Down to Earth: Satellite Technologies, Industries, and Cultures. Edited by Lisa Parks and James Schwoch. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012. Paperback. Acknowledgments, illustrations, index. ISBN: 978-0-8135-5274-3, 320 pages, $29.95 USD.
The back cover of Down to Earth claims that the book “opens up a new space for global media studies.” That is most certainly an overstatement, but regardless this is an interesting and useful collection of essays on a variety of subjects relating to the use of satellite technology in the era since the 1970s. As in the case of almost all collected works this one is a hodge-podge of essays reflecting both the interests and the skills of their individual authors. They also reflect a series of different academic disciplines and a strikingly eclectic set of topics. One would be hard pressed to find a way to use this book in a class on any subject; the unifying theme of satellites is so broad and the essays so divergent that only the most innovative instructor will be able to unify more than a handful of them for classroom use.
Having said that, some essays stand out in this collection. I will mention three of them. I was taken by the essay by Christy Collis relating to the legal regime controlling geostationary orbit, the most important location for communication satellites in space. The process of creating an international system for allocating slots, enforcing standards of operations, assigning frequencies, and the like is a fascinating trade space of ideals, politics, and priorities. As a geographer, Collis’s observations have a decidedly welcome spatial dimension. Rick W. Sturdevant’s essay on the history of the NAVSTAR Global Positioning System is, likewise, a welcome addition to the literature about GPS, one of the most transformative technologies of the space age.
Lisa Parks’s excellent essay on the loss of two nuclear powered satellites, Cosmos 954 and USA 193, points up the dangers inherent in this technology when it goes wrong. Quite a lot is known about the first failure, and very little about the latter. On January 24, 1978, the Soviet Cosmos 954 re-entered the atmosphere, spreading thousands of pieces of radioactive debris over more than 100,000 square kilometers of northwest Canada. A few of the recovered fragments showed a high degree of radioactivity. These reports prompted U.S. President Jimmy Carter, himself a nuclear engineer, to propose a moratorium on the use of nuclear power for spaceflight. A permanent ban, of course, did not take place, but what did result was a more strict control regime that emerged in the aftermath of the accident, recompense for the government of Canada and its citizens, and delay of more than a decade in the launch of nuclear power systems on U.S. space probes, and then exclusively for outer planetary missions. The USA 193 was a national security satellite that failed after its 2006 launch. Reacting to the “illumination” of an American satellite by a Chinese anti-satellite weapon, the national security apparatus made a demonstration of its own anti-satellite capability to destroy USA 193 before it entered the atmosphere, sending clear message of American resolve and capability to the Chinese. As Parks makes clear, these failures, and others of a less serious nature, serve to degrade the environment, cost enormous sums of money, and create international and transnational crises.
There are other worthwhile essays in this volume, but many of them are quite narrow in focus. These include investigations of satellite capabilities deployed regionally to advance communication and other modern technologies in various places around the globe. There are also theoretically focused essays that might serve as brain candy but their ideas are not systematically applied across the range of essays published here and are in some instances less than effectively deployed in the essays where they are discussed.
Regardless, this is an interesting first entrée of several serious explorations of the place of satellites in the modern world. It promises not to be the last.