Satellites: When Innovation Is Invisible
Why satellites may be the most underappreciated technology in American life
The United States, 1957.
White picket fences. Kids playing in the yard. America’s post-war glory days.
That’s the story we often tell ourselves.
The reality? This America is scared out of its mind.
Because halfway around the world sits the Soviet Union.
America’s enemy? To be sure. America’s equal? Hardly.
After all, there’s no way the USSR could compete with the know-how of the United States of America.
That was the theory, anyway. Until October fourth — when the Russians did something no one had ever done before: put a satellite into outer space.
All of a sudden, it seemed like we were living in a new world — and it belonged to the Soviets.
That was half-right.
The Soviets didn’t end up changing the world. But the satellites did.
When the history of our era is written, there will be a long list of candidates for the most transformative technology: the internet, the Large Hadron Collider, Crocs.
Look, not every breakthrough is a good breakthrough.
But there’s one technology that never seems to quite get its due: satellites.
Now there’s a pretty good reason for that, which is that most of us never actually see satellites. And, if we do, we instantly report them as UFO sightings.
Please stop doing this.
But because they’re out of sight, satellites are usually also out of mind — which is a shame, because they may be the most important technology that most of us never think about.
Now, it hasn’t always been that way. For all the commotion it caused back in 1957, Sputnik didn’t quite live up to the hype. Yes, it was a major feat of engineering — but also … all it really did was beep.i The Russians basically put a malfunctioning smoke alarm into space.
But after that? We were off to the races.
By 1959, an American satellite sent back the first picture of Earth via satellite.ii Though, gotta be honest, not sure they took the lens cap off.
By 1960, NASA had its first weather satellite in space.iii By 1962, there was a communications satellite relaying television signals across the Atlantic Ocean.iv By 1968, the first satellite navigation system was operational. v
And as the decades passed, satellites became so deeply woven into the way we live that it’s become easy to ignore how much they shape our daily lives.
Got to your destination thanks to GPS? Satellites.
Weather forecast kept you from getting caught in a blizzard? Satellites.vi
Your credit card was instantly authorized? Satellites.vii
Your credit card was instantly declined? Satellites, but also no one needs that many Faberge eggs anyway.
But even that list undersells the benefits a little. It’s not just that satellites make our life more convenient. They actually make the world a better place.
Satellite technology now allows us to map greenhouse gas emissions around the world , revealing that some countries are emitting far more than they claim.viii That same technology also allows us to detect leaks in natural gas pipelines from space.ix Satellites are even being used to track the movements of elephants in Africa, surveillance that could help protect them from poachers.x
One other accomplishment satellites don’t often get credit for? Helping us pinpoint America’s enemies.
When the U.S. government located Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, they were able to review archival satellite images to find photos of the house under construction — and use those images to create a full-size replica for Navy SEALs to practice their raid.xi
That’s because satellites are now photographing virtually every inch of the Earth with regularity: everything from the Bin Laden compound to the hot pink Barbie dreamhouse in Malibu — which, tragically, will someday also probably be raided by Navy SEALS.
But here’s the thing: For all the ways that satellites have changed our lives already … we’re probably just getting started. Because while 16,000 satellites have been launched since Sputnik in 1957, nearly 2,500 of those launches were in 2022 alone.xii
What’s behind this explosive growth? For one, a massive reduction in the cost of launching satellites, powered by innovations like reusable rockets and 3D-printed components. Over the last few decades, the cost of launching one kilogram to low Earth orbit has fallen from $65,000 to just $1,500.xiii
But while that future seems promising … it’s also got its complications.
For one thing, it’s getting a little crowded in space. In addition to the 8,000 active satellites that are in space, there are 3,000 inactive ones,xiv along with a whopping 8,000 metric tons of debrisxv — all of which increases the chance of a collision. And the consequences wouldn’t just be felt in outer space. Everything from banking to the electrical grid to communications between first responders relies in large measure on satellites.xvi
There are also concerns that as more of these satellites fill the skies, it’ll make it harder for astronomers to make accurate observations.xvii And the potential problems also extend to when they come down. When the first generation of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites begin to deorbit, the atmosphere could see as much as 2.2 tons of satellite debris per day. Don’t worry, it’s not going to fall on your house. But it is going to burn up in the atmosphere — and we don’t yet know what effect all that burning aluminum could have on the environment.xviii
But despite all those complications, it's almost certain that satellites are going to continue changing our world for the better.
Amazon plans to use satellites to provide reliable internet access to hundreds of millions around the people who don’t have it.xix NASA is using satellites to help farmers more effectively use fertilizer and water.xx And government agencies are now working on satellite technology that could detect wildfires virtually in real time , allowing them to be contained before they grow out of control.xxi
All in all, it’s a pretty good reminder that we live in amazing times. And satellites are a big reason why.
I mean, not as big as Crocs … but still pretty good!
- The Legacy of Sputnik — New York Times
- 60 Years Ago First Satellite Image of Earth — NASA Kennedy Space Center
- TIROS, the Nation’s First Weather Satellite — NASA
- An Early History of Satellites Timeline — Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory
- A Brief History of GPS — Aerospace Corporation
- Using Satellites for Forecasting — National Weather Service
- "How Will the Space Economy Change the World?" (Ryan Brukardt) — McKinsey & Company
- "Satellite Tracking Is Helping Scientists Pinpoint the Worst Emissions Offenders" (Charlotte Edmond) — World Economic Forum
- "Using Very-High-Resolution Satellite Imagery and Deep Learning To Detect and Count African Elephants in Heterogeneous Landscapes" (Isla Duporge, et al.) — Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation
- "A Spy Agency’s Challenge: How To Sort a Million Photos a Day" (Greg Myre) — National Public Radio (NPR)
- Online Index of Objects Launched Into Outer Space — United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs
- "Space Launch: Are We Heading For Oversupply or a Shortfall?" (Chris Daehnick, John Gang, and Ilan Rozenkopf) — McKinsey & Company
- SATCAT Boxscore — CelesTrak
- Cantwell, Hickenlooper, Lummis, Wicker, Introduce Bill To Thin Out the 900,000 Pieces of Orbiting Junk That Endanger the Future of Space Exploration — U.S. Senate Commerce Committee
- ‘Life No Longer as We Know It’: War in Space Would Have Devastating Effects, Military Experts Say — The Guardian
- "Amazon Satellites Add to Astronomers’ Worries About the Night Sky" (Becky Ferreira) — New York Times
- "Air Pollution From Reentering Megaconstellation Satellites Could Cause Ozone Hole 2.0" (Tereza Pultarova) — SPACE.com
- Project Kuiper — Amazon
- "From Seed to Market: NASA Brings Food to the Table" (Jessica Evans) — NASA
- "How Better Tech Could Save Lives in a World of Bigger, Faster, More Devastating Fires" (Christopher Mims) — Wall Street Journal
Sound | “Bubble Gum Rain Drops” Doo Dah Music // Artlist: "Black Hole" Stephen Keech, "Burning Night" Cosmonkey, "Royal Games" Captain Qubz, "Goals" Rex Banner, SFX Library // Freesound: SpliceSound // Splice SFX Library
Footage | BBC // CNET // The New York Times // The New York Post // The Wall Street Journal // Space.com // Airbnb // Amazon: Project Kuiper, Crocs // U.S. Department of Defense // NASA: Kennedy Space Station, Visible Earth, National Museum of the U.S. Navy, Global Modeling and Assimilation Office, Johnson Space Center // ESA: Copernicus Sentinel // Government of South Australia // Indian Space Research Organization // NOAJ: Subaru Telescope // Oklahoma University: GeoCarb // Newspapers: Fort Lauderdale News (1958), The Herald-Palladium (1958), Portland Press Herald (1959), The Item from Sumter (1959), Messenger-Inquirer (1959), The Newport Daily Express (1959), The Boston Globe (1960), The Sheboygan Press (1960), The Bridgeport Post (1960), The Warren County Observer (1962), Tri-City Herald (1968), The Times Tribune (1968), The Orlando Sentinel (1957), Bristol Herald Courier (1957), The Buffalo News (1957), The Post-Crescent (1957) // Planet.com // Getty: Steamaze, Tunart, Roberto Machado Noa, Debrocke/ClassicStock / Contributor, H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock / Contributor, Camerique/ClassicStock / Contributor, AlxBaev, Sherman Grinberg Library, FotoSoyuz / Contributor, Camerique / Contributor, Photo 12 / Contributor, FPG / Staff, PhonlamaiPhoto, DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d / Contributor, Spencer Platt / Staff, Pavel_Chag, Redshift-Blueshift, Planet Observer / Contributor, Gallo Images / Contributor, Xinhua News Agency / Contributor, Mario Marco, WHPics, Clovercity, Gregg DeGuire / Contributor, RB/Bauer-Griffin / Contributor, MEGA / Contributor, MustafaU, Phaitoons, Anadolu Agency / Contributor, Bernt Ove Moss, Martin Deja, Toxxsav, Gerenme, Jorg Greuel, Simonkr, Discovery Access, Treedeo, SimonSkafar, PeopleImages, M Stock, Selincevizli, Guy113, TheMediaSuitcase, DeoTree, Stockshare, Prasert Krainukul, Robert Kirk, Chris Pritchard, Sony Pictures Entertainment, TaiThan, Caspar Benson, Getty Images / Stringer, Crbellette, Gotham / Contributor, Janiecbros, John Moore / Staff, Picture Alliance / Contributor // Adobe Stock: Phonlamaiphoto, Rtype, Adidesigner23, Fukume // Flickr: Sajjad Ali Qureshi, Antti Lipponen, Alpinethread // Pond5: Avgeeks, DogPhonics // Storyblocks: Zuxela, Dabarticgi, A Luna Blue, Remotevfx, Amazing Aerial, GraphicAnimation, Brohovska_mary, Johnathan001, Mustafa_alabri, Berkerdag, Btstock_Video, Dan Jesperson, Pressmaster Production Studio, StockVideo EU, Genty, S_WorX, Motionblock, AlpakaVideo, Catsense, RichardjJones // Unsplash: Manuel Will, Ricky Lie, Anders J // Vecteezy: Timplaru Emil // YouTube: B.A.E, Motion Nations // Pink Sherbert Photography // SimonWaldherr // Skyeyemx // Thomson200 // Vieamusante // ActionVFX // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.
- New York Times
The Legacy of Sputnik
- NASA Kennedy Space Center
60 Years Ago First Satellite Image of Earth
TIROS, the Nation’s First Weather Satellite
- Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory
An Early History of Satellites Timeline
- Aerospace Corporation
A Brief History of GPS
- National Weather Service
Using Satellites for Forecasting
- McKinsey & Company
"How Will the Space Economy Change the World?" (Ryan Brukardt)
- World Economic Forum
"Satellite Tracking Is Helping Scientists Pinpoint the Worst Emissions Offenders" (Charlotte Edmond)
- Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation
"Using Very-High-Resolution Satellite Imagery and Deep Learning To Detect and Count African Elephants in Heterogeneous Landscapes" (Isla Duporge, et al.)
- National Public Radio (NPR)
"A Spy Agency’s Challenge: How To Sort a Million Photos a Day" (Greg Myre)
- United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs
Online Index of Objects Launched Into Outer Space
- McKinsey & Company
"Space Launch: Are We Heading For Oversupply or a Shortfall?" (Chris Daehnick, John Gang, and Ilan Rozenkopf)
- U.S. Senate Commerce Committee
Cantwell, Hickenlooper, Lummis, Wicker, Introduce Bill To Thin Out the 900,000 Pieces of Orbiting Junk That Endanger the Future of Space Exploration
- The Guardian
‘Life No Longer as We Know It’: War in Space Would Have Devastating Effects, Military Experts Say
- New York Times
"Amazon Satellites Add to Astronomers’ Worries About the Night Sky" (Becky Ferreira)
"Air Pollution From Reentering Megaconstellation Satellites Could Cause Ozone Hole 2.0" (Tereza Pultarova)
"From Seed to Market: NASA Brings Food to the Table"(Jessica Evans)
- Wall Street Journal
"How Better Tech Could Save Lives in a World of Bigger, Faster, More Devastating Fires" (Christopher Mims)
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “Six Ways Satellites Make the World a Better Place” (The Conversation)
- “The Road to Modern Weather Satellites” (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
- “The Night Sky Will Never Be the Same” (The Atlantic)
- “With Drones and Satellites, U.S. Zeroed in on Bin Laden” (Wired)
- “How Will the Space Economy Change the World?” (McKinsey & Company)
- “How Better Tech Could Combat More Devastating Fires” (Wall Street Journal)