Pages

February 05, 2011

Neal Stephenson explains why we have been locked into rockets for space launch

What the strange persistence of rockets can teach us about innovation.

* $4 trillion was spent to develop rockets for launching nuclear bombs
* communication satellites were built to be the same size as the nuclear bombs launched on missiles



Dr. Jordin Kare, a physicist and space launch expert, visualizes a triangular feedback loop joining big expensive launch systems; complex, expensive, long-life satellites; and few launch opportunities. To this could be added any number of cultural factors (the engineers populating the aerospace industry are heavily invested in the current way of doing things); the insurance and regulatory factors mentioned above; market inelasticity (cutting launch cost in half wouldn't make much of a difference); and even accounting practices (how do you amortize the nonrecoverable expenses of an innovative program over a sufficiently large number of future launches?).
There is something in the nature of modern global capitalism that is holding us back.

there are many who feel a deep antipathy for expenditure of money and brainpower on space travel when, as they never tire of reminding us, there are so many problems to be solved on earth. So if space launch were the only area in which this phenomenon was observable, it would be of concern only to space enthusiasts. But the endless BP oil spill of 2010 highlighted any number of ways in which the phenomena of path dependency and lock-in have trapped our energy industry on a hilltop from which we can gaze longingly across not-so-deep valleys to much higher and sunnier peaks in the not-so-great distance. Those are places we need to go if we are not to end up as the Ottoman Empire of the 21st century, and yet in spite of all of the lip service that is paid to innovation in such areas, it frequently seems as though we are trapped in a collective stasis. As described above, regulation is only one culprit; at least equal blame may be placed on engineering and management culture, insurance, Congress, and even accounting practices. But those who do concern themselves with the formal regulation of "technology" might wish to worry less about possible negative effects of innovation and more about the damage being done to our environment and our prosperity by the mid-20th-century technologies that no sane and responsible person would propose today, but in which we remain trapped by mysterious and ineffable forces.

If you liked this article, please give it a quick review on ycombinator or StumbleUpon. Thanks
blog comments powered by Disqus