Persistence’s Two Paths: Stasis or Innovation

Neal Stephenson has a terrific essay in Slate on the history of rockets and human space exploration and how their centrality has come perhaps to limit our ability to see other possibilities. I know it is debatable whether or not there are other capable lift technologies, but I find his reduction of history, in order to illuminate its arbitrariness, quite compelling.

Here’s a mid-essay summary that Stephenson himself offers:

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. 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.