KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Up there, in the realm of eerie silence that used to exceed man's grasp, little manufacturers circle the Earth steadily. The world would be sorely deprived if they went on strike.
Today, routinely, satellites:
--Watch storms blossom in the Pacific;
--Catch and beam back down "All My Children";
--Track our traffic violations from one state to another;
--Follow the trails of the "Ten Most Wanted";
--Flash the millions of daily trades on the New York Stock Exchange;
--Tell a rolling ship at sea and a flashing Concorde airliner where they are;
--Map mountains, borders and rivers;
--Relay our blood pressure to a distant doctor;
--And send this story to your newspaper.
1964 Olympics Telecast
It was 1964 when we first saw an international Olympics live. Now, we are used to seeing the instantaneous drama of a hijacked airliner in Lebanon or of the starving children of Africa.
In 25 years, satellites have altered the human condition, seemingly while we were not looking.
"People think about space technology as a series of blinding flashes on the road to Damascus," said Albert D. Wheelon, president of the Hughes Space and Communications group. "Everyone thinks lightning comes down, and suddenly it's all clear. It isn't that way. It's just hard work. You keep making a little improvement every year."
Today's satellites--about 1,400 of them are now up there--do not quite resemble the simple Sputnik that beeped space into everyone's consciousness in 1957, or the puny silver grapefruit that was Vanguard.
"Each generation, I guess, thinks they are working at the forward edge of technology," said Charles Schmidt, general manager of RCA's Astro Electronics, "but technology moves on, and yesterday's breakthroughs become rudimentary."
One part of the current technology is embodied in the Aussat, an Australian communications satellite launched Tuesday by the space shuttle. It was built in the High Bay building of Hughes Aircraft in El Segundo, Calif., in a scene of great care.
Men in white coats wire by hand the 22,000 or so connections for the nine miles of wire that form the brain of the satellite. Braids of color-coded wires loop in and out of the superstructure to carry electronic instructions to various parts of the satellite.
Everything is as light as possible. The terribly fragile beryllium struts would shatter if dropped on the floor. Much of the fabrication uses graphite epoxy, stronger than steel at half the weight, formed into thread and fabric to become almost as supple as clay before it hardens. The main frame is honeycombed aluminum, for lightness and strength.
This is a leisurely assembly line, quiet as a library. About 150 experts will take 30 months to build this satellite.
The work is mostly by hand. And every time a tiny connection is made or any other work is done, it is logged in this spacecraft's diary. Once in space, you cannot change light bulbs or call a repairman--although the space shuttle last week worked toward setting up just such a repair service.
Beyond complexity and lightness, the satellite represents great expense.
The heart of this satellite is 19 transmission tubes, and a high-powered, 30-watt television tube costs $400,000; telephone circuit tubes are less.
The decoder, a small black box affixed to the frame, tells the satellite what to do on instructions from Earth. It costs $150,000.
The sleek outer shell is paneled with 22,000 space-qualified solar cells, small blue jewels that turn sunlight into electricity. Price: $50 apiece.
The last nine to 10 months are devoted to testing in the Space Simulation Laboratory. The satellite spends a week in the Thermal Vacuum Chamber, heated to 275 degrees Fahrenheit, chilled to minus-320. Then, it is bolted to a shaker table to mimic the wrenchings of launch. In a sound chamber, it is subjected to 130 decibels. A jet plane records 104 decibels, and since each decibel is 10 times louder than the one before, 130 decibels is very loud.
When it finally is ready for shipment to Cape Canaveral, the satellite rides in a special truck with an air ride chamber so the cargo literally floats. Every bump in the road is recorded. The sides of the truck are armored, just in case somebody takes potshots.
The precautions are worth it to Hughes, NASA and Australia, the force behind this particular satellite.
In that country, 15 million people live in an area almost as big as the United States. About 95% of them live in urban areas like Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. They have television, telephones, first-class medical facilities, newspapers, supermarkets, the lot.
The trouble is that there are another 700,000 or so Australians who have little or none of those things, leaving them somewhere on the fringe of Western civilization. Yet the people in this heartland of the nation raise the cattle and grain, mine the ore, pump the oil and, in fact, produce much of the national product.