Stage 1: The science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke is often credited with inventing the idea of the geosynchronous satellite in his 1945 paper published in Wireless World magazine. But the first mention of satellite station came earlier, in 1923, with The Problem of Space Travel: The Rocket Motor by Herman Potočnik, aka Hermann Noordung. But those who were neither sci-fi fans nor rocket scientists never thought of an object orbiting the Earth until Oct. 4, 1957.
The Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 kicked off the space race and brought satellite technology, previously a high-tech niche, into headlines. If you lived in America at the time, the satellite launch also signaled the end of the world. The Washington Post headline for Oct. 7, 1957, proclaimed “Sputnik Could Be Spy-in-the Sky” In Danse Macabre, Stephen King captured that moment: He was sitting in a movie theater in Stratford, Conn., and watching Earth vs. the Flying Saucers when the movie turned off and the house lights came up. The theater manager came onstage and in a trembling voice told the audience of kids that the Soviets had been the first to launch a satellite into orbit. For the 10-year-old King, it signaled the first real terror of his life.
Quick on the heels of Sputnik, enterprising film director and producer Roger Corman released War of the Satellites (1958) to capitalize on America's growing anxiety. But true to Stage 1 in our process of technology adoption, the film starts with a thin shred of science, the mysterious destruction of an American satellite, but quickly turns into an outer-space thriller with aliens trying to keep humans from venturing into space.
Through the ’60s and ’70s, satellites moved to Stage 2. In this case, the fear that the technology would steal daughters was flavored with doomsdayism. The winner of the U.S.-Soviet battle for space supremacy, it was understood, would also determine the technological master of Earth. Americans were particularly worried their children weren’t smart enough to keep pace with the Russians. Satellites became the weapon of choice for warring counties and menacing super-villains. Plots from Superman comics (The Witch of Smallville) to James Bond movies (Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever) hinged on satellites that were poised to attack our country and destroy or way of life. No family was safe.
By the 1980s, however, it became obvious that satellites were not going to bring about the apocalypse, nor were they going to destroy our very way of life. Satellite technologies transition from Stage 2 to Stage 3 was aided by humor. The 1985 satirical comedy Real Genius, starring Val Kilmer and directed by Martha Coolidge, had satellites not destroying our families but used to pull off a college prank: using a laser from a satellite to pop enough popcorn to fill a house.
On June 17, 1994, satellite technology went mainstream. DirecTV launched its American broadcast satellite service from El Segundo, Calif. The uptake of satellite was slow initially, but with such offerings as the NFL Sunday Ticket and the NASCAR Hot Pass, rabid sports fans all over the world gain access to their favorite teams and kept them connected to home. Anyone who has been able to watch a Pittsburgh Steelers game in a city like Dubrovnik, Croatia, has experienced the magic wonder of satellite technology.
Today, firmly in Stage 4, we use satellite technology every day not only to watch TV but to make phone calls and get directions in our cars. We don’t stop and ponder the magnificent innovations that have gotten us from Sputnik to making a phone call wherever we might be. The technology that once taught horror writer Stephen King what true horror real was is now commonplace.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.