Astronomers were worried. A brand-new satellite communications system had reached orbit, exponentially increasing the total number of artificial satellites overnight. The system’s designers hoped for a technological windfall, but many astronomers around the world saw the project as an existential threat. They exchanged anxious messages with each other, running simulations and calculating potential outcomes. They took to mainstream presses to drum up support for their protest, with some predicting that the new satellite system could eventually lead to the wholesale demise of astronomy.
Eventually organizations including the International Astronomical Union, the American Astronomical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society released declarations calling for scientific consultation preceding the launch of any potentially harmful space project. Many onlookers agreed that the new satellites could cause irrevocable harm to astronomy and to the night sky itself. Others dismissed the astronomers’ concerns as handwringing by hopelessly old-fashioned, needlessly noisy troublemakers standing in the way of much-needed innovation.
This story should sound familiar to anyone following the ongoing saga of Starlink, the controversial SpaceX satellite constellation whose first components launched on May 23 of this year. It also might sound similar to recent controversies about the Humanity Star and Orbital Reflector satellites. But the events I described above originally unfolded in 1961, with an experimental satellite program known as Project West Ford, designed at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, through which the U.S. Air Force deployed hundreds of millions of tiny copper filaments into orbit. These filaments served as reflectors that could bounce microwave signals from one point on the ground to another—a useful communications tool should war break out with the Soviet Union. West Ford launched twice, deploying unsuccessfully in 1961 and then, successfully, in 1963.
West Ford and Starlink have many things in common, including their experimental nature, their communications applications and the public conflict they inspired. Then, as now, the promise of technological innovation clashed with inherent unknowns, compounded by the unparalleled difficulty of fixing any problems that might arise in orbit.
Astronomers have long battled the dual scourges of urbanization and industrialization, even as the fight to preserve a clear view of the cosmos has led to controversies over observatory siting. The launch of the first shiny space objects accelerated this fight.
Those who spoke out against West Ford were less concerned about the effects of the test program, which deployed a single, temporary, diffuse belt of copper filaments into a polar orbit 3,500 kilometers above the Earth, than they were about what might come after. Should a permanent, fully functioning system ever be launched, with other nations following suit by building their own belts, astronomers feared that the effects could be catastrophic.
Imagine multiple rings of copper encircling the Earth, bouncing radio signals hither and yon, creating artificial noise and what would amount to an artificial Milky Way marring sensitive observations. Proponents of space-based astronomy anticipated (correctly) that placing observatories above the atmosphere would open entirely new parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to study, but a field of copper in orbit might effectively extend the obstructing effects of the atmosphere even higher, as well as pose collision hazards to future space telescopes.
With both ground-based astronomy and the potential revolution of space-based astronomy seemingly at risk, astronomers vocally fought what they called the “dangerous precedent” they believed West Ford set.
Luckily, the experimental filament belt posed no threat to astronomy in light of its diffuseness and short orbital lifetime, and no denser, fully operational system ever came about. Active satellites like those that make up Starlink became the common form for communications satellites. No copper curtains encircle the planet. Both ground-based and space-based observations endure, even as satellites periodically block the view.
However, astronomers’ current complaints should not be dismissed simply because they’ve been heard before, nor because their past existential concerns went unrealized. In the intervening half century since West Ford, the stakes of the battle for dark skies have changed dramatically, as the literal and figurative landscape of Earth orbit transformed.
When West Ford first flew in 1961, only a few dozen satellites circled the globe. Following the launch of an initial set of 60 Starlink satellites in late May, that number grew to well over 3000—a figure which does not include nonfunctioning debris such as dead satellites. The ascendance of the private space industry has meant both the rapid growth of the satellite infrastructure—with Elon Musk boasting that SpaceX satellites might soon vastly outnumber all other spacecraft in orbit—and a shift in who has the power to shape the orbital landscape.
In the early decades of the American space program, experimental space projects came about with bureaucratic oversight typical of taxpayer-funded industry. West Ford’s designers consulted with astronomers before, during and after the 1961 and 1963 launches. After not adequately heeding astronomers’ warnings before the 1961 launch, which inspired the public dispute, managers changed some attributes of the project in response to astronomers’ feedback. Astronomers around the world were invited to observe the filament belt and report any effects on observations. Many felt confident that West Ford’s designers had adequately addressed their concerns by the time of the second launch. Astronomers and satellite industry leaders can, in fact, get along, if they speak to each other at the right time and in good faith.
Following the West Ford controversy, which led to multiple declarations calling for orbital protection by national and international scientific societies, the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty stipulated that international scientific study must precede potentially harmful space experiments. However, the drafters of the treaty wrote with nations in mind as the primary space powers. They did not anticipate the rise of the private aerospace industry. Back then, the buck stopped at states, not private companies. In the private space era, the burden of proof continues to rest on the shoulders of scientists, but without the same relatively receptive ear provided by state-run industry.
Start-up culture has saturated post–Cold War America, with rocketry replacing steel in a new Gilded Age. High-cost, high-technology industries that used to be the domain of governments may innovate more rapidly, but with less oversight and higher risk. Even as high-profile entrepreneurial failures abound, “bureaucracy” remains a dirty word—redolent of slow motion, red tape, obstacles to the high of breakneck-paced innovation. However, bureaucracies do serve an important purpose by bringing more voices to the table to consider possible outcomes in the face of abundant unknowns.
Perhaps the most important thing that has not changed in the time between West Ford and Starlink is that outer space—and its effects on the things we put into it—remains full of such unknowns. Sometimes neither technologies nor space itself cooperate with human intentions. After West Ford successfully deployed in 1963, most of the filaments fell back to Earth within five years as expected—and as demanded by astronomers who wanted to make sure that any potential problems, anticipated or unforeseen, would be temporary.
However, as sometimes happens in an environment as harsh and unpredictable as space, things did not go perfectly according to plan. Some filaments clumped together, ruining the low mass-to-area ratio necessary for solar pressure to push them safely back into the atmosphere. These clumps remain aloft at 3,500 kilometers. Things break, and when they break in space, it’s not so easy to clean up the mess.
Americans tend to have great faith in our entrepreneurs. Many celebrate the rise of private aerospace industry as a boost to humankind’s greatest adventure, and see space entrepreneurs as infallible visionaries. But perhaps a bit of caution can be gathered from the rhymes of history—even if it means slowing the rush of innovation and giving credence to those who have stood watch from the very beginning.