12.13, Friday 4 Feb 2011

Neal Stephenson writes about why space rockets won't go away in Space Stasis: What the strange persistence of rockets can teach us about innovation.

His point: using rockets to get into space works decently enough. But it's expensive, limited, and it's never going to get better. Rockets are an example of lock-in. There is no shortage of alternative, innovative ideas for how to get into space - ones that might have much more promising futures - but we'll never see them because there are too many factors that prevent change.

One fascinating contributor to lock-in is insurance. Start from the fact that satellites are super expensive to build, and generate lots of money once in orbit. A satellite is a big investment with a big pay-off! Which means you want insurance... 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.

Another factor is regulation. It's hard to get the permits to fly a rocket over other countries' cities. You could operate in a country with looser regulation... but then you wouldn't get access to the expertise and the technology to build the rocket in the first place.

It's weird, says Stephensen, that we even have rockets in the first place. They grew out of a bizarre battle that arose in rare circumstances. But what investment that war caused: Richard Rhodes estimates the cost of the nuclear weapons and missile programs at $4 trillion in the United States and the USSR each.

Great article.