It’s a reasonable assumption that humans have been looking skyward since they first were aware of their place on this planet.
Given our fascination with all things celestial, it’s no wonder that several of my friends got pretty excited when in early September so-called satellite trains owned by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company were visible at certain times over Northeast Arkansas.
I didn’t go outside on any of those nights, fearing the same result as one of the members of our group who apparently was underwhelmed by the satellite train but overwhelmed by something else in the night air.
“I saw a few blinking lights and a thousand mosquitoes,” he reported.
But one of our group, viewing the satellite string from Lake Norfork, proclaimed his view sans city lights or city skeeters, a very interesting sight.
I expect my citybound friend underestimated the numbers of the man-made flying objects and the natural six-legged ones in his brief foray outside to view the SpaceX SpaceLink.
Long before man had the capability to build and launch objects into what is called “low earth orbit,” humans not only wondered what those bright spots way up in the sky are and how, if indeed they did, move around in the night sky. They developed theories, some considered heretical at the time, about the vast unknown above them. Several centuries post-heresy, when we earthlings had a better understanding of how that whole space thing works, humans still hold a fascination with space.
Foretelling the day when space travel would be possible and space would be considered a platform from which to fight wars, the two superpowers — the Soviet Union and the United States — engaged in the “space race.” No doubt stung by the Russians sending the first man to the man and other victories in the race, President John Kennedy declared the U.S. would put a man on the moon before the Soviets did so. We all know what Neil Armstrong said when he stepped onto the surface of the moon. Who could disagree that the landing and walk on the moon represented a giant leap for mankind?
That of course, didn’t mark the end of the space race; perhaps if anything, it accelerated it. Nor did reaching the moon end earthlings’ fascination with things in the sky. It seems to make no difference whether we’re talking about the constellations, the other planets in our solar system or strings of satellites in low earth orbit, we can’t help thinking about it.
You will remember how much controversy President Ronald Reagan stirred up when he proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative. The heart of that proposal was a plan to develop a space-based missile defense system that could protect the U.S. from a large-scale nuclear attack. Critics called it the “Star Wars” proposal but even that nickname indicated Americans’ fascination with space.
The system, considered technologically impossible by some critics, was never developed. Supporters of the plan gave it some credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, though others think Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech at the Berlin wall in 1987 was a more significant factor.
Though the SDI initiative to place high-intensity lasers and particle beams to defend us was formally scrapped by President Bill Clinton in 1993, the concept that the ability to operate freely in space persists. In the defense bill Congress passed in 2019 under President Donald Trump, the U.S. Space Force was created, the first new branch of the military since 1947. The Department of Defense correctly notes that our land-based military is more effective and precise because of space technology and everything from cell phone usage to enabling global financial transactions to weather forecasting is dependent on space technology. It follows, DOD maintains, that keeping control of space is in our best interest from an economic and a national security standpoint.
So what about Mr. Musk’s private satellites, the ones my friends hustled out to see last month when the devices were visible only for a very few minutes as they streaked across the night sky? Musk refused to allow Ukraine to use SpaceX’s Starlink satellite communications to launch a surprise drone submarine attack on Russian forces in Crimea in September. Musk refused over concerns that Russia would launch a nuclear attack in response, telling a writer that he was trying to avoid a “mini-Pearl Harbor.” Those headlines overshadow the satellites’ use to provide broadband internet, telehealth and other services to otherwise isolated areas.
As far as their visibility, there are nearly 5,000 Space Link satellites orbiting some 342 miles above Earth. They are more visible when first launched than when they reach their full orbit. That was the case last month, when my friends went rushing outside. One was given to remark on our group text, “It would be scary if you didn’t know those are satellites.”
Not to worry. I’m sure our government would tell us we were under attack if that were the case.
They would, wouldn’t they?
Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.