X-POSTED REVIEW: Bateman on Slotten, 'Beyond Sputnik and the Space Race: The Origins of Global Satellite Communications'

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Hugh R. Slotten
Aaron Bateman

Bateman on Slotten, 'Beyond Sputnik and the Space Race: The Origins of Global Satellite Communications'

Hugh R. Slotten. Beyond Sputnik and the Space Race: The Origins of Global Satellite Communications. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022. Illustrations. 256 pp. $55.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4214-4123-8; $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4214-4122-1.

Reviewed by Aaron Bateman (George Washington University) Published on H-War (February, 2023) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57929

The ability to rapidly transmit information to the far reaches of the world is a feature of modern society that is often taken for granted. Governments, commercial enterprises, and private citizens have become dependent on vast global telecommunications networks composed of undersea fiber optic cables, terrestrial cellular towers, and satellites in space. Though much of this infrastructure is largely invisible, any significant disruption to it could bring critical economic and national security functions to a standstill. By the late nineteenth century, Britain had emerged as the world leader in telecommunications through its dominance of an elaborate global network of undersea cables that bolstered its economic and military power. Similarly, the American monopoly over satellite communications in the early years of the space age was intimately tied to US interests in the global Cold War.

In Beyond Sputnik and the Space Race: The Origins of Global Satellite Communications, Hugh R. Slotten explores the creation in 1964 of Intelsat, a US-led satellite communications network open to all countries of the world. The advent of the space age with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 quickly transformed the cosmos into a superpower battleground for prestige through the pursuit of large-scale space projects aimed at winning the hearts and minds of people around the world. Simultaneously, space technologies catalyzed the projection of hard power. Rockets used to send astronauts and cosmonauts into space could also deliver nuclear warheads across the world. Reconnaissance satellites permitted the United States to overfly the Iron Curtain and stay abreast of Soviet military developments. Slotten compellingly shows how space exploration, national security, and international communications became closely linked in the foreign policy agenda of President John F. Kennedy, thereby creating the impetus to form Intelsat.

Slotten embraces the social construction of the technology framework to explain the choices that led to the establishment of Intelsat in 1964. To this end, he frames Intelsat as a global infrastructure project driven by the US aim to assert its geopolitical leadership. Slotten is intentional with his use of the term “global,” rather than “international,” because Kennedy sought to establish a satellite communications system with the potential to benefit all countries, especially those in the Global South. Consequently, the study of Intelsat’s formation underscores the significance of North-South as well as East-West tensions during the Cold War. Kennedy’s goal of a truly global system turned out to be only aspirational in the early years of Intelsat since negotiations concerning its establishment were dominated by the United States and Western European countries.

Exploring the history of Intelsat highlights the singular importance of an invisible resource on which all communications systems depend: the electromagnetic spectrum. To create a global satellite communications network, the US government had to persuade the users of the congested electromagnetic spectrum, many of whom would not have their own space capabilities, to set aside frequencies tied to proven and accessible communications technologies. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations agency that coordinates use of radio frequency, maintains a policy of one country, one vote, meaning that the United States needed to form a voting bloc of multiple countries to garner support for agreements most favorable to its interests. In this environment, American officials had to convince countries in the Global South that they too would benefit from US space technologies.

In his analysis of 1960s-era US policy debates on satellite communications, Slotten reveals the inseparability of international and domestic policy issues. Many legislators believed communications satellites to be a “radical innovation” that held the potential to strengthen US economic ties with developing states. By replacing international cable infrastructure, a “global satellite communications system would potentially shift global economic patterns from Europe to the United States” (p. 77). Domestic policy regulating communications satellites therefore had global implications. As strategic resources, communications satellites were too important to be left solely in the hands of industry. Ceding satellite communications to industry would have also played into Soviet propaganda about corporations making investment decisions in the Global South based on profitability alone. Consequently, in 1962 Congress passed the Satellite Act that created the Communications Satellite Corporation (Comsat), a government-regulated corporation jointly owned by major communications firms, to lead the development of a global satellite communications system.

International negotiations over the establishment of Intelsat soon revealed that the aspiration for a truly global system would not entail equal treatment of all countries. Slotten points out that the global ideal of Intelsat clashed with regional considerations. Comsat, representing US interests, needed the support of industrialized states, especially in Western Europe, to transform the concept of a global satellite communications network into a reality. Including former European colonies in the discussion to form Intelsat could have created difficulties in cultivating French and British support for the US satellite communications agenda. These political sensitivities aside, the US message that Intelsat would allow global communications to flow freely attracted “countries wanting to break free from colonial relationships” (p. 181). The United States had to therefore balance the divergent interests of newly independent states and its Western European allies.

Beyond exploring political, economic, and strategic factors that converged to form a global satellite communications infrastructure, Slotten’s work has important implications for the study of space history. There is growing momentum in favor of global histories of the space age that transcend the predominantly bipolar superpower narrative that overwhelmingly defines Cold War historiography. Most certainly, the United States and the Soviet Union must remain significant parts of any investigation of twentieth-century spaceflight. Slotten nevertheless shows that multilateral forums like the ITU gave non-superpower states influence over the formulation of agreements on substantial space policy issues, such as the allocation of radio frequency spectrum. When the perspective on satellite communications is shifted from the developers and operators to the users, the pool of participants in the Cold War space arena greatly expands. Since countries around the world purchased Intelsat terminals, there is even greater work to be done in exploring the regional and local effects of space infrastructure. Slotten’s work, moreover, contributes to space histories that detail the terrestrial effects of space technologies.

Beyond Sputnik is a valuable work that will be of great interest to historians of technology, diplomatic historians, and scholars of the Cold War. Slotten’s detailed analysis of political maneuvering at the ITU over the allocation of radio frequency spectrum has relevance for anyone concerned with the nexus of telecommunications and international affairs. Furthermore, investigating the impact of satellite communications on undersea cables in the 1960s takes on even greater significance as policy experts consider the implications of fiber optic cable expansion and the growth of space-based internet services.

Citation: Aaron Bateman. Review of Slotten, Hugh R., Beyond Sputnik and the Space Race: The Origins of Global Satellite Communications. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57929

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.