The Hexagon satellites were proof that you can build the future early if you just throw enough money at it. The '60s U.S. government didn't give a shit about the future, but they did think it would involve killing Russians, so we had spy satellites that could image an entire country in 1971. That's four years before the invention of the digital camera.
National Reconnaissance Office
Raising a giant brass dick to screw the Soviets.
They built a planetary surveillance system that worked on film. Film! That makes steampunk look like forgetting to update your iTunes. It physically fired parachute-buckets full of film over the Pacific, where they were snagged by C-130 Herculeses in midair. That's using a $70 million plane as a combination of hunting falcon and carrier pigeon.
USAF/Getty Images News/Getty
Under no circumstances allow these to land on your arm.
What happens when you use all four canisters? If you're the USAF, you toss the most advanced space optical system ever constructed like a Big Mac wrapper and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new one. Twenty times. The Hexagon was 20 meters of solid future, including 11 tons of the most advanced space optical gear ever constructed, and it was designed to pop off four film canisters and then self-destruct into remote regions of the ocean to make sure that humanity didn't even accidentally learn anything.
National Reconnaissance Office
They took this image from space before The Empire Strikes Back came out.
They were able to resolve images down to the level of troop movements and swimming pools. The CIA had mapped the entire Earth before the A-Team existed. In 1971, one film canister's parachute failed and it fell straight from the top of the atmosphere to the bottom of the ocean. The CIA engineered a deep sea rescue operation, using the Navy's most advanced submarine, the DSV-1, mounting three expeditions that took it to almost twice its previous maximum depth. Rocket launches, surveillance spaceships, midair rescues, and revolutionary submarines -- when it came to spying on Russians, suddenly the U.S. was able to build every single Thunderbird just five years after the series finished.
So remember: Any time the government claims something is too expensive or complicated, they're full of shit.
If you ever feel bad, look up to the skies and remember that Disco Balls of Science are speeding above your head. Six million meters above your head, orbiting at 6,000 meters every second, and looking fabulous for every single one of them.
Disco in Space!
The LAGEOS satellites are 400 kilos of solid brass space coolness (4 degrees Kelvin), with a shiny aluminum coating studded with 426 cubic retroreflectors. They're the Earth's jewelry, shining gems showing everything else in space just how great we are. Screw 2001, we BUILT something full of stars and put it up there ourselves.
We made the Matrix of Leadership for real.
Bouncing laser pulses off the reflectors makes them the most accurate positional system known, locating not only the satellite, but also the point the beam was launched from on the surface. They've been used to determine the precise motion of the Earth's continents, variations in the Earth's gravitational field, even the precise length of the day. We built something smarter than the sun and used it instead. They're so accurate that they've been used to measure the Lense-Thirring effect, a relativistic twist due to rotating masses. Chunks of brass and glass mapping the torsion of space-time: NASA won at steampunk decades before that was a thing.
One technician also used it to marry three dozen soccer teams simultaneously.
They're masters of space science, and they have no moving, beeping, buzzing, or powered parts. At all. Shining shot puts of solid science, hurled into the sky by sheer smartness. The first was launched in 1976, 36 years ago, and did so well that we deployed a double in 1992 to cover another orbital track. They're both still up there. As far as you're concerned, they will always be up there. Unpowered and unguided, and we shoved them so smartly that if nothing gets in the way, they'll stay in the heavens for 8 million years. Zeus only managed a few centuries.
Undoing every college movie by making nerds infinitely better than jocks at throwing things.
It's aimed so far into the future that they hired Carl Sagan to design a plaque it could carry. That's the species equivalent of getting a grown-up to answer the phone -- we got our best human to represent us to the far future. The plaque is genius: binary images of the planet's continents millions of years ago, at the time of launch, and what we think they'll be like when LAGEOS comes back down to meet them, which should enable any giant-headed super-evolved ant-dolphin hybrids to work out that we said hello.
"Hi! Sorry about all the landfills!"
We're playing "catch" with the entire future. And this is one of the very few things we're doing that would make them proud of their parents.
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For more space awesomeness, check out 6 Badass Spacecraft Landings Humanity Totally Nailed and 5 Astronauts More Badass Than Any Action Movie Hero.