Beyond Sputnik and the Space Race. The Origins of Global Satellite Communications , by Hugh R. Slotten

In: Nuncius
Connemara Doran Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) USA Arlington, VA

Search for other papers by Connemara Doran in
Current site
Google Scholar
View More View Less
Full Access

Hugh R. Slotten, Beyond Sputnik and the Space Race. The Origins of Global Satellite Communications . Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022. 256 pp. 10 halftones. ISBN: 9781421441221.

Hugh Slotten’s Beyond Sputnik and the Space Race: The Origins of Global Satellite Communications traces the origins and development of the first global satellite communication system by the United States during the early decades of the Cold War, known as Intelsat (International Telecommunications Satellite Organization). The introduction and chapter one provide a prehistory of this novel communications infrastructure, beginning with the diplomatic practice from the mid 19th century, amidst technological advances and cross-border disputes, of establishing global (intergovernmental) telecommunications policies and conventions through formal negotiations and treaties. By the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, accelerating advances of satellite technologies spun a web of new challenges to the existing intergovernmental electronic telecommunications institutions. Chapters two, three, and four delve deep into the archives of the few short years during the Kennedy administration (1961–1963) which birthed the material and ideational foundation for a new system of satellite communications infrastructure. In contrast to the Eisenhower administration’s application of traditional telecommunications regulatory policy to the satellites which empowered companies such as AT&T to create private and competing communications satellite systems, the Kennedy administration lobbied Congress to pass the Communications Satellite Act of 1962 to establish “a single world system open to all countries” (p. 4). Major players in Slotten’s account include “career civil servants” who spanned the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations and “were already planting the seeds of a policy reevaluation” (p. 37) from support for private enterprise in space to a government-based system open to both developed and developing nations. But before “communications satellites could be fully developed, different government institutions needed to develop a national policy for the new technology” (p. 15), a difficult process that revealed central tensions within the Cold War world order.

One of these central tensions is the changing and multivalent meanings of “global” across this period. In addition to the East-West axis of the Cold War struggle, “North-South global tensions increased markedly,” with access and control of satellite communications as a theater with which “the Cold War could be simultaneously waged in both outer space and in the Global South” (p. 178), impacting non-aligned nations in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The goal for Lyndon Johnson, both as a senator and then as head of the Space Council as Vice President, as well as for the Kennedy administration more broadly, was to provide the Global South access to television and communications via satellite. The ability to project American values and interests as a form of soft power to counter Soviet influence was a major part of the globalization vision.

Another major theme is the often-invisible but essential role of infrastructure within political-economic systems. Slotten shows the tensions vis-a-vis companies and policymakers who preferred to view the satellite age as part of the same communications infrastructure and regulatory framework as radio transmissions and undersea cables. The Kennedy administration transformed the production and regulatory structure of satellite communications infrastructure, designing it to have a global reach, managed by the Communications Satellite Corporation (Comsat). By July 1969, Intelsat provided worldwide coverage, enabling live television broadcasts of the first walk on the moon. As Slotten observes in the Conclusion: “By uncovering the complex work involved in establishing Intelsat, we gain a better appreciation of not only how infrastructure systems are not inevitable or uncontroversial but also how they involve both technical components and organizational, political, economic, and business considerations” (p. 177).

Methodologically, Slotten emphasizes archival and historical analysis from the history of science and technological systems. He draws extensively upon declassified archival sources to analyze the “complex work involved in creating technical and organization standards, including fundamental standards connected with international radio spectrum policy” (p. 5) which were applied to the first satellite communications infrastructure. Most importantly, he utilizes these “detailed archival records to examine the full range of actors involved in decision making leading to the establishment of the Intelsat global system, including mid- and low-level agency staff usually ignored by historians” (p. 15). The Notes section (which fills 45 pages, single-spaced, very small print) includes annotations and explanations that advance manifold aspects and debates beyond the thematic focus of this book. In particular, Slotten builds on Thomas Hughes’s conceptualization of networks of large-scale technological systems—the interrelation of organizational practices, political and legal institutions, and economic and business components—in analyzing satellite communications infrastructures during the Cold War.

The military as a source of research and development of satellite communications, and the shift to civilian development, is another thematic in the book. ARPA’s 1958 SCORE satellite “is considered the world’s first communications satellite because it demonstrated for the first time that a satellite could receive signals from one location on Earth and then retransmit to a second location” (p. 29). The second communication satellite, Courier 1B, also produced by the DOD, flew in October 1960 for 17 days as a prototype. They were not geosynchronous, and were low altitude, and had to be tracked as they moved across sky relative to fixed Earth observation stations. In 1960, DOD and ARPA created the program Advent which “Defense Department officials decided … had been ‘overly ambitious’ ” (p. 29) and thus was canceled in 1962. But work on the program was essential in that “Advent did establish important precedents … including helping to entrench the view that geosynchronous communications satellites were inherently superior to other designs” (p. 29). A memo in the Records of the Office of Emergency Preparedness argued that synchronous satellites would be “ultimate systems” for defense and civil requirements (p. 30).

The visual emphasis in the book is on the individuals who participated in policy negotiations and decision-making rather than on the satellites themselves. Photographs of several instruments are featured: the Intelsat 1 satellite (p. 2); the NASA Echo 1 passive satellite (p. 35 and dust jacket cover) which first relayed television across the Atlantic in 1960; and the giant horn reflector radio antenna at Bell Labs in Holmdel (p. 67), most famous for its role in the Nobel Prize-winning first detection of the cosmic microwave background radiation in the early 1960s. The giant antenna was built in 1959 to detect radio transmissions reflected by the Echo 1 satellite launched the next year. Later its antenna was adjusted to receive signals from the Telstar 1 and Telstar 2 satellites (built by Bell Labs in collaboration with NASA) which were the world’s first active communications satellites (satellites which amplify the received signal) and transmitted the first live transatlantic television broadcasts in 1962.

Slotten’s conclusion emphasizes the move from open, public use of satellites to a corporate-ownership model during the Reagan administration, which withdrew from UNESCO in 1984, protesting activities to “control media through state regulation and government censorship” (p. 186). Private satellite communications companies based on “neoliberal values and market-centered policies” during the 1980s and 1990s “sought to introduce competition by undermining state-centered control of markets,” leading to deregulation and liberalization policies in the United States (p. 186), ultimately championed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Slotten does not directly address the most recent concerns about space policy, such as the growth of private enterprise in space (e.g. Starlink’s attempt to bring affordable global access to satellite internet and personal communications); increased global space participation; or cybersecurity in space satellites. However, these topics are outside the temporal scope of this thorough, engaging account.

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 5 5 5
Full Text Views 27 27 27
PDF Views & Downloads 30 30 30