“Big Brother is Watching You.” — George Orwell, 1984
Decades ago the famous British science fiction author Arthur C Clarke became one of the first men to envision what satellites would one day become. In a magazine article from 1945, he described how devices would inevitably be placed in geostationary orbit in an effort to better relay signals around the world. Sure enough, those high tech space age telecommunication satellites came to exist and now they rotate at the same rate as the Earth due to their proximity to the planet, just as he had predicted in Wireless World all those years ago.
Really it all started on October 4th in 1957 when the former Soviet Union launched the world’s very first artificial satellite into space. It was known as Sputnik 1 and it made headline news across the globe, ushering in a whole new era of technology. Sputnik 1 was only about a 185-pound test payload with a radio beacon and a thermometer attached to it, but the object changed the course of history.
The applications for this kind of technology are seemingly endless, including things like weather forecasting, international calls and texts, navigation, and even military reconnaissance. The logic behind it is simple enough. The basic idea is that a man-made object can be sent into space and oriented parallel to the planet in such a way that the velocity of the satellite is sufficient enough to overcome the force of gravity. That is to say, the pull of the planet’s mass is canceled out by the curvature of the Earth away from the spacecraft. Thus a satellite perpetually falls around the world rather than toward it.
As such satellites have to be propelled at very high speeds to overcome the gravitational pull of the Earth and make it into orbit. Then once a satellite is released from a launch rocket, small boosters on the device itself are used to adjust the positioning. Since there is no atmosphere the orbiter is able to maintain speed on a more or less constant course with only occasional adjustments needing to be made for it to stay on the charted path.
The thing is that it currently cost tens of thousands of dollars a pound just to get an object into space, so a 1-ton satellite costs a small fortune to build and deploy. On top of that achieving speeds of 17,500 miles per hour can be very dangerous. Plus to get a satellite all the way out into geostationary orbit it has to be flown 22,000 miles away. There is so much at stake and so many things that could go wrong with each and every launch of a new satellite. After all, there is a whole lot of space junk floating around out there that can be incredibly hazardous.
Of course, once American spy planes were shot down over the USSR and Cuba it became necessary to do surveillance from orbit. However, taking pictures from space proved to be far more difficult than anyone had ever imagined. Although on February 28th of 1959 during the Discoverer 1 launch, the CIA did successfully send up Corona which was a spy mission satellite that was put on a very low elliptical orbit on a polar path around the world at a height of only a couple hundred miles above the Earth.
The problem with this was that there were two weeks of lag time from the moment a picture was taken of a pertinent image and the point in time when a CIA analyst could actually look at a finished photo of it. This was really no improvement over the U-2 spy plane images of the time. In fact the resolution was actually much worse, however, pilots lives were no longer in jeopardy. So although there was a long way to go to make it work, the long-term success of the space reconnaissance program was absolutely vital to national security and the safety of our soldiers.
In August of 1960, the United States government established the National Reconnaissance Office to set up space surveillance networks to keep an eye on the Soviet Union, China, Lybia, and any other potential threats. By 1962 they started a project code-named Keyhole (Kh-11) and in no time at all the development process of sensitive photographs had gone down from two weeks to three days. Although, they were still using film that was dropped off in canisters and recovered by military planes because radio transmission of images was just beyond reach.
Nonetheless, by the 1970s President Carter was able to see next day images of important world events, once the first near-real-time images were sent to NRO processing centers beginning with Fort Belvoir in Virginia. This changed America’s ability to respond to situations of national concern in a more timely fashion. Kh-11 had reduced the lag from a matter of days to that of minutes and top-secret documents became incredibly time-sensitive pieces of information.
This is very important because throughout the years cameras have become far more sophisticated. With the most advanced satellite imaging equipment that is currently available one can readily distinguish a basketball from a soccer ball from hundreds of miles away. As you read this, new photographs are being taken by NASA and China and so many other groups, including corporations and terrorist cells alike. For better or worse, this allows intelligence agencies like the FBI and NSA to see so much of what goes on in the world today.
So, I ask you, is it 2018 or actually 1984 that we’re now living in?!?!?