America's second victory in space has lessons for today

America's second victory in space has lessons for today
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While most of the nation’s attention on outer space matters has recently focused on America’s successful effort to send astronauts to and from the International Space Station, another milestone in outer space policy quietly took place a couple months ago. Sixty years after President Kennedy announced one of his two famous outer space initiatives, Intelsat corporation (Intelsat SA), the progeny of Kennedy’s plan for a U.S.-led, global communications satellite program, quietly announced that it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And, while the company emphasized that its bankruptcy was actually good news, it is impossible to not notice that this marks the final conclusion (yes there have been many conclusions) to this unique, 1960s American Cold War initiative that probably had a greater practical impact on America’s global space image than either our planetary Space Programs or even our Moon landing.

Speaking before the UN General Assembly for his first time in September 1961, Kennedy promised that the United States would “propose… a global system of communications satellites linking the whole world in telegraph, and telephone and radio and television. The day need not be far away when such a system will televise the proceedings of this body to every corner of the world for the benefit of peace.” And, by 1964, the U.S. initiative had taken treaty form when six friendly countries joined in the U.S.-led initiative.  During the 30 years between 1961 and the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S.-designed and U.S.-led treaty organization, INTELSAT, was arguably the most practical global expression of the U.S. space program and one of America’s most effective Cold War initiatives.

Through Kennedy’s international satellite organization (headquartered — not surprisingly — in Washington, D.C.), hundreds of millions of people and thousands of businesses and governments in Africa, South America, Asia, Oceania, Europe and North America were able to instantly make telephone calls, watch television programs, and transmit fax, telex and data among each other. This was the first instance of commercial, social and cultural “globalization” in the way we think of that term today.

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Before explaining how and why America’s second major space initiative succeeded and ended, or why it was so important, please note that the Intelsat business of today extolls its Chapter 11 filing because it expects this bankruptcy to allow the business to raise and spend around $1 billion to move satellite equipment out of some key radio frequencies that are needed by cellular companies for the expected tidal wave of 5G wireless services. In return, the satellite company would receive a grant from the U.S. government of around $5 billion, far more than its annual sales. When Kennedy and his advisors cooked up the idea in 1961 of sharing the concrete benefits of the American space program with the rest of the world in order to combat the Soviet Union’s enormous success with both the first artificial satellite and the first man in space, they could scarcely have even imagined that at the end of this project would lie a commercial bankruptcy designed to obtain government fees.

Although Kennedy’s Sept. 12, 1961. commitment “We choose to go to the moon in this decade…” is long-remembered and widely-celebrated, it was his speech at the UN two weeks later announcing plans to share America’s space technology with the rest of the world that actually got the world involved in the American space program. It’s worth remembering Kennedy’s second space initiative today as we consider how to deal with global issues as diverse as global warming, pandemics, Internet governance, establishing bases on the Moon and exploring Mars.

Kennedy’s second space initiative was actually every bit as bold as his commitment to put an American on the moon: Rather than hoard the benefits of its space program for itself (like we accused the Soviets of doing), America would share the benefits of its space program with our allies and with those Third World countries willing to accept an American commercial model and American leadership.

After years of negotiation with our allies and with some Third World countries and with significant support from many U.S. military and civil agencies, what emerged was an American-organized, American-led and American-operated inter-governmental organization that would share America’s space technology in the form of communications satellites. These satellites would connect non-Soviet-aligned Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Oceania and elsewhere in a global network that supported telephone, telex, TV and data. The satellites might have initially been made, launched and administered by American businesses, but they would belong to, and be controlled by, all of these countries as a group. Moreover, the new space project would blend the efforts of business, the military, the civil space program and academia into a global multi-stakeholder undertaking. That effort, officially founded in 1964, was later named INTELSAT and it was operated for its first decade by an American company, COMSAT. By 1973, 81 countries friendly to the United States had signed up and the international organization owned around a dozen communications satellites.

It was a non-military, American Cold War success without parallel because it actually touched the lives of hundreds of millions on every continent. (Full disclosure: During the height of the Cold War, I directed the public and investor relations programs for COMSAT, at the time the largest owner of INTELSAT.)

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By the 1990’s however, the world had changed in many ways: Undersea fiber optic cables permitted television, telephone or high speed data communications between densely-used routes like U.S.-to-Europe or U.S.-to-Japan much more cheaply than could be done by satellites; the Cold War had ended, and the foreign policy benefit to the U.S. of an organization made up of allies and friendly Third World countries had enormously diminished; and political leaders in America and Europe had adopted a new approach to telecommunications based on competition and privatization. Together, these factors led to both widespread competition in international satellite services and the end of Kennedy’s Cold War satellite initiative.

In 2001, the international organization, INTELSAT, became what came to be called Intelsat corporation, a private business competing with other satellite businesses. After a series of leveraged buyouts that left the business with billions of dollars of debt, the company went public (Intelsat, S.A.) in 2013. Eventually, by almost all accounts heavily-burdened with its past debts, the publicly-traded company announced in May that it would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to protect itself from its creditors and collect nearly $5 billion from the FCC for clearing out of radio frequencies that cellular operators want to use for new 5 G wireless services.

This development was obviously a long way from President Kennedy’s ambitious announcement to the UN in 1961 — or President Johnson’s 1964 triumphant creation of the U.S.-led international satellite organization. And, although Kennedy's idea proved far more politically and economically successful than he could ever have imagined, by almost all accounts, the original concept of a “U.S.-led, satellite UN” had outlived its usefulness many years earlier. But INTELSAT's 30-year success as an instrument of American foreign policy — a U.S.-led global undertaking and a merger of military, civil, commercial and other interests remains an important model today for the lessons it teaches us about how we may successfully approach many new global challenges  in outer space — or on the Earth.

Roger Cochetti provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, D.C.  He was a senior executive with Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 through 1994. He also directed internet public policy for IBM from 1994 through 2000 and later served as Senior Vice-President & Chief Policy Officer for VeriSign and Group Policy Director for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified on internet policy issues numerous times and served on advisory committees to the FTC and various UN agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.