Follow Slashdot stories on Twitter


Forgot your password?

Neal Stephenson On Rockets and Innovation 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."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Neal Stephenson On Rockets and Innovation

Comments Filter:
  • 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.

    • 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??

  • by smellsofbikes ( 890263 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @12:56PM (#35091644) Journal
    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.
    • by rickb928 ( 945187 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:07PM (#35091796) Homepage Journal

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

      He's brighter than you thought, maybe?

    • by rwv ( 1636355 )
      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).
      • ... is to be taken quite literally for the first couple of attempts to launch an entirely new system! ;-/

        I was quite impressed that you can actually get launch insurance (but only for rocket launches, of course!).

        Paul B.

    • 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.

    • 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 hum

      • Yeah, except your numbers are backwards. Rockets are nearly perfected technology - making little tweaks to them is not very expensive, and all the basic R&D is already paid off. However, developing entirely new technologies from scratch is very, very expensive. And you run the risk of them not working at all.

        So if your object is to get something into space in the relatively near future, are you going to go with a) the system that's already been extensively tested, has pretty good capability, and a known

    • 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.

    • by red_dragon ( 1761 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:37PM (#35092208) Homepage

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

      Fixed that for you.

    • by necro81 ( 917438 )
      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 Chi

      • 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 loca
    • 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 tech
    • 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 wh

    • 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)
    • Sounds like yesterdays discussion on molten-salt reactors...

      I'm seeing a theme here... :)

    • It was an interesting article, but there were a couple of parts that I thought were really weak. One problem area:

      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. ...

      What? Surely step 2 was more or less a direct result of step 1 - there's nothing im

  • 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.

    • by urusan ( 1755332 )

      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.

    • 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 sti

      • by sznupi ( 719324 )
        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 usag
        • 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.

          • by sznupi ( 719324 )
            ...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?...)
      • 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 devel

        • by sznupi ( 719324 )
          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.
        • The seeds of the US v USSR conflict were sown at the end of WWII, specifically in Berlin, with some of the war spoil controversies thrown in. Stalin was prepared to finish what Hitler started, but alas, that didn't work out. Or maybe it did.

      • 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.
      • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

        He is right about what? We have to find something better than rockets?
        First the Delta4 has nothing in common with the Thor/Delta of old except the name. The same is true of the Atlas V/
        Also the Atlas and Thor where in service at the same time. Thor's in Europe and the Atlas here in the US.

        If you really read the what he wrote it simple said that satellites are the way they are because launchers are the way they are and then adds in a good mix of bad details and fantasy. Well duh....
        The rest of it was just ra

        • My interpretation is that thor, Delta, Atlas, Saturn, Ares, they are all essentially vertical launchers. If I could wave a wand and throw money at it, I would like to see something like a real plane, but spaceworthy

    • Just like his books then.
  • Why not, indeed? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rickb928 ( 945187 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:03PM (#35091764) Homepage Journal

    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?

    • by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:18PM (#35091932) Homepage
      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 [], in some ways we are worse than first effort []
    • by tekrat ( 242117 )

      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.

    • 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.
    • Good enough solutions are the mortal enemy of great solutions.

  • by amliebsch ( 724858 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:32PM (#35092132) Journal

    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.

    • by sznupi ( 719324 )

      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 [], while forgetting how it's "supposed to" look like [] (airplanes fro

    • by necro81 ( 917438 )

      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.

  • by edremy ( 36408 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:41PM (#35092250) Journal
    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.

    • 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

    • Actually a launch loop [] 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.
      • If it requires a "tremendous amount of investment", then it can't be "almost 'free'". That investment would have to be paid off, and all the while, it would be competing with rocket technology that's ALREADY been paid off. Net result: rockets would be cheaper, so no one invests in the launch loop.

    • tried to follow a different path and innovate using polar bears as rocket fuel, but as it turns out harvesting the critters is a really technical problem.

      We then figured out that we could piggy back arms on other space programs and did that instead.

      We were experiencing some problems shutting down our submarine thermal generator we used to limit the polar bear habitat, making them easier to catch, but we just blamed it in "Climate Change" and that seems to have solved the problem.

      Our scientists are off shove

    • How about a maglev train in a large circular vaccuum tunnel, accelerated to very high speed,... and then shot out horizontally into orbit? (how fast would it have to be shot out for it to leave earth orbit, irrelevant of air resistance---can't maglev get it to that speed in a vaccuum tunnel?)

      or... how large would a trebouchet have to be to launch a capsule into orbit?

      or... how about a huge slingshot (with a whole lot of rubberbands?).

      or... how about launching rockets from air balloons, e.g. if amateurs can

    • I think the most realistic alternative launch technique is a rail gun like the one the navy recently demonstrated []. You could use it at first to launch a scramjet vehicle up to the supersonic speeds it needs to begin working. Later as the technology develops you might be able to launch payloads at orbital velocities directly from the railgun. This would reduce the weight and size of the vehicles, and hopefully their cost along with it.

  • 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 wa

    • by sznupi ( 719324 )
      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 ro
    • 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
  • Physics (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RogerWilco ( 99615 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @02:27PM (#35093038) Homepage Journal

    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.

    • 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 h
    • Re:Physics (Score:4, Interesting)

      by slashqwerty ( 1099091 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @08:25PM (#35098758)

      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.

      The big problem with rockets is that the fuel has to travel with the vessel. I haven't done the math but I have heard roughly half of the fuel is spent accelerating the other half to the speed of sound. If you have a land-based system that accelerates the vessel to the speed of sound you can make the vessel half the size (or replace half the fuel with payload).

      Speaking of the fuel, most of the weight comes from the oxidizer. With a hydrogen-oxygen rocket you need one oxygen atom for every two hydrogen. Oxygen has an atomic weight of 16 while hydrogen has an atomic weight of 1. So 89% (16/18) of the mass is oxygen.

      Imagine if you had a railgun that accelerates a ram-jet past the speed of sound, the ram-jet burns oxygen from the air and accelerates to nearly orbital velocity, finally a rocket takes over to reach orbit. If we could get that working we would have much better access to space.

      It is worth noting Burt Rutan uses a mother ship to launch his space craft. The mother ship gets up to speed by burning oxygen from the air in standard jet engines. The spacecraft then drops off and launches with a substantial head start.

  • Arthur C. Clarke, who'd been pushing space travel for decades via the British Interplanetary Society [] 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 (LO

    • 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 m

      • by Animats ( 122034 )

        That's called a "rockoon" []. First tried in 1949. Works OK, payload rather limited.

        Back in 2004, JP Aerospace [] was pushing the idea of a permanent station at the edge of space which was really a balloon.They're still sending up balloons, but they're basically repeating what the USAF did in the late 1940s.

        Accelerating a fragile airship to orbital velocity at the edge of the atmosphere is a fantasy. If there's enough air to get lift, there's enough air to get drag.

  • 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 []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 [] shooting a payload out of a giant cannon, but the Germans were working on that [] too. Even today, the imagined alterna

  • by BJ_Covert_Action ( 1499847 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @02:41PM (#35093248) Homepage Journal
    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"
    • 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 i
      • And I wonder who it is who developed the flat screen technology that you are undoubtedly reading this reply on now?

        Engineers reserve their greatest acclaim for the guys who change the game, not those who preserve the status quo.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      My favourite example of this came from a graduate social science course an ex of mine was taking. The professor maintained, vehnemently, that rockets and bullets looked the way they did because engineers were historically all male, and obsessed with the destructive power of their own penises.

      I wonder what that professor imagined a rocket designed entirely by women would look like.

    • You Sir (or Madam) win the prize for "most sensible post on the topic". I wrote one myself, but it pales next to yours.

    • ...engineers working in the space launch industry are resistant to change just for the shits...

      You have an excellent rant, and I know there are many people who should read it.

      However, it seems like a straw man argument here, as TFA did not say that "engineering culture" is resistant to change without good reason, just that it's resistant to change. You seem to agree with this assessment since your post gives many very good reasons why engineering culture should be resistant to change. Change is hard, and yo

  • by blair1q ( 305137 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @03:53PM (#35094506) Journal

    Everyone in the rocket business thinks of the alternatives all the time.

    And then looks at the laws of physics, and the laws of economics, and goes for the solution that gets the job done with minimal waste and effort.

    This isn't to say there's no waste or extraneous effort, but the main theme of the project isn't based on a fantastic boondoggle.

    And if there's more than one way to skin a cat, it will get tried eventually as someone realizes they do have the resources to attempt it.

    But while it may work for a niche, eventually you come back to the science of rocketry and the equations of motion and you decide that your rocket is going to look and act like a lot of others before it.

  • by Sinical ( 14215 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @05:16PM (#35095834)

    This is the crux of it, I think:

    To employ a commonly used metaphor, our current proficiency in rocket-building is the result of a hill-climbing approach; we started at one place on the technological landscape—which must be considered a random pick, given that it was chosen for dubious reasons by a maniac

    I don't agree that Hitler choice of rocketry for the V2 was random. I think he went to his not-yet-rocket scientists and said, "How do I deliver X kilograms of payload to England with such and such circular error probability, and oh yeah, it can't be intercepted?" And rockets were the answer. And for good reasons. I'm not sure what other technologies of the 1930s and 1940s could have performed the task: submarines with huge artillery built-in (susceptible to torpedo planes unless you could do some kind of shoot and scoot); they did try the bomber thing but that wasn't a winner; balloons don't seem like a possibility. We *still* don't have something better than rockets and missiles for mass producing corpses (whether you agree its a good idea or not): perhaps the Navy's upcoming railguns are different enough to be considered a "change".

    • What happened was that Hitler went to his scientists and said, "How do I turn London into rubble?" And the scientists who worked for the Luftwaffe said, "Pilotless planes!" because that was the sort of technology they had and if it was chosen they would be in charge. And the scientists who worked for the Army said either, "A giant rocket!" or "A giant gun!" for the same reasons. And Hitler said, "Good, good, do all of those things." So instead of focus on one solution the Germans built the V-1, the V-2 *and

"The number of Unix installations has grown to 10, with more expected." -- The Unix Programmer's Manual, 2nd Edition, June, 1972