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.)
The phenomena of path dependence and lock-in can be illustrated with many examples, but one of the most vivid is the gear we use to launch things into space. Rockets are a very old invention. The Chinese have had them for something like 1,000 years. Francis Scott Key wrote about them during the War of 1812 and we sing about them at every football game. As late as the 1930s, however, they remained small, experimental, and failure-prone.
There is no way, of course, to guess how rockets might have developed, or failed to, were it not for the fact that, during the 1940s, the world's most technically sophisticated nation was under the absolute control of a crazy dictator who decreed that vast physical and intellectual resources should be hurled into the project of creating rockets of hitherto unimagined size.
These rockets, which were known as V-2s, were worse than useless from a military standpoint, in the sense that the same resources would have produced a much greater effect had they been devoted instead to the production of U-boats or Messerschmitts. Accordingly, the victorious nations showed only modest interest in their development immediately following the war. It is reasonable to suppose that little more would have been done with them, had it not been for another event, happening at the same time, even more bizarre and incredible than the seizure of absolute control over a modern nation-state by a genocidal madman. 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.
Atomic bombs turned out to be expensive, dirty, controversial, and of limited military use (it was difficult to find targets sufficiently large to be worth using them on). 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. Moreover, the conditions existing in the USSR then were such as to enable the development of that bomb in near-perfect secrecy. The United States could only guess at what the Soviets were doing; and given the stakes, they naturally tended to make the scariest guesses possible. The military logic of nuclear warfare forced them to develop the hydrogen bomb.
Rockets and H-bombs are made for each other. The rockets of the 1950s and 1960s were so expensive, and yet so inaccurate, that their only effective military use was lobbing bombs of inconceivably vast destructive power in the general direction of large urban areas.
Conversely, because those bombs were so destructive (making it tricky to drop them out of a manned aircraft without killing the crew) and the consequences of a first strike so dire, ICBMs—which could be launched from hardened, dispersed silos, as contrasted with bombers, which must take off from concentrated, vulnerable air bases—were the best way to deliver them.
Vast, nation-bankrupting expenditures were now directed to the development of such rockets. In Dark Sun, Richard Rhodes estimates the cost of the nuclear weapons and missile programs at $4 trillion in the United States and the USSR each.
Since the countries were on opposite sides of the planet, the rockets had to be large enough to throw their payload halfway around the world: only a small step short of putting payloads into orbit.
The unthinkable destructiveness of nuclear warfare now led the two superpowers to compete by proxy in other arenas, notably the exploration of space. Astronauts became heroic figures. Killing them accidentally became a no-no. A "failure is not an option, price is no object" mentality became prevalent.
To recap, the existence of rockets big enough to hurl significant payloads into orbit was contingent on the following radically improbable series of events:
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.