How Sputnik Launched an Era of Technological Fragility

Sixty years after the historic achievement, a world without satellites seems difficult to imagine.

A life-size replica of Sputnik on display at the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, Russia
A life-size replica of Sputnik on display at the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, Russia (Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP)

On October 4, 1957, a beach ball-shaped satellite launched into space from the Kazakh desert. The satellite joined Earth’s journey around the sun, which is why its creators named it Sputnik, Russian for “traveling companion.” Sputnik circled the planet about every hour-and-a-half, traveling at 18,000 miles per hour as it emitted a steady beep, beep, beep. On the ground, people watched Sputnik through binoculars or listened to its pings on ham radios. By January of the following year, Earth’s traveling companion fell out of its orbit and burned up in the planet’s atmosphere.

Sputnik’s spectators could not have anticipated that this event—the launch of the first human-made satellite into space—would ignite a race to the stars between the United States and the Soviet Union. Nor could they have known that they were, all of them, standing at the precipice of a new era in human history of near-complete reliance on satellite technology. For them, Sputnik was a sudden flash of innovation, something at which to marvel briefly. For their children and grandchildren and generations after, satellites would become the quiet infrastructure that powered the technology that runs their world.

“Many people grasp that satellites are important in our lives, but they may not see exactly in what ways,” said Martin Collins, a curator at the space-history department of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

So what would happen if all the satellites orbiting Earth suddenly, all at once, stopped working?

The effects would be felt unevenly around the world, Collins said. In communities that don’t rely on satellite technology, particularly in the developing world, potential disruptions to daily life likely would be less severe. In other places, like in the United States, the results would be severe at best. If the blackout persisted long enough, they’d be catastrophic.

If the satellites shut down, “tentacles of disruption,” as Collins put it, would begin to unfurl.

Without operational communications satellites, most television would disappear. People in one country would be cut off from the news reports in another. The satellite phones used by people in remote areas, like at a research station in Antarctica or on a cargo ship in the Atlantic, would be useless. Space agencies would be unable to talk to the International Space Station, leaving six people effectively stranded in space. Militaries around the world would lose contact with troops in conflict zones. Air-traffic controllers couldn’t talk to pilots flying aircraft over oceans.

Richard Hollingham described how this loss of would feel in a Wellesian story in the BBC in 2013: “The rapid-communications systems that tied the world together were unraveling. Rather than shrinking, it seemed as if the Earth was getting larger.”

Without global navigation satellites, the Global Positioning System (GPS)—the network of satellites and ground stations that tell us exactly where we are—would crumble. Some of the immediate effects would be frustrating, but not debilitating, like not being able to use a smartphone to find your way around a new city or track a run in a fitness app. Other effects would have far-reaching consequences. Millions of truckers and other workers in the delivery industry rely on GPS to crisscross the country each day, delivering food, medicine, and important goods.

The loss of GPS also would have disastrous results for our sense of time. GPS satellites are equipped with atomic clocks, which provide the very precise time that satellites need to calculate distance on Earth and tell GPS-enabled devices about their location. Satellites transmit this time to receivers on the ground, where power companies, banks, computer networks, and other institutions synchronize their operations to it. Without these clocks, the electrical grid, financial transactions, and, yes, the internet would start to fall apart. So too would the internet of things, the vast web of devices that talk to each other on our behalf.

“GPS is staggeringly integrated into our lives,” Collins said.

The shutdown of weather and remote-sensing satellites would gravely hamper our ability to predict weather events, like the major hurricanes that have swept across the Caribbean and southeastern United States this year. Farmers couldn’t get information that informs their crop and water management, and scientists wouldn’t have data for their studies of Earth’s features or climate change.

The disruption of every one of the hundreds of operational satellites orbiting Earth is unlikely, but even the loss of one or a few satellites could have powerful effects. When one communications satellite fell out of its orbit in 1998, 80 percent of pager users in the United States——about 45 million people—lost service. An article in The Los Angeles Times a couple of days later sought to emphasize the fragility of the nation’s behind-the-scenes satellite infrastructure. “Paging is hardly the only consumer convenience delivered via satellite technology,” it warned.

Satellite operations could get knocked out by natural phenomena, like powerful solar storms, or human activity, like one nation’s intentional destruction of another’s  fleet of satellites, or an all-out global war. Space junk could also set off a series of collisions that damage any satellites in their path. Collins said that the cause of a complete blackout of satellites would likely determine how people respond to it. Chaos, for a time, is likely inevitable, and there are plenty of suggestions for this doomsday scenario in apocalyptic science-fiction writing.

“Would it severely disrupt the way we live right now? Yes,” Collins said. “Would people be starving in the streets or would there be civil disobedience? That’s hard to say. Potentially.”

Would anything good come out of it? Perhaps, Collins said, when the power grid fails and people are left in the darkness, they could see, many of them for the first time, the unobstructed night sky, with the stars of the Milky Way stretching out before them. They could look up and gaze at the place where their traveling companions, now silent, float along with them.