What the strange persistence of rockets can teach us about innovation.
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.)
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
The above circumstances provide a remarkable example of path dependency. Had these contingencies not obtained, rockets with orbital capability would not have been developed so soon, and when modern societies became interested in launching things into space they might have looked for completely different ways of doing so.
Before dismissing the above story as an aberration, consider that the modern petroleum industry is a direct outgrowth of the practice of going out in wooden, wind-driven ships to hunt sperm whales with hand-hurled spears and then boiling their heads to make lamp fuel.
We move now to the phenomenon of lock-in.
Space travel has not proved nearly as useful to the human race as boys of my generation were once led to believe, but it does have one application—unmanned satellites—that is extremely lucrative to the civilian economy and of the highest imaginable importance to the military and intelligence worlds.
It is illuminating here, though utterly conjectural, to imagine a dialog, set in the offices of a large telecommunications firm during the 1960s, between a business development executive and an engineer.
Biz Dev Guy: We could make a preposterous amount of money from communications satellites.
Engineer: It will be expensive to build those, but even so, nothing compared to the cost of building the machines needed to launch them into orbit.
Biz Dev Guy: Funny you should mention that. It so happens that our government has already put $4 trillion into building the rockets and supporting technology we need. There's only one catch.
Engineer: OK, I'll bite. What is the catch?
Biz Dev Guy: Your communications satellite has to be the size, shape, and weight of a hydrogen bomb.
As satellites became important, the early H-bomb-hurling rockets were modified to the point at which they became unrecognizable. A quick scan of the Wikipedia entry for the Titan rocket family tells the story in pictures: This machine started out in the late 1950s as an ICBM but, as the military and economic importance of launching satellites became obvious, underwent a lengthy series of modifications, evolving beyond recognition. Similar stories can be told about the Atlas and Thor-Delta families and some of their Soviet counterparts. Since H-bomb-hurlers, even heavily upgraded ones, were not big enough to launch large manned space vehicles such as Apollo, entirely new rocket families such as the Saturn were developed. So it would be erroneous to suggest that more recent satellite designers have been limited by the H-bomb form factor in the way that they might have been at the dawn of the Space Age.
That is not, however, the most important way that rockets generate lock-in. In order to understand this, it's necessary to know a few things about (1) the physical environment of rocket launches, (2) the economics of the industry, and (3) the way it is regulated, or, to be more precise, the way it interacts with government.
1. The designer of a rocket payload, such as a communications satellite, has much more to worry about than merely limiting the payload to a given size, shape, and weight. The payload must be designed to survive the launch and the transition through various atmospheric regimes into outer space. As we all know from watching astronauts on movies and TV, there will be acceleration forces, relatively modest at the beginning, but building to much higher values as fuel is burned and the rocket becomes lighter relative to its thrust. At some moments, during stage separation, the acceleration may even reverse direction for a few moments as one set of engines stops supplying thrust and atmospheric resistance slows the vehicle down. Rockets produce intense vibration over a wide range of frequencies; at the upper end of that range we would identify this as noise (noise loud enough to cause physical destruction of delicate objects), at the lower range, violent shaking. Explosive bolts send violent shocks through the vehicle's structure. During the passage through the ionosphere, the air itself becomes conductive and can short out electrical gear. Enclosed spaces must be vented so that pressure doesn't build up in them as the vehicle passes into vacuum. Once the satellite has reached orbit, sharp and intense variations in temperature as it passes in and out of the earth's shadow can cause problems if not anticipated in the engineering design. Some of these hazards are common to all things that go into space, but many are unique to rockets.
2. If satellites and launches were cheap, a more easygoing attitude toward their design and construction might prevail. But in general they are, pound for pound, among the most expensive objects ever made even before millions of dollars are spent launching them into orbit. Relatively mass-produced satellites, such as those in the Iridium and Orbcomm constellations, cost on the order of $10,000/lb. The communications birds in geostationary orbit—the ones used for satellite television, e.g.—are two to five times as expensive, and ambitious scientific/defense payloads are often $100,000 per pound. Comsats can only be packed so close together in orbit, which means that there is a limited number of available slots—this makes their owners want to pack as much capability as possible into each bird, helping jack up the cost. Once they are up in orbit, comsats generate huge amounts of cash for their owners, which means that any delays in launching them are terribly expensive. Rockets of the old school aren't perfect—they have their share of failures—but they have enough of a track record that it's possible to buy launch insurance. The importance of this fact cannot be overestimated. Every space entrepreneur who dreams of constructing a better mousetrap sooner or later crunches into the sickening realization that, even if the new invention achieved perfect technical success, it would fail as a business proposition simply because the customers wouldn't be able to purchase launch insurance.
Neal Stephenson is an author of science fiction and historical fiction, and a lifelong rocket lover. He lives in Seattle.
Photograph of rocket by Comstock Images © Getty Images.