You Know Who Else Used Rockets? Hitler!


Geek-God novelist Neal Stephenson socks it to the rocket in a Slate article, claiming our continued use of it as the main means to get things to orbit is nothing more than a dumb legacy of Nazi war programs.

I absolutely assume he knows way more about space than me, but I am always doubtful of smarty-pants claims that everyone in the world but them is being dumb because of "path dependence" (for some reasons why, see this 1996 Reason magazine classic casting doubt on some classic path dependence arguments).  Sometimes, history gives you a pre-existing set of techniques, capital, training, etc. that makes it more economically sensible to use what you already got than reinvent the wheel, even if you have something that you are quite sure will roll you along much better than a dumb ol' wheel ever could.

Stephenson's article was long enough that he really should have spent at least one word discussing or at least mentioning all the other better-then-rockets means of getting payloads to space that he asserts we have neglected in favor of Hitler's sinister V-2 and its descendents. (I always admired the space elevator.)

Don't ever read Gravity's Rainbow, and don't forget I warned you. But it does contain a lot about Hitler's rocket program.

Katherine Mangu-Ward from January 2007 in Reason on private space travel.

NEXT: More Fights Over Red Light Cameras

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  1. I’ve tried two or three times to read Gravity’s Rainbow. I think I made it to 100 pages the last time. What garbage.

    1. Bravo. Most people can’t make it past the bananas. I’ve read the whole thing, but then I’m a glutton for punishment.

      1. Is that why you watch Glee?

        1. Projection.

          1. Just at least tell me you have earplugs in when you watch it. That would lessen the horror.

            1. I find it is best appreciated with earplugs, and blindfolded with the TV off.

              1. Apropos to this thread, it is probably best appreciated in space, where no one can hear their screeching.

        2. Heather Morris!

    2. I actually read Gravity’s Rainbow last year and enjoyed it in a sado-masochistic sort of way (I consider it the mental equivalent of running a marathon; you have to get through the burn!).

    3. I think page 75 is my record.

      I did eventually make it to the point in The Illumunatis Trilogy where I could understand wtf was going on, and read the whole thing. Is that an apt comparison at all?

      1. Illuminatus Trilogy was awesome! I read it when I was like 17 so I had no idea about half the stuff they were talking about.

  2. Whatever, Neal… If we must go into space, honor demands that it be accomplished by perching on the tip of a giant flaming penis.

    1. Ambiguously Gay Duo had a pretty bitchin rocket ship, IIRC

  3. Simply press the “up” button on the space elevator.

  4. A few years ago, there was some talk of The Diamond Age being turned into a miniseries. Does anyone know if anything ever became of that?

    1. I can’t wait to see a proper skull gun.

    2. there was some talk of The Diamond Age being turned into a miniseries


      *fap fap fap fap*

  5. Don’t ever read Gravity’s Rainbow

    1. Too late. But it was only that once, swear, like, totally.

  6. I read the article last week Brian, and I don’t understand what you’re complaining about. It mostly made since to me.

    1. Evolution’s also path dependent, but the ugly truth is that some paths are just better than others. If you swap the time of discovering petroleum fuel and solar panels, we’d still probably be using petroleum today, just because it’s more effective. Not that we would have had solar panels first unless petroleum was incredibly rare — because “digging holes” and “burning shit” are a little more lo-tech than “quantum physics”.

      It isn’t that he has no point, just that it overstates the coincidence factor — history isn’t an aimless plane that we randomly bounce along, it has strong currents.

      But it was an interesting read, and I am a Stephenson fan, so I let it go.

  7. What the fuck is wrong with this website today?

    It’s *even worse* than usual.

  8. Anathem, his latest, was really good. Fun read, lots to think about. Don’t worry, it all makes sense eventually.

    1. I liked some of his earlier books, but Anathem bored the heck out of me.

      1. Some of his earlier books bored me, but I found Anathem a fun read, even if the philosophy of mathematics was a bit low level, it was well presented and fun.

        Then again, I have a PhD in mathematics.

        1. I have two master’s degrees (neither in math, or anything close).

  9. Why not use cavorite ?

  10. I didn’t really understand the point of the article either. Nobody had a better idea that had nearly the track record of rockets in the late 40s and early 50s. H-bomb reentry vehicles were the biggest thing that the government needed to throw, so they build unmanned launch vehicles to those specs. None of the contractors had a market to expand beyond those specs, so all satellites ended up being approximately the size and weight of MIRVs.

    Great. What was the alternative? Spend $100B in 1950 on a different technology with no track record of success? Or maybe Boeing should have developed tech without a market. I love the guy’s work but this one just struck me as an interesting history lesson with no real takeaway other than don’t let the government wholly colonize new industries.

    1. As a career engineer, I can attest that clean-sheet innovations are extremely rare. Most innovation is just nibbling around the edges.

      Boeing’s all-composite body B787 is probably the most extreme departure from past experience that is happening on a large scale project today. Given the problems they’ve had lately, it’s oossible that a partial solution (aluminum body with composite wings) would have been a less risky choice.

  11. Well, if Stephenson is suggesting that big rockets are a legacy, he might be on to something. Heavy lift rockets aren’t the only way to go.

    Of course, there is research into other methods for reaching orbit–space elevators, tethers, light propulsion, etc.

    1. Truly reusable spacecraft is another option we haven’t tried.

      1. That’s not entirely true. Wasn’t Pournelle part of the DynoLift project in the 80s? I read a long thing by him on the rocket equation. Its nearly impossible to generate enough speed using chemical explosions, even with scramjets, to go to orbit and back without using and dropping external fuel tanks. We’d either have to invent a new engine type with much higher moment of impulse or use some sort of Scaled Composites Mothership/spaceship rig.

        Or a ski-jump. If you built a big enough catapult you could throw a ship through a good chunk of atmosphere. I think I calculated 13km @ 4Gs gets you to about 1 kilometer/sec. Which is about 1/11th of orbital escape velocity. However, you’d also be 50km up (assuming vertical launch) before you reached zero speed.

        1. It’s more true than not. At least you didn’t mention the shuttle. I’d have catapulted you into space if you had.

          1. I propose the government give me $10B to dig a 15km tunnel through some volcanic atoll in the pacific, allow me to build a giant fucking steam catapult capable of pushing a fully fueled spaceplane to 1.2km/second.

            1. *and* allow me…

            2. Just make sure that the command center is carved in the shape of a giant skull with observation windows in the eyes and this taxpayer will be more than willing to take the hit.

              1. I’m in.

      2. SpaceShip One and it’s carrier White Knight One are both totally reusable, as are their successors SS2/WK2.

        Interesting that the first successful private space venture departed from the conventional wisdom of using rocket propulsion for the entire ascent. But Scaled Composites aren’t angling for NASA contracts, unlike SpaceX which is sticking with the all-rocket paradigm.

        1. Suborbitial is for tourists and kiddies and does not count.

          1. Suborbitial is for tourists and kiddies and nuclear weapons does not count.

            1. Don’t you sully the family-friendly suborbital skies with your nuclear ambitions.

              Besides, that’s never actually happened, right?

  12. Has anyone considered faith-based alternatives to rockets?

    1. I tried levitating into orbit just last week!

    2. I prefer homeopathic space travel myself

      1. Danny, see yourself in orbit, be yourself in orbit. May, make, make it, make it. Make yourself orbit, Danny. I’m, I’m a veg’, Danny.

        1. I just click my heels together.

          1. That’s bullshit. According to all of the science, those slippers only get you to freakin’ Kansas. That’s on Earth, last I checked.

            1. And, of course, since the silver shoes vanish after use, there’s the problem of getting back to Earth.

            2. Ah, but that’s what they want you to think.

              1. I dunno what I think about you, after your murderous rampage through Oz. Two women dead, one man missing, dozens of other sentient Ozians nowhere to be found and presumed killed by you and/or your tin terminating friend.

                1. Collateral damage. Besides, in Oz, midgets only count as 3/5 of a person.

      2. You may be on to something here. What if we just dilute gravity enough?

  13. Stop laughing at me.

  14. Stephenson was featured at this New America Foundation event last week:…..e_dragons. I attended his panels and talked to him at some length afterwards. I am a huge fan of his novels, but was royally disappointed to hear him repeatedly advocate top-down strategies for innovation. Having said that, he did so in an off-the-cuff manner that I think means he hasn’t thought hard about the implications, rather than as an ideologue. I tried my best to plant some good libertarian ideas for his next novel, but who knows if they’ll take.

    1. I think he’s well aware of libertarian ideas.

    2. Snow Crash makes his politics pretty clear.

  15. 1. Send ball of string up to ISS
    2. Throw the ball down, hanging on to one end
    3. Catch the ball on earth, tape it to what you want to go to orbit
    4. Pull it up (you are in space so it is weightless)
    5. Space elevator

    1. You left out duct tape.

      1. 3. Catch the ball on earth, tape it to what you want to go to orbit

        Duct tape wasn’t specifically named here, but would you really trust this kind of task to electrician’s tape? Or (LOL) Scotch tape?

        1. I just don’t want some freaky accident involving an inferior binding force.

          1. The funny thing about duct tape is that it isnt used for ductwork.

            1. How can that be?

    2. 3. Catch the ball on earth, tape it to what you want to go to orbit

      You could power New York for a decade on the static discharge alone.


  16. I think he is on to something. Take the communications industry, for instance. It someone had just had the foresight to develop really big carrier pigeons…

    1. They tried that back in 1947 near Roswell NM. It didn’t work.

  17. How about we have a real Orion program? Will that be OK? A few dozen nuclear explosions ought to do the trick to get into orbit.

    (note, haven’t RTFA’d)

    1. I’m standing on a cast iron skillet with an atomic bomb underneath it.

      That’s one small blast for a man, one giant explosion for mankind.

  18. Neal should have some money. Put up or shut up, Neal. Want a better alternative? Invest in somebody trying to create one.

  19. “Sometimes, history gives you a pre-existing set of techniques, capital, training, etc. that makes it more economically sensible to use what you already got than reinvent the wheel,…

    Segway, anyone?

    1. Nah, it ain’t fast enough — you’ll never get a Segway into low-earth orbit.

      1. Seesh. Don’t tell Dean……

  20. Outside the box thinking. I’m working on a plan to bring space to us. I just need to figure a way to get that ozone layer out of the way.

  21. Re: the title. You aren’t supposed to say his name – that kills the meme’s humor via implication. Everyone should know what the answer is without RTFA, given the phrasing of the question.

    1. You aren’t supposed to say his name – that kills the meme’s humor via implication

      i think that was the joke…

  22. So how else are we going to get there with the same level of ease. Seriously carbon chains fuckin’ rock when it comes to releasing energy. Combine that with long phallic objects and you have what seems like the the most viable, accessible, easy way to get to space.

    There’s no shortage of proposals for radically different cars. Making such a point is kind of stupid. Now if they want to argue that government has funded a single path and not allowed a market to chose the best path that might make sense.

  23. Pretty sure there are two ‘private’ space programs in development.
    Virgin Galactic is betting on ‘mother-ship’ launch of a lower-powered rocket, while the other (dunno the name) is simply taking over large-rocket launches from the Cape.
    Since they’re both using their own (or the investors’) money, one will likely come up with the least expensive method and design convergence will mean the other either falls into place or the difference will be small enough to continue both efforts.
    Either way, I agree with T; break out the wallet or get out of the way.

    1. SpaceX is the other company with a product. Elon Musk sold ebay and started Tesla Motors and SpaceX. There is also Armadillo Aerospace who has a VTOL rocket in development, Blue Origin who seem to be in the vaporware phase, and another company that wants to use a giant blimp as a mothership.

      Like alternative fuels, there might be a reason we haven’t transitioned yet. See hmmm’s post above.

      1. Orbital has a launch division too, although it’s far behind SpaceX.

        And Virgin Galactic is suborbital. Lame.

        I’ll actually be meeting with some HR people from SpaceX and Orbital tomorrow, trying to get an interview for their launch systems or dynamics groups.

        1. Good luck. I’m extremely jealous.

  24. If Stephenson had done his research, he would know that Maurice Richard is the one true rocket:

    1. “One true rocket,” my needle-pocked ass!

      1. No Boston area sports figure every shone brighter than Rocket Richard. Just ask Sugar Jim Henry:…..eight.html

  25. Virgin Galactic is sub-orbital only. A ticket costs $200,000 US.

  26. “Virgin Galactic is sub-orbital only.”
    Sounds like a matter of development.

    “A ticket costs $200,000 US.”
    At least they’re selling them. Ask NASA what a ticket costs.

    1. Sounds like a matter of development.

      Development, and 50 times more energy.

  27. There are a number of fun ideas about how to get to orbit rocketlessly:

    I’d link them individually, but the website complains. Check out an index here:…..pacelaunch

    Space elevators/beanstalks
    Sky hooks
    Launch loops
    Various kinds of Space Guns

    And more. All of them have some pretty serious drawbacks: things like, “This would subject the payload to 100 gravities of acceleration,” or “This requires materials of strengths that we aren’t sure we can produce in macroscopic quantities,” or “This would be by three orders of magnitude the largest object that humans have ever created.”

    I think they’re cool ideas, but I doubt their practicality.

    1. There’s really nothing out there that justifies a huge project like that. If we ever see the development of quantum networking, FTL travel, and/or immensely powerful-yet-compact energy sources then there are a lot more reasons to be dumping mass into orbit.

  28. “Sounds like a matter of development.”

    It’s a totally different beast. Requires a lot more fuel and heat shielding.

    There is the Pegasus rocket which can put a satellite in orbit and is launched from a plane.

  29. Scaled Composites (Virgin) is currently suborbital only. They’re already planning an orbit-capable ship.

    1. Why?

      As far as I know, there is no business case to put anything into orbit other than satellites today.

      There is always talk of zero-g manufacutoring or chemical engineering, but tourisms sure as hell isn’t going to justify large scale operations putting stuff in orbit.

      1. Most technologies that would benefit from having orbital stations are in the vaporware stage, and the 30 years of NASA fucking around in the Space Shuttle haven’t exactly helped develop any sustainable (read: profitable) business ideas that require a zero-g environment.

        1. I grew up with all the science fiction — mining the asteroids; full-blown refineries in space; yada yada yada — but I don’t see any industry that will require zero-g operations in my lifetime.

          So shut down NASA and let the rich kids play with their toys.

          1. Well, maybe that will be the only way to get away from meddlesome politicians. Is “freedom” an industry?

        2. Please. We all know what the industrial application is, including NASA. Space porn. Space tourism sex. Space hookers.

          Easily a 100 billion dollar industry.

          1. Rich Kids & Toys

            1. Same thing. Why do you think men buy superyachts?

          2. Don’t forget Space Beer. That’s my dream job. While I’m at it I’ll lower help build a space elevator so that we can just pipe the beer down.

  30. Stepehenson from the article:

    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.

    Uh, I find this particular mission pretty useful beyond just the civilian economy or just the military and intelligence worlds-

    NASA’s NEOWISE Completes Scan for Asteroids and Comets

    The mission’s discoveries of previously unknown objects include 20 comets, more than 33,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and 134 near-Earth objects (NEOs). The NEOs are asteroids and comets with orbits that come within 45 million kilometers (28 million miles) of Earth’s path around the sun.

    But right, Nazi’s. Of course.

    1. Psh. If that ever happens we’ll just send Bruce Willis at it.

  31. Do you need to anchor the space elevator to the ground, or can you hang a landing strip from it, dangingling in the upper atmosphere?

    That would shrink the amount of material needed, avoid bad weather, and avoid terrestrial objects hitting the elevator. Then you just need a high altitude plane to get you to the platform and ride the elevator up.

    1. Geosynchronous orbit would probably be an easier solution, although you raise a good point about the effect of weather.

      Also why is this article giving me Kotex adverts, what the hell?

      1. Also why is this article giving me Kotex adverts, what the hell?

        Perhaps the reference to “payloads” in the article?

        1. That or all the references to landing strips…

    2. The problem with the Space Elevator that I have never heard a good solution for is angular momentum. An object at ground level and a same-mass object in geosynchonous orbit (Earth radius + 22,300 miles) have vastly different angular momentums. There are ways to transfer the potential energy for the rise out of the earth’s gravitational well without drawing on the potential energy of the geosynchronous station, but I cannot see any way to transfer the angular momentum without putting a hell of a torque on your tether.

      1. It seems like the biggest barrier has been the materials, which we can produce but only on a small scale.

    3. As I understand it, the ground end must be attached and under a tremendous amount of tension. The center of mass of the elevator needs to be in geosynchronous orbit.

  32. Gov’t funded spacewankery.




  33. Stephenson’s article was long enough that he really should have spent at least one word discussing or at least mentioning all the other better-then-rockets means of getting payloads to space that he asserts we have neglected in favor of Hitler’s sinister V-2 and its descendents

    He was not talking about space flight he only used it as an example of lock in.

    Personally i think a better example would have been the internet….

    But in truth I think he was talking about the internet…he only used rockets because it allowed the reader to step back and look at it from afar.

    If he used the internet as an example any discussion about the article would have fallen apart in a technical debate about IP4 vs IP6 rather then the broader issues he wanted to talk about.

    1. If he used the internet as an example any discussion about the article would have fallen apart in a technical debate about IP4 vs IP6 rather then the broader issues he wanted to talk about.

      Of course i should point out that by using rockets he ultimately failed in this goal. Instead of talking about the broader issues of lock in this discussion have degraded into a debate about space elevators vs rockets

  34. Two Clarke novels I’d love to see made into big-time major motion pitchers:

    – Fountains of Paradise

    – Rendezvous with Rama

    Both would make bitchin’ movies.

    There was some buzz last year that Morgan Freeman was working on a Rendezvous with Rama movie, but it looks like that’s not happening now.

    1. – Rendezvous with Rama

      Nothing happens in the book. No plot, no sense of danger no character development, no story arc, no plot twist.

      It would be like watching “The Fountain” yet even more boring.

      1. Agreed. I read it for the first time last year and didnt see what the deal was.

    2. I highly enjoyed both of them, although as mentioned not much happens in Rendezvous with Rama. It’s mostly a scientific mystery novel.

  35. Instead of talking about the broader issues of lock in this discussion have degraded into a debate about space elevators vs rockets.

    Perhaps because discussing “path dependence” or “lock-in” without discussing the alternatives to the status quo is, if not pointless, perhaps actually impossible.

  36. Where are we on anti-gravity? I’m ready to just flip a switch a leave the planet. Assuming, of course, that I can come back.

    1. I’ll guard that switch for you. Honest. Have fun!

  37. Evidence of nuclear fission was published in the scientific literature in 1937. Once you have that information, then there would be a lot of interest in nuclear energy and weapons. For instance, if there were no Manhattan Project, an energy-resource-poor country, like France, could have spent 10-20 years developing nuclear reactors. Once you have a working reactor you can make Pu-239 and then you have the core of a nuclear weapons. There doesn’t seem to have been a particular path dependence with nuclear weapons, as he seems to imply.

  38. Why the hell did they put up a building in the shape of a V2 in Downtown London?

    1. Damned Hun architects!

    2. Rightside up or upside down?


    Oh, yeah, it was good enough when I was younger – we didn’t need a “space elevator”, certainly not a “rocket” – just took the stairway.

    But nooooooooooooooooooo. That’s not good enough for you lazy punks today. Why don’t you put down that Nintendo and run out in the yard and play once in a while!? Then you’d be fit enough to just TAKE THE STAIRWAY!

    *grumble curse grumble*

    /Plant & Page

    1. …fully acknowledging that this may be another form of “path dependence”, of course, etc. etc.

  40. The space elevator is fantasy. Unlike warpdrive or teleportation, the physics says its possible, so science fiction fans will masturbate to it. But technologically and economically speaking it’s impossible.

  41. Neal Stephenson is all right. But he does have some blind spots.

  42. I’m a couple months away from completing my Master’s in Aerospace Engineering.

    It’s pretty obvious why we use rockets: because they work. Chemical rockets are great at providing a ton of power for a short amount of time, which is great for getting into orbit. They also have an easy method of converting that energy into thrust. You also get the benefit that they work in a vacuum and you can adjust your trajectory after launch.

    Any other option for getting into space would require a huge infrastructure investment, even if you assume all the technologies were already worked out. Assuming that carbon nanotubes were able to be mass produced, a space elevator would be awesome and once completed would blow rockets out of the water in terms of cost to orbit, but the capital would easily make it the most expensive project ever undertaken. Although you could use one space elevator to make the construction of a second significantly cheaper.

  43. Chinese space program, 3 million chinese and a very large rubber band.

  44. It makes sense that people try to attack research like rockets. People are scared of where something started and refuse to see the benefits of the product. What is he going to do next, attack wastewater analysis software that only benefits our water quality?

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