it might not have been practical for civilians to ever develop a rocket powerful enough to reach orbit. Moreover, the whole idea might just have seemed too absurd for shareholders: would anyone really want to invest their precious cash in a enormous firework to create a second moon to relay TV signals? Seems like a pretty daft idea.

Of course, we don't know what other technological possibilities we might have missed out on due to path dependence. Suppose instead of V2s, Hitler had funded undersea bases for U-Boats, and that idea took off in the Cold War too? Maybe in that reality, the oceans would be filled with underwater cities doing mining and farming. Sounds a bit daft, but is it any sillier than using giant fireworks to launch tiny moons to beam TV down at people?
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:40 PM on February 3, 2011


Theophile, allow me to introduce you to Scout. In the alternate universe where Hitler never built V-2's and Stalin never goaded us into building ICBM's, I suspect something like this would have been our stepping stone into space.

Scout represented a fairly modest increase in capability over rockets of the 30's. It used solid propellant throughout. Although its stages all had military origins, none of its parts was ever large enough to have anything to do with nuclear weapons delivery, and it's reasonable to suspect the military would have gotten around to building those missiles anyway; if not, Scout isn't so expensive or such a vast leap in technology that it couldn't have been built for pure research with private funding.

Scout could put 100 to 400 pounds in LEO, or a suitably smaller probe in lunar orbit. That's enough of a payload to do useful stuff even in the 1950's, and with the capability demonstrated I think a hunger would have quickly arisen for greater payloads and payloads to GEO which would have driven more powerful rocket design. It might not have happened as fast without the tons of money dumped into it in our world, but to suggest it would never have happened at all is kind of absurd.
posted by localroger at 4:19 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


tyler cowen: "I'd like to see us move closer to being a culture obsessed with science and the scientific enterprise."
posted by kliuless at 5:23 PM on February 3, 2011


quick question - does the requirement for ridiculous tensile strength for a space elevator come from the ridiculous length required? or is additional force being applied because of the assumed mass in orbit as well? does it rely on centrifugal force to keep it from contracting on itself?

maybe more of askme but figured the appropriate people would be in the thread anywho :P
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 9:02 PM on February 4, 2011


Dillon*, it's the ridiculous length. The top parts of the elevator have to support the entire length of what hangs below (and, above GEO, prevent the entire length of what stretches above from flying away). The same thing makes it difficult to lower cables to very deep parts of the ocean, although that's a less extreme problem and solutions do exist.
posted by localroger at 7:28 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


« Older Robo Rainbow   |   The cause of your favourite... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post