Did we like it?
An interesting, if somewhat dry look at the increasingly all-pervading influence that satellites have had on our lives since Sputnik(or the Red Moon as the tabloids initially christened it) was launched 50 years ago. The Good (early warning of severe weather and GPS), the Bad (conversely, we’re so reliant on certain satellites, that if they get damaged, we will be in big trouble) and the Ugly (the sheer number of hopeless satellite TV channels – ITV3, anyone?) showed how satellites affect all of us, every day.
What was good about it?
• The massive blow to America’s standing as the most technologically advanced nation (and its collective ego) when the Russians beat them to the punch and launched Sputnik months ahead of the US’s first satellite. America rushed to get their equivalent launched, with disastrous results. The rocket carrying ‘Flopnik’ burst into flames on the launchpad and severely set back the American space programme.
• Telstar – which looked like a Mechanoid from Doctor Who – enabled direct telephone and TV contact beween the US and Europe, and also inspired the classic Joe Meek produced single by the Tornadoes. Its initial broadcast nearly caused a diplomatic incident as the French decided to hijack the launch and beamed back Yves Montand crooning Gallic love songs to American TVs. The following year we saw its global effect as JFK’s funeral was broadcast live to the world.
Because of their erratic orbits, satellites like Telstar could only be used for a few hours a day. Enter Geo-stationary satellites, which stay in the same orbit above the same point of the earth enabling 24 hour, 365 day use.
• The superb and strangely beautiful photographs of other galaxies that the Hubble Space Telescope can bring us. Though a bit of DIY was needed because the edge of the original mirror was manufactured 2 microns flatter than it should have been (that’s a 20th of the thickness of a human hair) resulting in blurry photographs. Shoddy workmanship, eh?
• The development of satnav – ensuring we need never get lost again. (as long as your satnav provider’s maps are up to scratch)
What was bad about it?
• Cool and iconic it may be, but if the shot of Sputnik emerging from its rocket housing was used once, it was used 5 or 6 times. And there were a number of other clips whose impact was lessened by multiple uses. Had the filmmakers run out of money?
• The amateur astronomers whose monitoring of spy satellites and Hubble were streets ahead of their semi-professional counterparts were unfortunate stereotypical nerds – right down to their flat, monotone voices.
• Poor old Michael Fish. Once again, the clip of him promising that no hurricane was about to hit England the night before Sevenoaks was reduced to Two-oaks was wheeled out. You didn’t need billion pound satellite monitoring equipment to predict that he was going to make an appearance.
• The doom laden ending that made the point that if a satellite gets hit by something and is reduced to debris, that debris in turn poses a greater risk of collision to other satellites, and so on and so on. With the exponential effect that our lives as we know them will be reduced to chaos.