Earlier I proposed a hypothesis that the 1930s–60s in the US were characterized by the attempt to achieve progress through top-down control by a technical elite.

The 1997 preface to Walter McDougall’s Pulitzer-winning The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age adds some evidence for this. McDougall laments NASA’s failed promises and the lost potential of space technology, and he ties this in to the broader theme of failures of centralized federal programs:

From today’s vantage point the Space Age may well be defined as an era of hubris. Not only did it become obvious in the 1960s and 1970s that “planned invention of the future” through federal mobilization of technology and brainpower was failing everywhere from Vietnam to our inner cities, but that it even failed in the arena for which it had seemed ideally suited: space technology.

What were the promises?

In the years following Sputnik I, experts assured congressional committees that by the year 2000 the United States and the Soviet Union would have lunar colonies and laser-armed spaceships in orbit. The film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) depicted Hilton hotels on the Moon and a manned mission to Jupiter (January 12, 1992, was the supercomputer Hal’s birthday in the film). In the late 1960s, NASA promoters imagined reusable spacecraft ascending and descending like angels on Jacob’s ladder, permanent space stations, and human missions to Mars—all within a decade. In the 1970s, visionaries looked forward to using the Space Shuttle to launch into orbit huge solar panels that would beam unlimited, nonpolluting energy to earth, hydroponic farming in space to feed the earth’s exploding population, and systems to control terrestrial weather for civilian or military purposes. In the 1980s, the space station project was revived (to be completed again “within a decade”), the Strategic Defense Initiative was to put laser-beam weapons in orbit to shoot down missiles and make nuclear weapons obsolete, and the space telescope was to unlock the last secrets of the universe. By 1990, a manned mission to Mars by the year 2010 was on the president’s wish list, and research had begun on an aerospace plane (the “Orient Express”) to whisk passengers across the Pacific in an hour and land like an airplane in Asia.

None of it came to pass.

McDougall describes the decline of NASA’s budget and the loss of its talent and “institutional charisma.” The Nixon administration “chose to throw away the incomparable Saturn/Apollo systems and start from scratch on a reusable launch system,” which became the Space Shuttle. But:

Given the political and economic pressures of the 1970s, the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations also insisted that the Shuttle be built on a shoestring. So NASA dutifully compromised the “fully reusable” feature, made other design changes to accommodate Air Force requirements, sharply constricted the Shuttle’s performance envelope, and yet persisted in exaggerating its capabilities and underestimating its cost. When the spacecraft finally flew in 1981, it was late, well over budget, full of bugs, and able to fly just four to six missions per year, not the twenty four promised. So, far from cutting the cost per pound of launching payloads into orbit “by a factor of ten,” the Shuttle increased the cost several times over that of the old Saturn 5 rocket.

He also points out that the USSR, “the regime that made technocracy its founding principle,” did even worse: “Not only did Soviet space programs keep even fewer promises than the American programs, but the Soviet Union itself crashed and burned.” (I have to think that this was another major factor in the decline of technocracy, in addition to the US-centric factors I mentioned in my earlier essay, such as Vietnam, Watergate, and the oil shocks.)

He adds:

Forty years into the Space Age one fact remains painfully clear: the biggest reason why so few promises have been fulfilled is that we are still blasting people and things into orbit with updated versions of 1940s German technology. … The way to restart the Space Age is to discover some new principle that makes spaceflight genuinely cheap, safe, and routine. Under present circumstances, that breakthrough is more likely to be made by some twenty four-year-old visionary working in a garage in Los Angeles than by the engineers, laboring under political constraints in the laboratories of NASA or Rockwell.

SpaceX was founded five years after this was written.

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This is false:

Forty years into the Space Age one fact remains painfully clear: the biggest reason why so few promises have been fulfilled is that we are still blasting people and things into orbit with updated versions of 1940s German technology. … The way to restart the Space Age is to discover some new principle that makes spaceflight genuinely cheap, safe, and routine. 

That "fact" is not in fact painfully clear, and discovering some new principle isn't the way to restart the Space Age (rather, it's not the way SpaceX has been restarting it). SpaceX is simply implementing the clear and obvious solution, which has been well understood outside of NASA for decades:

  • Start with cheap disposable rockets based on 1940's German technology, with a focus on cheap.
  • Launch a ton of them.
  • Iterate on cheapness and reliability, which happens to include re-usability.

That's it.  Nothing special, no magical new principle.  Just the old principle, efficiently, with tweaks for what technological advancements are available.  SpaceX's superpower is doing things slightly better, which yields substantial gains thanks to the large exponent on the rocket equation.

And really, this is the same as what we've done with internal combustion engines.  They still burn fuel in piston chambers, and the thermodynamic efficiency is still terrible, just like it was a hundred years ago.  But modern engines are far more capable than old ones, due to volume and iterative improvement.

SpaceX's superpower is doing things slightly better, which yields substantial gains thanks to the large exponent on the rocket equation.

Agree with the rest of this comment, but I don't think SpaceX's success is due to the rocket equation. Their engine specific impulse is not better than state-of-the-art, and as a consequence their payload fraction to orbit isn't better either. The success is driven by huge reductions in cost per ton at launch of each rocket.

That's reasonable.  I had in mind things like the thrust to weight ratios, the use of supercooled liquids, and methane as a propellant.  In retrospect, I was confused.

You are right, that cost reduction is the super power.  I believe that this is (mostly) a combination of standardization, volume, simplicity, CAD/simulation, and modern production processes.

(The goal of this comment is simply to stimulate more conversation in an area of interest to me) I often find myself disagreeing with both self-declared SpaceX fanboys (or girls) and vehement SpaceX opposers, who I find more often than not just have varying levels of distaste for Elon Musk (some complaints here are valid I feel). To get at the root of the idea, it seems that SpaceX hasn’t accomplished a miracle for space flight more so that they succeeded in developing some (difficult but not semi-impossible) engineering designs into usable rockets before going bankrupt, which is ‘the’ miracle. Prior to the wave of new space companies starting in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s the old titans on industry (which are still around today and can still be characterized in the same way) were in the late stage of institutional lifetime with lots of bureaucratic bloat inhibiting launcher development. This is in part to to the fairly stagnant market and low demand, and part due to the bureaucratic nature of their customers (read military, NASA), with a simple dose of institutional age. I would also note that the original authors seems to miss that there were dozens of other space startups at the same time as SpaceX some with even more radical ideas than SpaceX (and some with less) for changing the space industry. Almost none of them survived the transition from startup to profitability. I would just like to add to your list of things SpaceX seemingly does better than it’s competition is control and guidance, the amount for work it took get those 1st stages to land on their own must’ve been massive. And also computationally impossible for a space endeavor of any size until the late 90’s (citation needed here and would love to hear from someone with experience).

And also computationally impossible for a space endeavor of any size until the late 90’s (citation needed here and would love to hear from someone with experience).

I looked into it and, yes, this looks basically correct with a caveat: it's computationally very expensive to get those first stages to land on their own at a convenient, precisely chosen location. We've been doing propulsive landings for decades with e.g. the Apollo moon landers and the Viking Mars probes, the latter of which had to be fully autonomous because of speed-of-light delays. Landing a big long rocket is a bit harder because of its somewhat unwieldy shape, but inverted pendulum control problems are definitely not a new thing.

So where does it get computationally hard? There are two parts to it. The first part is computing a trajectory and a flight plan -- when you should fire up the engines, which way you should be pointing them, what the aerodynamic control surfaces should be doing -- which should get you to the desired landing location. This is a tricky optimization problem, with a bunch of annoyingly non-convex control constraints. The second hard part, and the reason you can't just precompute the flight plan on a really big computer before launching the rocket, is that you need to adjust the plan in realtime. There will inevitably be unpredictable deviations from the original plan caused by things like wind or variation in atmospheric density. If you don't compensate for them, those deviations will add up; the Curiosity Mars rover, for example, was a big improvement over its predecessors because its predicted landing zone was an ellipse that only measured 20 km by 7 km.

The algorithm (PDF) that I hear SpaceX is using does require some pretty serious processing power if you're going to be recomputing your entire flight plan several times per second.  A version suitable for realtime use wasn't flight-tested until the early 2010s.