He postulates that the development of space-launch rockets was amazingly unlikely, and gives this as evidence:
There 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.Stephenson thinks Hitler was a "bizarre and incredible" aberration, something far outside the norm. Sadly, most nation-states historically have been under the absolute control of crazy monarchs, dictators, or priest/kings with war on their minds. The United States of America is in fact the first one I can think of where that wasn't the case. Even today a majority of nations outside Europe have dictators running them. Military action has been driving technology since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
These rockets, which were known as V-2s, were worse than useless from a military standpoint, in the sense that the same resources would have produced a much greater effect had they been devoted instead to the production of U-boats or Messerschmitts. Accordingly, the victorious nations showed only modest interest in their development immediately following the war. It is reasonable to suppose that little more would have been done with them, had it not been for another event, happening at the same time, even more bizarre and incredible than the seizure of absolute control over a modern nation-state by a genocidal madman. I refer, of course, to the sudden and completely unexpected development of nuclear weapons, undertaken over the course of a very few years by a top-secret crash program atop a mesa in New Mexico.
Stephenson carries on in like vein for three pages, bemoaning the present situation in which unspecified new space launch tech can't get a leg-up because the darn capitalists won't insure it. If only vast sums of money were available to pursue other launch ideas, maybe stupid rockets would become yesterday's news.
He's probably thinking about space elevators or Verne guns. Space elevators will remain science fiction until somebody figures a way to make either carbon nanotubes or iron whisker crystals that are measured in feet instead of the current millimeters. Another crazy dictator, Saddam Hussein, very nearly built a Verne gun in Iraq. He was going to use it to shell Tel Aviv, but presumably it or its big brother could have been used to chuck small payloads into orbit. Really tough small payloads. It still could, if anybody could figure out a way to make money out of pop-can sized machines in low orbit. Going to be pretty hard to launch the Hubble Telescope out of a Verne gun.
Orion is of course a non-starter until it becomes acceptable to set off atomic bombs in the atmosphere again. Orion is a gigantic metal plate launched by setting off a nuke under it. The payload is protected by shock absorbers. For acceleration you just keep setting off nukes under the plate. Good way to get a really BIG load into orbit, like an aircraft carrier, a little tough on the environment. Always a favorite in SF, because what's not to like about a spacecraft as big as an aircraft carrier that runs by atomic bombs?
Laser launch systems, again a non-starter because its really frickin' hard to build a laser that can provide as much thrust energy as a plain-vanilla rocket. Its not efficient in atmosphere, and outside the atmosphere you still have to provide propellant, which equals weight, which is the one thing a laser launch system is supposed to eliminate. And if the laser wiggles just a wee little bit, ZAP!!! your spacecraft just got a big hole burnt in its butt.
He also ignores Rutan and Branson's space tourist bid, Virgin Galactic. If they make any money at all, those guys will be upgrading their launch machinery to low-orbit status before the end of this decade. Private launch facilities using recoverable space craft are where its going to pop, you ask me. Pretty soon NASA and the Euro space guys are going to be begging rides on Rutan's spacecraft.
Lock-in it seems is in the eye of the beholder.