While it was government programs that supported the initial forays into space that began 50 years ago, many of today’s spaceflight advances were driven by visionary entrepreneurs who established commercial businesses based on satellite technology. Just like the pioneers of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s who created so many services that are ubiquitous today, entrepreneurs are continuing to push the edge of what is possible in space and to recreate the satellite industry.

The past 50 years have been an eventful time in technology history, taking us from slide rules, carbon paper and punch cards, to cell phones that play videos and cars that tell us how to reach our destinations. Fifty years ago no one dreamed of the technologies that we take for granted today. No one dreamed that the world would depend on satellites the way we currently do


From its humble beginnings with huge dishes and phone calls with long time delays, the satellite industry now provides remarkable systems for any time, anywhere access to a wealth of video and audio programming, data communications

and voice services. Satellites allow

someone driving in a car from New York to San Francisco to listen


to their favorite radio programming all along the way. They allow

someone working on an oil platform in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to

make a telephone call home to his or her family, and someone living on a remote Pacific island

to log onto the Internet to watch Space News TV.

Today, satellites provide daily benefits to most of the world, with a ubiquity that often goes unnoticed. If you subscribe to satellite television or satellite radio, as

more than 90 million people worldwide

do, you may be aware that you are using satellite services. Satellite broadband users, like the ones who connect to the Internet using HughesNet, IPSTAR or WildBlue, generally know that they are depending on a signal from a satellite when they subscribe.

However, cable television subscribers often are not

aware that

fixed satellite services provide

the backhaul for the video distribution; and people watching national network television channels often are not

aware that most of the broadcast feeds to and from the networks and local affiliate stations travel by satellite.

When we look up weather predictions, or program our rental car to tell us where we want to go, most of us don’t realize

a satellite

is providing the information. Who notices the satellite dishes on the roofs of gas stations and other businesses that help corporations establish lower cost private networks to distribute information and gather data to and from multiple locations around the world? Satellites are used for distance learning, video conferencing, emergency services, and in conjunction with a broad range of other data and voice applications.

This ubiquity has evolved gradually over the past 50 years. Each decade a new group of pioneers has been successful in creating businesses based on extending the value of broadcast communications from the sky.

In the early 1960s companies like Intelsat and AT&T launched the earliest commercial satellites, which were used for telecommunications between Europe and North America.


n the 1970s, Western Union launched a satellite that was used to distribute


television and radio

to local affiliates of Public Broadcasting Service, National Public Radio

and the Mutual Broadcasting System. At the same time Telesat Canada began its satellite television broadcast business, and RCA Americom provided a satellite, which

major U.S. television networks used

to distribute programming to their local affiliates.

The demand for fixed satellite services in the 1980s drove advances in satellite technology, such as the development of three-axis stabilization, which enabled satellites to generate more power. In the early 1980s, Intelsat provided the satellite broadcast of Prince Charles’ marriage to Lady Diana, and in 1988 the company used nine satellites to distribute television coverage of the Seoul Summer Olympics to a worldwide audience of 3 billion people.

In the 1990s the major Direct-to-Home (DTH) television players were established, and earlier this decade

satellite radio took off. These are the enterprises that continue to drive many of today’s spacecraft advances and manufacturing efficiencies.

Looking forward,


is driving the next wave of new ventures. Satellites now can

generate more than 20 kilowatts of power and will soon provide much more. This is enough power to provide thousands of television channels, or more than 100 gigabits per second throughput for high-speed Internet, to the entire United States. Higher power satellites are enabling a new generation of mobile satellite receivers and tiny handsets. While satellites have become dramatically larger and more powerful, user equipment has gotten much smaller and truly mobile.

New business concepts, such as mobile satellite services to hand-held devices no larger than today’s cell phones, are driving manufacturers to push the limits of antenna size and payload power. Today’s advances are helping to bring the advantages of 21st century communications to parts of the world where terrestrial infrastructure will never be feasible. They

also are enabling new applications that support social changes, the next generation of peer-to-peer content creation, and the many new evolving forms and formats of video information


In the next couple of years a commercial satellite will be launched that will carry an operational Internet router into space. This breakthrough in bringing the Internet model into satellite systems will enable more effective and secure sharing of satellite capacity. The efficiencies will broaden the range of applications that are practical for satellite communications, extending the value of satellites both for military and commercial applications.

Satellite technology has dramatically altered the world’s ability to communicate and share information. We can only imagine what the next 50 years will bring in terms of spaceflight, satellite systems

and mobile communications. In an increasingly mobile world the characteristics that are unique to satellites are still a precious commodity. Today’s visionaries continue to

leverage the qualities of universal coverage and broadcast from one source to many networks

to recreate how information is distributed and to expand the ways that our world connects.

Arnold Friedman is

senior vice president of

marketing and sales

at Space Systems/Loral.