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ACTS launch
ACTS was launched on the STS-51 shuttle mission in 1993. (credit: NASA)

Footnotes of shuttle history: the Advanced Communications Technology Satellite

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Whenever I travel I try to visit the local used bookstores. While the whole world seems to be going digital and ebooks are supposedly the future, I still prefer books with protons and neutrons and a certain amount of mass. One of the things that concerns me about our digital future is that although you will be able to search much easier and faster for books, and be alerted about new titles of interest, accidental discoveries are probably going to diminish. Accidental discoveries are one of the reasons I like used bookstores. Everybody knows that in a bookstore you can find books that you did not know existed (and look through them before buying them). But used bookstores are great for finding books that you didn’t even know you were interested in, let alone existed.

You probably haven’t heard of ACTS. For this you can be forgiven. In several ways ACTS is about as obscure a satellite there is.

That’s how I found The Advanced Communications Technology Satellite, a book with an admittedly non-flashy title. It was in a used bookstore on NASA Road 1 in Houston, only about half a mile from the main gate to the Johnson Space Center. The book was written by Richard T. Gedney, Ronald Schertler, and Frank Gargione, and published in 2000 by SciTech Publishing. Gedney was NASA’s project manager for the Advanced Communications Technology Satellite (or ACTS) from 1980 to 1995, Gargione was the satellite’s program manager at Lockheed Martin, and Schertler was the experiment manager for ACTS at the NASA Lewis Research Center.

This is not a review of the book. I haven’t read the book and therefore don’t feel comfortable reviewing it. Instead, this is a bit of musing inspired by the book.

You probably haven’t heard of ACTS. For this you can be forgiven. In several ways ACTS is about as obscure a satellite there is. ACTS was launched aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-51 in fall 1993 and operated for 11 years until it was finally shut down in 2004. It is relatively unique as a shuttle payload, a one-of-a-kind technology demonstrator. In fact, a Google search doesn’t quickly reveal that this even was a space shuttle payload. After the shuttle is finally retired many people will write many books about the shuttle and its payloads, and none of them will devote more than a footnote to ACTS. It wasn’t flashy or sexy or otherwise very notable. For this reason, the fact that somebody published a heavily-illustrated, detailed, and informative textbook on the satellite program is quite surprising.

From a programmatic standpoint, ACTS was also a very odd bird. It was essentially a government-sponsored demonstrator for commercially usable communications technology. ACTS demonstrated Ka-band technology for communications satellites, and was the latest—and last—in a line of communications technology satellites built for NASA since the early days of the space age. To understand its uniqueness, you have to understand a little bit about American industrial policy.

Today the term “industrial policy” has practically no meaning in political discussion. However, back in the latter 1980s it was a hotly-debated topic. Throughout the 1980s there was a popular perception in the United States that Japan was on the rise and would soon overtake the United States technologically and economically. People drew straight lines on a graph and determined that by 2020 Japan’s economy would be larger than the United States’ economy (raise your hand if this sounds familiar). Some even hinted that war between the two countries would eventually become thinkable. Scholars wrote numerous books about this and the impending decline of the United States.

Today the term “industrial policy” has practically no meaning in political discussion. However, back in the latter 1980s it was a hotly-debated topic.

Much of the discussion about Japan’s rise centered on its Ministry of International Trade and Industry, or MITI, the oft-misunderstood Japanese agency that many people believed fostered the development of certain high technology industries such as computing, thereby encouraging Japan’s sudden dominance in the consumer electronics industry. Many people in the United States argued that the US government should create an equivalent to MITI to foster certain industries. They proposed numerous mechanisms for doing this, including turning the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) into some kind of American MITI. Their opponents argued that it was not the government’s job to “pick winners or losers” in the technology field, and that this was best left up to the free market.

This was not simply a Democrat vs. Republican argument. There were many Republicans, including people in President George H.W. Bush’s administration, who viewed American technological competitiveness as a key component of national security and felt that the United States government needed to lead the effort. They pointed out that the rest of the world—like Japan—wasn’t operating under free market principles and could therefore achieve substantial gains in targeted industries. They had lots of evidence to support their beliefs and their argument that America’s technological edge had benefitted from substantial government intervention. After all, most airplanes flying today use some form of airfoil developed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in the early days of flight, and military support of jet engines, integrated circuits, and advanced materials have had a profound influence on commercial industry. The United States has long had numerous industrial policies that intervened in the free market, so debates about “if” this should happen tended to miss the point, and were better recast as a discussion of when and how much, or how little.

Of course, we know what happened. Japan’s bubble burst and the country’s economy has stagnated ever since, demonstrating that while people are looking in one direction, the economic winds can shift for reasons they were not paying attention to. The Soviet Union collapsed—something that wasn’t foreseen by many of those predicting the imminent decline of the United States, such as Paul Kennedy. China became an authoritarian capitalist society, and the United States willingly borrowed trillions of dollars from China’s banks. The future (now our past) proved to be much different than the doomsayers promised.

With the bursting Japanese bubble came the end of the debate about American industrial policy. When I first started grad school we were still discussing it, but college curriculums, to the extent that they reflect the real world, tend to lag based upon publishing timelines. So do space programs.

ACTS was just a small part of this larger discussion. While the industrial policy debate was raging in the 1980s, some people argued that the United States needed to maintain its edge in commercial communications satellites. They pointed to Japan’s active program of government-sponsored communications technology satellites. They further argued that Ka-band satellites represented the future. Additionally, they argued that the US government should foster this technology, and so NASA funded the ACTS satellite.

ITAR is nothing if not a form of industrial policy. It just worked in the opposite direction.

But by the time it launched in 1993, the industrial policy debate was essentially over. A year or so after the launch I asked David Whalen, who later wrote a history of the development of communications satellites, if ACTS really was fostering the development of Ka-band satellite technology. His answer was that it depended upon who you talked to—if you asked the people who were paid to build the satellite, ACTS definitely achieved its goal. But if you asked people who worked for other communications satellite companies, they considered it irrelevant. They had to develop their own Ka-band technology for their own satellites. Of course, they probably would have said something different had they won the contract.

Figuring out where ACTS fit into the big picture is complicated by another factor. In the late 1990s, after two other communications satellite manufacturers, Hughes and Loral, were accused of sharing sensitive technologies with China, Congress imposed tough export control restrictions on space technologies. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) made it significantly harder for American companies to sell their communications satellites abroad. Today the United States sells only about 50% of the communications satellites sold around the world. That is down from over 80% before the ITAR restrictions were put in place. ITAR is nothing if not a form of industrial policy. It just worked in the opposite direction.