Back to Index Page

© 1994 by Donald F. Robertson.



This article may be distributed at will, but only if it is not changed in any way, and only if the author's name, the copyright notice, the name of the journal it first appeared in, and this notice remain attached. In addition, this article may not be sold for money, or published for sale in any way, without the author's prior written permission.

This article originally appeared in Analog.



Donald F. Robertson

Where are the companies? Where are the entrepreneurs?

Where is the Solar System East India Company? Where is Heinlein's "Man Who Sold the Moon?" Where is Poul Anderson's Nicholas van Rijn when you need him?

For half a century, this has been the refrain. It has been shouted at science fiction conventions from the tops of glittering hotels. It has been whispered in the small hours, in smaller rooms under dim, yellow light bulbs.1 [Footnotes, most of which reflect biased opinions by the author, are located at the end of the document.] Above all, it is believed by that select and widely scorned cognizanti who dream that our human civilizations might expand into the Solar System.

Government space exploration, while not the complete disaster many frustrated would-be space colonists claim, has failed to deliver the goods. There are no planetary bases, no space colonies floating in the void, not even a permanent outpost on Earth's moon. Nor are there great exploratory expeditions, seeking knowledge and resources along the ancient sea shores of Mars or collecting the commodities known to exist amongst the far asteroids. Nothing, it appears, is happening.

There are three major reasons for this sad state of affairs. Two of them are reasons that nobody wants to hear. First, we have expected way too much, and we have expected it far too soon. Second, beyond telecommunications, there are no readily apparent -- and above all, convincing to the outside investor -- ways to quickly make a buck in space.

Not wanting to hear these truths does not make them any less true. Humanity has had some initial successes at tossing a few people above the atmosphere in tiny capsules and a "winged brick" called the Space Shuttle. We have made landfall for a hand-full of days on Earth's nearby moon, and we have survived in low orbit for a year or so in a clap-trap outpost left over from a dying empire. We have made some money bouncing the odd telephone call from one part of our planet to another. These achievements have led some of us to believe that we are on the verge of true Solar System commerce -- we are not -- and that the task ahead of us is easy -- it is not.

Take the first problem first: the space age is just thirty-eight years old,2 and that is not old enough. The Solar System is more profoundly alien than any frontier humanity has ever tackled. It is also harder to get to: we are imprisoned at the bottom of the largest gravity field amongst the terrestrial (hard-surfaced) planets. Imagine what would have happened if, millennia ago, no humans lived on the continental coasts. What if peoples from the deep inland deserts, who had never experienced a large body of water, had to scale immense mountains to reach the seashore before they could even begin learning to travel over the storm-tossed oceans?

Today, few of us human mammals, designed to live on the African savanna, have ever experienced a large ocean of free fall and vacuum, replete with violent storms of high-energy radiation. We have to figure out a way to get cheaply into orbit, before we can even begin to deal with an environment that confounds our every instinctive expectation.3

In the past, new and alien frontiers -- such as the African colonization of Eurasia, the Asian colonization of the American continents, or learning to travel confidently over surfaces of our planet's oceans -- took many thousands of years. Even the second wave European expansion into America took centuries, in spite of a relatively high level of organization and technology. We've been tackling space for decades, not centuries.

Once we are finally there, the Solar System is a big place. Humanity has barely looked at most of the circum-Solar region (and that by simple robots) let alone understood it. We've explored none of it, save five small sites on Earth's moon.

Several of the myriad and utterly different worlds of our Solar System have solid surface areas as great as all of the dry-land surface of our home planet put together; many of the rest represent frontiers as vast as any of the terrestrial continents. The same characteristics that make exploring the Solar System an exciting endeavor also make it difficult. There is no reason to expect that learning to live on these worlds, and to confidently travel and trade between them, will take any less time than the human expansion over what is, after all, our own world.

As for the second reason that humanity is still confined to a single planet, how can you make money using something you don't understand? Exploration is a clear pre-requisite to productive use, and we can expect little of the latter until we've done a lot of the former. All of that takes time, lots of it.

The third reason things appear to be moving so slowly has to do with perspective. A great many good things are in fact happening in commercial spaceflight, but most people -- indifferent to commercial space or too close to the dream to see the tiny, green shoots in the vast, empty desert -- are simply not aware of them. Most progress, but by no means all, has to do with a familiar friend: telecommunications.

It is time to take a second look at the humble communications satellite. After all, this is the one way we know to make lots of money in space. Can communications satellites pay for the rest of what we want to do? Or, at the very least, give us a running start?

Until recently, it would have been easy to dismiss this idea out of hand: as these things go, the comsat industry is tiny; human colonies on the planets big and expensive. Today, those assumptions do not look so certain.

The communications satellite industry is taking off. It is taking off in a big way. In the past decade, the industry has changed dramatically, moving far from its initial wave of a few large geostationary communications satellites used primarily by the world's governments and largest corporations.

The new communications industry in space is building vast systems of satellites that will cater to the every-day consumer. This is relevant to our goals because of one key fact: the every-day consumer is a huge market. Potentially, the consumer market for global telecommunications is as big as five billion people; collectively, even in relatively poor countries, every-day consumers control vast amounts of money.

Unlike earlier comsats which were government subsidized in one way or another,4 the new satellites are all being financed almost entirely with private money. The same is true of their supporting industries like launch vehicles and receiving antennae; and, most importantly, it is true of the new communications services that are the reason for the whole exercise.

After years of work, several companies are on the verge of deploying their networks in low Earth orbit. First to market will be Orbital Sciences Corporation. [The author of this article is a small shareholder in Orbital Sciences Corporation.] OSC already is launching a global network of tiny satellites that will transmit documents from your laptop or palmtop computer to another computer or fax machine at any point on or near the planet. In spite of some initial problems with the first satellites, many outside analysts expect this system to be a commercial success.

Next is likely to be Motorola, deploying a vast network of more ambitious satellites that will relay telephone calls from small hand-held or pocket telephones. This system will do for voice communications what Orbital Sciences is doing for documents. It will allow instant communications between any two points on the globe, whether there is a wired telephone there or not. Both of these companies have a number of smaller competitors, offering less ambitious but cheaper versions of the same services. Yet another variation on this theme will provide fixed telephone service to the Third World and the ex-Soviet Union for far less money than it would take to install land wires to every house in Africa and Asia, or Russia. This most ambitious of schemes is backed by Microsoft's Bill Gates and a major cable television distributor, Bob McCall. It will require a staggering 840 satellites . . . and still be cheaper than land lines!

The least ambitious of these networks requires many low or medium orbit satellites, to make sure that at least two functional ones (that is, two active plus one spare) are always over the horizon. The satellites must be in a lowish orbit so that they can pick up the weak signals from a hand-held telephone or palmtop computer. Since a low orbiting satellite suffers from a nearby horizon, it takes a lot of satellites to blanket the Earth. The lower the orbit, the stronger the signal for a given handset power, but the more satellites you need. Adding still more satellites reduces the chances that damaged satellites could interrupt service, which will be crucial to gaining and maintaining market share. Motorola's Iridium project, which is the farthest along of the big systems, requires no less than sixty-six moderate-sized satellites plus on-orbit spares.

At least one of Motorola's competitors, and one or two of Orbital Sciences', is likely to be deployed. Four or five of these networks provides a huge demand for satellites.

This is all very good news. Mostly, it is good news for what it leads to.

More and better satellites require more and better launch vehicles. As I write these words, McDonnell Douglas, a company that only a few years ago was on the brink of bankruptcy, has admitted that they are privately developing a new version of the Delta rocket. Launching satellites is one of the few businesses at McDonnell Douglas that is both growing and believed5 to be solidly profitable. Today, the Delta rocket is said to earn McDonnell Douglas something on the order of $500 million per year. The company is reported to believe that they can increase that income by at least one-third again by building a heavy lift version of the current Delta-II. This super-Delta would directly compete with Arianespace, Europe's government-financed launch company, and with America's other major commercial rocket, Lockheed-Martin's Atlas (recently bought from General Dynamics).

More and better satellites also require better on-board propulsion and upper stages. McDonnell Douglas had to modify the Delta's satellite delivery stage to win the contract to launch the majority of Motorola's Iridium. They did this at their own expense. Several manufacturers of communications satellites are experimenting with electric or "ion" propulsion for attitude control. These motors can later be applied with very little modification as primary propulsion for the "space tugs" needed for deep space travel.

A few short years ago, rocket manufacturers worried about the addition of low-cost Russian and Chinese launch vehicles to the market. They feared that this would destroy the precarious financial position of the Western launch service companies. Today, the manifests of all three main Western companies -- Arianespace, Lockheed-Martin's Atlas, and McDonnell Douglas' Delta -- are saturated for years into the future. Lockheed-Martin's effort with Energya to market Russia's Proton is selling hand-over-fist. Already, Lockheed-Martin has sold more than allowed under Russia's market-sharing agreement with the United States. This supposedly limits the Proton to nine launches before the end of the century. The Russian-American companies are getting around this limit by calling many of their sales "options." They will become firm sales once the United States recognizes the reality of limited launch capacity and removes the limits. China's Long March series also is selling out. The Ukraine (with Boeing), Japan, and India are also on the verge of entering the commercial launch market.

There is another segment to the commercial launch market, and this one, too, looks very healthy. Orbital Sciences' Pegasus air-dropped small launch vehicle has a solid backlog. This rocket is launching OSC's own satellite network, while also flying the ever smaller science satellites that a broke NASA insists on. A number of other entrepreneurial companies are finding money to develop their own designs. Lockheed-Martin, not to be out-done, is privately building a commercial rocket, based on Lockheed's experience with Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles. A scaled up version will compete with the low-end of the Delta family. The primary market for all of this is individual satellites to replace failures in the global networks.

Put it all together, and you have a market for satellites, and the rockets to launch them, that could reach into the thousands -- all paid for with private money. All of a sudden, satellites and launch vehicles are no longer a glorified hand-craft, turning out a dozen or so literally hand-made models a year. They are a real industry mass-producing commercial products on assembly lines.

These markets simply did not exist five years ago. Crucially, they are global markets. Most of the satellites will be assembled in the United States (or, in one case, Italy), but sub-systems are being farmed out all over the world. In addition to the Delta, Motorola has purchased Russian Proton rockets and Chinese Long March vehicles, ensuring that this new industry is not dependent on any one government's policies.

Increasingly, it looks like all of the world's launch vehicle manufacturers, together, may not be able to keep up with demand. This fact may finally be sinking in. To almost everyone's surprise, the aerospace industry, to date more dependent on government largesse than any "welfare mother," may actually cough up some of the cash NASA needs to develop a commercial, second-generation Space Shuttle.

Likewise, a few short years ago, it was predicted that there would be a glut in communications capacity. Now, no matter how many satellites are launched and how much data each satellite can transmit, supply simply cannot catch up to demand.

A key sign of the commercial space industry's health is given by the following statistics: last year, the satellite insurance industry lost three-quarters of a billion dollars as two European launch vehicles crashed and one American satellite failed. The insuring companies only took in about one-half billion dollars in premiums. Did the insurance companies raise their rates to cover that loss? They did not. In fact, they increased the amount available to insure any given launch by ten percent. The insurance marketplace is confident that the commercial satellite industry will remain sufficiently profitable for the companies to earn back their loss and still make a profit.

All of that has been achieved with today's ridiculously expensive launch vehicles. What might happen to this market of the cost of access to space were to come down?

Nobody knows.6 For a hint, let's look more closely at what is happening now. The respected British political magazine, The Economist, never a journal to get over-excited by a hot new trend, sees it like this: "Over the past three years the number of satellites in orbit has grown by a half to 2,400, as demand for mobile telephones, satellite television, and data transmission has soared. Whereas Hughes Electronics used to have perhaps ten satellites on order, it now never has fewer than thirty, with a combined value of $2 billion. . . . Critics object that space communications could fall victim to the terrestrial information superhighway. But wiring up America with fibre-optic cable could cost a staggering $300 billion, take thirty years, and still be far from global. That alone should provide Lockheed-Martin [and other aerospace companies] with a tidy living from building satellites to relay commercial messages -- and rockets to launch them."

Truly flamboyant entrepreneurs, in the Nicholas van Rijn model, have started companies -- PanAmSat and Orion -- to directly compete with the old government-financed corporations in the lucrative market for international communications. After more than a decade of preparation and political bickering, these two companies are launching global trunk systems -- providing yet more markets for the world's commercial launchers.

These giant satellites, high in geostationary orbit, also require big upper stages. Recall Robert Heinlein's maxim that, in energy terms, it is easier to get to Earth's moon than to geostationary orbit. In space, the energy required to get you going is more important than the distance you have to go. In these terms, it is easier to get to the Martian moons than to the surface of Earth's moon or to geostationary orbit. Long after flying to Earth's moon vanished from America's technological repertoire, humble communication satellites are paying the bills to keep the United States' capacity for deep space transportation in business.

* * *

We have looked at the satellites that pay for the rockets that pay for deep-space vehicles that can, in theory, pave our way into the Solar System. At the top of the food chain is a service. That service, in turn, is fed by the desire of people to talk to and entertain one another.

Surprisingly, one of the most innovative of the space communications companies is also one of the oldest and, in some ways, the most conservative. Some years ago, this company recognized one great truth that almost all of the others had not. The company is Hughes Electronics. The truth is that the information being communicated, and the software used to organize it, are both much bigger markets than the satellites used to transmit that information. Hughes recognized that in spite of being the world's largest builder of commercial satellites, holding well over half the entire global market. Hughes response was simple and, in retrospect, obvious: to provide more services to create a bigger market for their satellites.

What communications service does America use most? The answer should be easy: television.

Hughes organized a consortium of American and French companies called Direct-TV. Direct-TV raised almost a billion private dollars to commercially construct three huge satellites and launch two of them into geostationary orbit. The company built the largest and most modern television production and control system in the world. Still more private money built a production line to produce thousands of small satellite antennae "the size of a pizza pan." And now, you the consumer can get several hundred specialized channels of high-resolution television for a cost comparable to your cable subscription. Since Direct-TV's introduction late last year, more subscriptions were sold than the most optimistic forecasts had guessed. Worried cable company executives are said to refer to Hughes' satellites as "Death Stars." Competitors, seeing the writing on the wall, are already building their own satellites. Soon, thousands of television channels will be available.

Industry analysts predict that Direct-TV will result in the "magazinization" of television -- sometimes called "narrowcasting" as opposed to "broadcasting." Go to a bookshop or newsstand and look at the magazine rack. There are hundreds of titles, often catering to the most specialized of tastes. With thousands of channels delivered nationwide, the few thousand people scattered around the country who may want to watch, say, the exciting sport of competitive model rocket launching, can subscribe to their own channel and still let the supplier make a profit. No longer will a handful of television "networks" have to cater to the lowest common denominator of a big and diverse country.

The same thing is happening with radio. Direct-TV offers thirty CD-quality digital music channels too specialized for local broadcasters, and competitors are planning dedicated radio broadcast satellites. The Federal Communications Commission has allocated fifty megahertz for this service.

Local radio stations are fighting hard in Washington to prevent global satellite radio from happening, but they are unlikely to win. Even if they do, the laws of physics and commerce are against them. According to one executive quoted in the industry journal Space News, "The economics of satellite distribution is [such] that we can have one-hundred Reggae listeners in Seattle and one-hundred in Miami, and we can put them together to build an audience for a Reggae channel." This is something that local broadcasters cannot do.7

Much of this new entertainment will be commercial-free, paid for by subscription. Soon, as the small satellite antenna learns to talk back to the satellite, it will become interactive.

Hughes has other ideas up their collective sleeve to keep their satellite production line busy. In spite of the wide availability of video rental stores, some people still like to go out to the movies.8 One of the greatest expenses the film industry incurs is copying and delivering heavy canisters of film to the nation's theatres. This physical transport of information also makes theft and piracy of the film itself all too easy, especially overseas. Hughes proposes replacing the film screen with a super-high definition television and directly transmitting the film via satellite to each theatre. This would allow higher resolution and brighter colors, much lower costs, and, since the information would be coded, fewer opportunities for theft. Still another plan is to deliver software via satellite, avoiding the expense of physically copying and delivering diskettes.

Hughes biggest idea, called Spaceway, is that old chestnut the video telephone. The new plan is a little different from the old one promulgated by the likes of AT&T. There is no telephone, with its slow and grainy picture, physically attached to a wire. Spaceway would use your television or high resolution computer screen and a small antenna like that used for Direct-TV.

Originally proposed as a national system, and later expanded to be global, Spaceway will involve a system of extremely high data-rate satellites in geostationary orbit. Hughes is already building the satellites. At first, the main application will be corporate videoconferences, but Hughes sees the system slowly expanding to individual households. Eventually, it might replace the entire wired telephone industry.9

* * *

Space is becoming a place where the fastest-growing industry on Earth, and one of the largest, does much of its business. This change has hardly been noticed by space advocates, dreaming in their dark basement rooms, yet its significance cannot be over-estimated. For the first time, private money is financing huge and diverse commercial space programs. Soon, the cumulative economic impact of these programs will dwarf the Apollo project.

Orbital Sciences, for instance, offers a range of small launch vehicles, deep space propulsion, science and applications satellites, and communications services -- all under a single roof, almost all privately financed, and all at less cost than any space program in the past. Giant Lockheed-Martin, looking for a way to make money after the Cold War, is following Orbital Sciences down the same road.10

Of most importance to us, some of these endeavors, if they make money, may slowly grow into the great space-faring corporations of the future.

There is a cloud on the horizon. This whole bright future is at risk. The problem is an initiative by one Vice President Albert Gore. Al Gore is probably the most influential Vice President in American history. He has converted what is traditionally a ceremonial post into the Clinton Administration's "think tank."

With the best of intentions,11 Gore proposed what he calls the "Information Superhighway." It is a measure of Gore's influence, both inside and outside the Administration, that his term has become universal. It is used to describe everything from a fiber-optic telephone network to something closer to Gore's vision, a sort of super-Internet.

Gore originally envisioned a government-subsidized network of fiber optic trunk lines to tie Federal laboratory and University super-computers together. This system would eventually grow to incorporate companies and individuals. The primary model was the growth of the Internet itself, which started as a project to link military research establishments. Today's primarily civilian "global library and coffee shop" would hardly have been recognized at the time by the Internet's founders, most of whom are still alive.

The other model was the freeway system, which may have been built by private contractors, but also started out as a military project. Even today, freeways are planned by government agencies and paid for with a combination of user fees and heavy subsidies by the Federal government -- all to achieve a goal that no private consortium could manage.12 Hence the name "information superhighway." The goal is to achieve for information what the highway system did for physical communications: to tie the nation and the world together, both politically and economically.

Gore's vision has evolved. Confronted with the reality of America's vast and balkanized telecommunications infrastructure, the new vision is a bit less clear. Today, Gore seems to want government encouragement, possibly with a more limited financial contribution, for the telephone companies to expand their capacity, in competition amongst themselves. But the government-set goal of directly wiring every public organization and private household to a national high-capacity network remains.

Either way, the whole idea is anathema to the satellite industry. They see Gore's vision as a government subsidy for the telephone companies to under-cut what the satellite companies are doing anyway, for infinitely less money. It also under-cuts one of the last industries where the United States is unquestioned world leader. Worse (at least for space advocates), the information superhighway under-cuts the one commercial space industry that is, and would otherwise continue to be, an unqualified success.

Hughes argues the their Spaceway project will cost a minute fraction of what it will cost the telephone industry to wire every household with fiber-optic lines. It is simply cheaper to supply each business and household with a satellite antenna, than it is to dig up the sidewalk in front of every home. To fight Gore's telephone subsidy -- or at least get equal time at the government trough -- Hughes has organized a number of other satellite companies into a pressure group called The Satellite SuperSkyway Coalition.

The Satellite SuperSkyway makes a lot of sense for the individual, private user. You get more autonomy: you own and control your own antenna, your end of the network, a receiver that can listen to anybody's satellite and is almost impossible to ban or jam. Therefore, it makes for better democracy: relatively poor people far from civilization can afford a cheap satellite antenna; you can bet that the rural farmhouse will not be first on a telephone company's list of organizations to physically wire up to the network.

If the government were simply to keep its nose out of the tent, argues Hughes, the cheaper system would win. The Information Superhighway would become a reality in the sky sooner and at no cost to the taxpayer.

In the process, it would result in the greatest new investment of money and labor in space since the Apollo program. Since there is a real, commercial reason for that investment, it is likely to be more permanent than the politically-motivated Apollo flights to Earth's moon could ever be.

* * *

It might seem that I have painted the future in two entirely different lights. The future portrayed in the first part of this article would be the pessimistic version; the latter parts the optimistic one. In reality, both versions are equally true -- and equally important.

Commercial space is growing explosively the world over. It is right to feel optimistic. However, in terms of what is needed to establish colonies and start trading throughout the inner Solar System, this growth is starting from a very small base.

To avoid the disappointment and "burn-out" that inevitably result from over-optimism, it is important always to keep our achievements in perspective. This is what advocates for settlement of the Solar System have consistently failed to do. A couple of years ago, United States generated more than six billion dollars in economic activity every year from commercial activities in space; today's figure is certainly higher. Six billion dollars is a lot of money, but it is a long way from conquering the Solar System. To coin a phrase, we should be "cautiously optimistic."

But optimistic we should be. Already, it is possible to see the outline of a believable scenario for getting from here to there.

To build the road to a lunar settlement, or a base on an asteroid or a Martian moon, you need just two things: a way to lift lots of material to low Earth orbit; and the ability to move that material to lunar (or Martian) orbit and eventually to the surface. Both of these capabilities have existed in the United States for almost three decades. Contrary to popular opinion, they are still available, just not being used for the desired application.

As we discussed before, these capabilities are paid for by the communications satellite industry, which needs a steady and growing supply of the means to get to low- and geostationary orbit, at ever lower cost. These capabilities can be bought from private companies in a handful of countries, and increasing competition is driving reliability up while forcing costs down. Also, recall that in energy terms geosynchronous orbit is slightly harder to get to than the surface of Earth's moon and that the Martian moons are easier to get to than either location. Easiest of all are the near-Earth asteroids.

These are lucky coincidences. They mean that the cost of getting to Earth's moon or to Mars is steadily falling without actually having to go to either location. Getting better at space transportation is independent of the purpose for that transportation.

Someday, if transportation costs get low enough, a base on a near-Earth asteroid may start to deliver oxygen and hydrogen fuel to move satellites around. Some of the oxygen would be delivered to the Space Station for astronauts to breath, and, combined with hydrogen, to make water to drink. When and if that happens, trade will have begun, and the railroad into the Solar System will truly be open.

Other key technologies are coming together. Experience with military submarines and a steady trickle of flight opportunities on Spacelab and Spacehab, on the Russian Mir space station, and eventually on the international Space Station, are driving steady progress on life support. This progress may appear painfully slow to Americans used to everything being resolved in a one-hour television show, but it is progress nonetheless.

On the surface, Space Shuttle flights may look like a waste of money -- an unholy alliance of Single-Stage-to-Orbit advocates and planetary scientists would be quick to tell you that they are. Both are wrong. Despite its poor reputation, the Shuttle's problems are solely with reliably getting into orbit. Once she manages to get there, the Shuttle orbiter is orders of magnitude more capable and flexible than any other space vehicle ever flown. Flight by flight, the Shuttle is creating an ever-growing base of experience in living and working in space. A tiny example: approaching the Russian space station without damaging it required inventing a new way of approaching a target spacecraft. This new technique uses much less fuel than the old method which dates from the Gemini program.13 Docking spacecraft now costs less than it did. You must fly to learn, and the Shuttle is flying.

Nonetheless, the fact that NASA cannot afford a replacement for the aging Shuttle is probably good news. NASA will pay for research to help industry pay for developing a new vehicle, one optimized for commercial purposes. NASA's hyperactive director, Daniel Goldin, is trying to get the law changed so that the space agency can guarantee a certain number of flights (say, to the Space Station) to any aerospace company that develops a new, low-cost re-usable launcher. Short of other business options, several companies are taking this idea seriously. The exploding market for comsat launches, combined with renewed competition from low-wage industries in China and Russia, must be in the backs of their minds.

For a decade, commercial investment in space has been experiencing a slow but relentless growth. This growth is on an upward curve and there is no sign that it will level out anytime soon.

Someday, not next year but within a few tens of years, the humble telephone, and its cousins hooked into the Internet and to your television screen, could slowly build a revolution. They might yet generate the kind of money that could casually pay for commercial infrastructure, and even settlements, on the planets and in the asteroids.

Promise it to your children, but don't hold your breath.


1I know, I've done it myself.

2The same age as this author, who was born in 1957, the year of Sputnik.

3The fundamental reason for our frustration is that we are trying to do the latter before the former; we explore the planets with clock-work robots before we have figured out how to get cheaply into space. Then we wonder why it seems so difficult to get there ourselves. We really are trying to run before we can walk.

4E.g., With government-financed "corporations" like Intelsat / Comsat, Eutelsat, and Inmarsat.

5The company refuses to discuss the financial performance of individual divisions with outsiders.

6But we might be close to finding out as cut-rate Russian and Chinese launch vehicles increasingly invade the Western marketplace. On the other hand, as Russia and China learn that real capitalist companies eventually have to pay their employees real market salaries, the prices of their rockets are rapidly increasing.

7In reality, local radio broadcasters are likely to survive, just as cable television did not destroy local broadcast television. Global radio is unlikely to supply much local news, nor many traffic reports.

8Your correspondent is one of them; he does not own a television. He frequently has no idea what his friends are talking about.

9Note in proof: Hughes has just sold a complete satellite-based wireless telephone system, involving two geostationary satellites, to an Indian company called Afro-Asian Satellite Communications, Ltd. ASC is based in Bombay and is investing $700 million in the project. India, in turn, hopes to market the service to users in Southern, Central, and East Asia, and in Africa. The company will provide basic telephone service to villages without having to lay physical wires throughout this vast region.

10Increasingly beyond government control, these new communications industries will become a strong bulwark for global democracy. As predicted decades ago by the inventor of the idea for geostationary comsats, Arthur C. Clarke, a strong case can be made that it was the wide availability of satellite communications, and the consequent impossibility of controlling information, that brought down the Soviet Empire. Much the same may be happening in the world's last great military empire, China. China has utterly failed in her attempt to outlaw private satellite antennae. The United States learned this first in Viet Nam. Information limits the ability of a government to act without the consent of its people. Indeed, the United States was founded on this principle. And comsats make information available to anyone who can afford and hide an antenna "the size of a pizza pan."

11Your correspondent frequently supports Clinton Administration policies, particularly the first honest attempt in two decades to responsibly manage this nation's finances. Nothing that I say here should be interpreted to mean that I subscribe to the "Clinton-bashing" promulgated by certain far Right radio talk show hosts, a movement that demeans rational political debate and that I deplore.

12There is nothing more "socialist" than America's freeway system, humanity's largest engineering creation to date. While the highway and freeway subsidies dwarf Amtrak's, somehow they never make it into the public debate over the budget deficit.

13Russian cosmonauts watching from Mir expressed admiration at the precision with which the Shuttle approached their space station.


Back to Index Page