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Satellite: Innovation in Orbit

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Satellite: Innovation in Orbit by Doug Millard. Reaktion Books, 2017, 208 pp.

What do you see when you look up at the stars? This is one of the fundamental questions that author Doug Millard, a deputy keeper of technologies and engineering at the Science Museum in London, tries to answer in his book Satellite: Innovation in Orbit. Millard dives into mankind’s history and fascination with the universe beyond the planet that we inhabit and discusses the great minds and scientific achievements that made spaceflight and satellite launch possible. Written in a story-like fashion and densely illustrated, Satellite covers the full spectrum of launch into orbit and discusses the plethora of ways that satellites are integrated into daily life.

The organization of the book is presented logically, beginning with a discussion about the numerous physics discoveries contributing to the development and use of  satellite systems. Sir Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler are both introduced in the first chapter, which provides original illustrations from both scientists on their laws of gravitation and motion. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s contributions make up a good portion of this initial content as well, and he is mentioned throughout the book for his work on applying the theories of earlier discoveries to rocket and propellant design. Particularly interesting are the parallels that Millard makes between prominent science fiction writers, such as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and the research that was making that science fiction a reality. This connection to literary fiction helps to establish an early bond with the reader by referencing many familiar stories from these authors.

Millard quickly makes the transition from engineering theory to practice, as the militaries of the world turn their attention toward acquiring and operationalizing these prototype systems being developed. Multiple think tanks and advisory groups, such as the RAND Corporation and the British Interplanetary Society, began devising solutions to the problems inherent in space travel. He covers the notable contributions of individuals, such as Arthur C. Clarke and several prominent Russian enthusiasts, to the concept of space lift. Millard also includes detailed images of the hobbyist groups and prototypes in action, engaging the reader in the excitement of the time period
and giving a sense of belonging and wonder to this early space era.

Millard then expands upon the inevitable realization that satellites are being launched and used for all humanity. Rightfully beginning with a dialogue on Sputnik, Millard includes discussions on the early systems that were deployed for government use. He accurately summarizes the space race occurring between the Soviet Union and the US, and the public fascination as it all unfolded. The American launch of Project Score initiated the Western foray into the communications satellite realm, relaying a message from President Eisenhower across the globe for the first time. Millard furthers the discussion of early satellite uses, including expansion into reconnaissance
with TIROS and imaging with SENTRY, as well as infrared detection using MIDAS. The intelligence agencies made quick use of these capabilities, employing them for data collection as the Cold War began to take shape.

As more powerful rockets are developed, Millard informs, higher orbits became more accessible (p. 106). This development created a market for global communications as commercial companies leveraged these rockets to place satellites in geostationary orbits. Telstar, Intelsat-1, and other satellites brought new methods of information distribution to industry and government. Details are also given about other orbits designed to solve unique challenges, such as the Molniya orbit, to cover higher latitudes. Satellite costs became affordable enough that large networks could be built, such as the Iridium constellation of 66 satellites. In this segment, the author introduces the global positioning system, which revolutionized precision navigation, timing, and nuclear detonation detection for military use. Millard wraps up the intriguing discussion
of satellite constellations with a couple of chapters on their scientific applications. He spends this segment discussing the onboard elements, fuel types, propulsion systems, and orbits. Arming the reader with the history and functionality of satellites, he concludes by pondering the future of both satellite systems and mankind’s presence in space. He leaves it to the reader to decide what the future holds.

In conclusion, Millard uses this book to introduce readers to the story of the satellite. His intent is simply to inform the reader of how humanity reached into its imagination to put objects into space and how that imagination can be put to use to usher in a new space age. It is an excellent book to place on the coffee table to entertain guests or to casually glance through at leisure. For anyone looking for a technical manual, this book will not satisfy that desire but for anyone just looking to be entertained and informed on satellite history from concept to future application, this book certainly provides that.

1st Lt James Corcoran, USAF

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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