Neal Stephenson leads us through a short history of the rocket, from Hitler to the Manhattan Project to Stalin and then the space program.
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.
A rocket taking offThere 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.