November 1957, Russian scientists managed to lob a 180-pound metal sphere called Sputnik 1 into orbit around the earth. Its purpose was simple and remarkably low-tech: scare the hell out of Americans by broadcasting a signal that could be heard via radio every 90 minutes. There was no military or commercial application for Sputnik, it was a blatant act of Cold War propaganda and it was a smashing success. A year later, NASA managed to put a satellite called Vanguard 1 into orbit and the race for space was on.
Oddly, none of the contestants stopped to consider that, while the subjugation of the last frontier was financed through traditional methods of raping and pillaging, the "final frontier" has no Martians to enslave and no natural resources to consume. Thus, the race became a macho game to see who could "get it up" the highest and keep it up the longest.
Fast forward 42 years. It's a new century and the space race, like the cold war, is officially being won by capitalism not the noble ideas of Communism or Democracy just good old fashioned wireless-communication networks and satellite TV. But it seems that even the capitalists are having their problems taming the final frontier.
Case in point: Iridium World Communications Ltd. recently set a new world record for the costliest corporate fiasco of all time (approximately $7 billion) when its ambitious plan to create a worldwide satellite telephone network fell into bankruptcy.
The Motorola-owned company will now systematically steer into the atmosphere each of the 66 low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites it spent billions to develop and deploy. Iridium's failure is due, in part, to the success of land-based wireless networks, and the fact that the accompanying phone was only slightly lighter than a bowling ball and cost $3,000.
Ironically, on the other side of the astral playing field, it appears that the Russians have also hopped aboard the Starship Capitalism. After Russia's space agency stranded a cosmonaut on Mir for six months because it couldn't afford to bring him back, Moscow decided that the $250 million it spends annually to maintain Mir is wasted money. Since then, Kremlin officials have been concocting alternative ways to finance and maintenance the world's largest piece of space trash, lest they be forced to follow Motorola's lead and crash it into the planet.
Recent plans for the former pride of the Soviet Union include turning it into a vacation spot for high-paying tourists, and renting it out to film companies who want to shoot their space movies on location. But, in light of its astronomical price tag, no one's buying.
Sputnik 1 fell back to the earth six months after it was launched, but Vanguard 1 still makes its daily pass around the planet. Though, it's now about as useful as a VW Bug made in the same year and even more noteworthy, it's not alone.
Of approximately 2,400 man-made satellites that have been launched since 1957, more than 2,000 of them are now obsolete or abandoned and, according to the US National Space Command, there are 20 pieces of useless debris in orbit for every operational satellite.
It's true. Four decades of intense space colonization have created a massive armada of junk that now spins around our planet like high-tech ice cubes trapped in a cosmic frozen daiquiri.
NSC currently tracks more than 10,000 "identifiable objects" including spent rockets, fuel canisters, and large trashcans intentionally jettisoned by shuttle crews. Estimates for orbital debris are actually around 35-million if you count "unidentifiable objects" such as paint chips, bolts, and foil shards that all move twelve-times faster than a bullet, and are each capable of killing an astronaut who is out for an afternoon space walk. To prevent costly and even lethal collisions, NSC officials must navigate the shuttle through this flying minefield, maintaining a five-mile safety envelope around it at all times.
If the thought that Motorola and Russia plan to systematically rain satellites and space stations on our planet gives you cause for alarm, don't worry. According to NASA, everythings under control. The units will likely burn up on re-entry and whatever is left will splash down in a colorful billion-dollar fireworks show over the ocean.
NASA was not so full of assurances in 1998, however, when they called the Chilean government in a semi-panic to inform them that one of their orbiters, with a nuclear fuel core no less, was going to fall "somewhere" over their country "sometime" in the next 48 hours. Luckily for the Chileans, NASA's calculations were off and the unit disappeared into the aquatic bowels of the Pacific. NASA's response was something on the order of "sorry, that stuff happens."
Of course, NASA would like nothing better than for Russia to dump its 13-year-old planetary RV into the sea so that it can concentrate on helping develop the "new improved" International Space Station.
Now, a sensible person might look at this situation and be inclined to ask: why pour billions of dollars into developing a space station when: A) the other space station already in orbit is about to be discarded because it has little viable use beyond that of a movie set; and B) the billions of dollars could be better spent developing things like alternative fuel sources that would be commercially viable and improve life for all of the planet's inhabitants?
Somehow, I bet George Lucas is behind this. After all, in another couple of decades he'll probably need a defunct space station to use for Star Wars 9, and he'll likely be one of the few institutions with a sufficient budget to capitalize on it.
So far, it appears that the only useful thing to come from space is just that, space. Or rather, to use the Department of Defense term, strategic space. Which roughly translated means: a good place to put floating surveillance cameras and media transmission devices.
Really, there is little else "out there." Unless you're an X-Files fan, in which case "the truth" is out there, but everyone knows that truth is hard to sell.
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