Thursday, February 03, 2011

Why Rockets?

During the State of the Union address, President Obama used the analogy of the Space Race to remind the people of our nation to believe in our ability to do great things. It is an oft used analogy in my neck of the woods, too. If this nation could put a man on the Moon just because we thought it would look good on a picture on the wall, why in the hell can't we build effective levees to protect New Orleans?

Ironically, even as we use the Space Race language, our nation has all but abandoned the exploration of space. This trajectory is moving in the opposite direction many Americans were culturally raised to expect. For those of us raised on the futurism of the 80's, we might be able to accept that flying DeLoreans are still out of range, but the retreat from space is unacceptable.

Though it is more difficult to justify the incredible costs of space exploration, compared to the more immediate status of the crumbling piles of dirt here on Earth that serve to protect cities from flooding.

So, why is exploration of space so expensive? According to this fantastic article at Slate, rocketry expense is the result of path dependency and lock-in sprinkled with the historical rise of madmen. Here are the ingredients:

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.


Well worth the read, one wonders that, if rocketry is what makes exploring space an unreasonable cost burden, when will we examine alternative methods to get ourselves into space?

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2 comments:

Dante said...

"Well worth the read, one wonders that, if rocketry is what makes exploring space an unreasonable cost burden, when will we examine alternative methods to get ourselves into space?"

There has been a ton of research into rocketless space launch. I have a lot of respect for Neal Stephenson as a writer but I think he's ignoring at least the past 30 years of research
in this part of his conclusion:

"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."

Rockets are a thousand years old and only in the past century have they launched us into space. Other methods are going to take time to implement but we are working on them.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Well, of course we've been working on alternatives for about 30 years, but none so seriously as we usually work on rockets. There is no dove-tail with nuclear weapons to justify the cost. And this

"Manned space exploration as propaganda competition, unmoored from realistic cost/benefit discipline"

reminds us what dominated budget for the Space Race early in our lives. Yes, there was tremendous scientific benefit, but our culture has repeatedly shown that we will sacrifice scientific beneift if the cost is too high.

But propaganda? Hell, as a society, we pay out the nose for propaganda.