Published on October 26th, 2020
Written by Iago Bojczuk, MIT/GMTaC Alum
In his writings from the post-war period, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan contended that it is through the “electronics that we have discovered that we live in a global village.”1 With electronics, he argues, “any marginal area can become center, and marginal experiences can be had at any center.”2 But how can we expand––and also complicate––the collective understanding of the socioeconomic potentials of satellite technologies designed to provide educational experiences for those who have historically been at the margins of information access?
Despite the critiques of the ‘westernization’ of the media cultures they helped generate as infrastructural artifacts, satellites remain a critical technology in the inherent dynamics of the “global village” alongside other media infrastructures that enable the production, circulation, and storage of media content around the planet.3 Given their potential as critical media infrastructures for the provision of information and educational experiences to the “unconnected,” international organizations continue to develop policy documents detailing the extent to which satellites are helping members of the public in different regions to participate in decision-making processes and advance development agendas.4
Within the private sector, this is also a growing discussion. While enabling educational experiences for residents in rural and remote areas around the globe (places that telecom operators do not see financial potential in rolling backhaul and cable infrastructure for data transmission), satellite constellations operating in the so-called Low-Earth-Orbits (Earth-centred orbits with an altitude of 2,000 km or less) have recently gained more attention within in the Silicon Valley (check the following projects: SpaceX’s Starlink, Amazon’s Kuiper, etc.), receiving significant media coverage throughout the world.
However, despite their penetration in the fabric of everyday life and institutional activities on the ground, the workings of satellites often remain invisible or intelligible to the publics and media and communication scholars––or even considered as“obscure objects of media studies,” as Lisa Parks suggests).5 Based on this argument, I hope to shed some light on the obscure relationship between satellite-enabled education and social development within the context of the pre-Internet era in Brazil, thus touching on issues of power distribution, rural areas, and circulation of media cultures.
As part of my master’s thesis research project at MIT analyzing the Geostationary Defense and Strategic Communications Satellite (SGDC-1) in the context of broadband connectivity rural public schools, I came across the 1960-70’s SACI project–an abbreviation from its original title in Portuguese referring to Advanced Satellite for Interdisciplinary Communication (Satélite Avançado de Comunicações Interdisciplinares). Given that I learned a great deal about this project and its parallel initiatives of satellite-enabled educational policies of inclusion in Brazil and beyond, I decided to expand its discussion in a blog post for two particular reasons.
First, when I delved into the historical review of early educational satellite projects in Brazil, I noticed that very little has been written about the SACI project in English. Second, given SACI’s relatively pioneer feature compared to other Latin American countries experimenting with satellite technologies throughout the events of the Cold War period, I believe that revisiting the project’s original aims and outcomes may provide useful historical insights into the ways that media systems, political activities, and intergovernmental partnerships intersected at attempts to modernize the lives of citizens who lacked media and technology literacy or were at margins of the Brazilian society of the 1960-70 period.
Particularly within the context of government satellites projects, those that are fully or partially funded by ordinary taxpayers, satellite projects like SACI are often emblematic of “a complex institutional history and imperceptible signal traffic.”6 When scrutinizing such sets of signal trafficking and shedding light on its socio-political surroundings, thus, it is critical that scholars, policymakers, and the civil society pay attention to the “financial, temporal, regulatory, and intermedial dimensions of the satellite economy and to recognize that this part of the culture industry synthesizes and alternates between scientific, military, entertainment, and educational modalities.”7
If the launch of the SGDC-1 in 2017 materialized the Brazilian government’s long-standing political desire to achieve national strategic communications and became interwoven with strategic agendas and modernization campaigns in rural schools, what could we learn by reviewing the main aspects of the SACI project within Brazilian context of military dictatorship and amid an incredibly exacerbated socioeconomic regional inequalities as it was in the 1960-70s period?
Early Satellite-enabled TV and Radio for Learning
Upon its emergence in the late 1960s, the goal of the SACI project was to ultimately spur the creation of a national tele-education system via a system of communications satellite, which was undoubtedly a bold idea for a developing country like Brazil at that time. Therefore, in order to roll out the SACI project in a country as geographically challenging as Brazil, it was paramount that international collaborations were sought, which ended up bringing about initiatives such as a U.S.-Brazil partnership that enabled Brazilian public entities to experiment with NASA’s Applications Technology Satellites–in particular the ATS-3 (a satellite that took the first color photo of Earth in 1967) and ATS-6 (a satellite used for the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) project in India). It was ATS-6, however, that especially represents the partnership between Brazil and the U.S. in rolling out the SACI project.
Fig. 1. Photograph of ATS-6. The person pictured at the left in this picture is John Thole, one of the ATS-6 project managers. (Source: NASA)
Manufactured by one of the subsidiaries of the U.S-based Fairchild Industries, the ATS-6 satellite encompassed a much more complex and sophisticated set of technological apparatuses in comparison to its other five predecessors. As a relatively large and heavy satellite for technological experimentation in the 1970s, the ATS-6 became “the world’s first educational satellite”8 and continue to serve as an example for countries seeking to establish global and public-private partnerships aimed at satellite-enabled educational practices (e.g. tele-education).
As mentioned before, perhaps one of the most well-known examples of the ATS-6’s use in the context of the developing world has been the 1975 SITE project, which was a project between NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) that aimed to provide informational television programs to rural India.9 However, I suspect that only a few people know about the Brazilian SACI project, as it is not widely available in the English language and has no Wikipedia entry in Portuguese language as of now. For some, the project’s acronym in Portuguese can even get confused by another well-known “Saci,” a character in Brazilian folklore that is well-known by culture enthusiasts across Latin America and beyond.
The burgeoning of the SACI project can be traced back to the Advanced System for Communications and Education in National Development (ASCEND) report that came out of an interdisciplinary seminar in Space Systems at Stanford University’s School of Engineering in 1967. The ASCEND report “show[ed] how Educational Television via a satellite could be integrated into the nation’s educational programs, and how satellite techniques could be phased into present and future communications systems.”10 The ASCEND report spurred a much appraised sense of modernization in which developing countries could undergo in the post-war period, specifically showing “what must be done tomorrow with today’s technology so that every nation can incorporate it in its national development plan.”11 Such a sense of development, as it must be clear by now, largely meant a U.S-centric view of what “modern” or “technologically ideal” must have looked like––or how other countries could follow the idealized path of developed nations. While elaborating case studies for that kind of satellite-enabled tele-education programs for remote communities in the developing world, the report articulated the potentialities for Indonesia, Brazil, and India.
Three Brazilian researchers representing Brazil’s National Commission for Space Activities (CNAE)––which later became Brazil’s prestigious Institute for Space Research (INPE)––, contributed to the original ASCEND report, including Fernando de Mendonça, the future director of CNAE and founder of the SACI project. Upon their return home in 1967, these three Brazilian researchers presented the ASCEND report to Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq)––the equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation––and the Ministry of Education. As a result, the government put forth a project with the ultimate goal of manufacturing, launching, and operating a satellite for educational and communication purposes. CNAE published the details about the project in three volumes with the title of LAFE-753- SACI Project (Advanced Satellite for Interdisciplinary Communications) in May 1968.
Fig. 2. Logo of the SACI Project from 1972 (Source: INPE)
Overall, the project foresaw a massive injection of television education in all educational areas–that is, primary, secondary, vocational schools and universities, including the training and improvement of teachers and instructors in the new techniques. In a report prepared for the Royal Society in London in September 1974, Fernando de Mendonça listed SACI’s projects ten major objectives of the time, which included:
- Testing the utilization of the artificial satellite as an element for distributing a modern system of education;
- Testing the efficiency of an educational program using TV, radio, and printed instructional materials;
- Developing techniques for the production of TV and radio programs for different subject areas, and grade levels;
- Improving or creating conditions to better meet the need of the clientele in Rio Grande do Norte, based on the results of formative evaluation;
- Verifying the level of acceptance of use of new technologies in the formal school system;
- Testing techniques to obtain support from the community for the carrying out of the experiment;
- Offering better educational opportunities to a considerable portion of the school population in the area in view of the cost of the experiment;
- Developing and testing methods for the installation, operation, and maintenance of ground equipment used in the experiment;
- Analyzing the results of the project in terms of cost/benefits, cost/effectiveness, comparing the data from the experimental system with the conventional one;
- Preparing personnel for the planning, control and development of material, evaluation and operation of projects in the area of educational technology
Based on these aforementioned goals, it can be argued that the SACI project had quite an ambitious experimental nature. Although the building of a domestic educational satellite did not occur at that time, it paved the way for new policy frameworks and new ways to conceptualize the use of space-telecom for social and digital inclusions that in 1974 was articulated in the document INPE-363-RI/130––SACI Project––Strategies of Implementation.
Fig. 3. Chart illustrating SACI’s 8 primary missions for the Rio Grande do Norte Educational Experiment (EXERN) experiment. Each mission comprises six major phases: planning, development, production, pre-operation, operation, and closing, and they are correlated to the program’s major goals as stated in the 1974 document INPE-363-RI/130. These moss (Source: INPE)
Controversial Ideologies and the Broadcasting Challenges for Local Specificities
Despite the potentials behind SACI and its bold ambitions for the time, it is important that we look at history with nuanced skepticism. Brazilian sociologist Laymert Garcia dos Santos, who wrote about SACI in the 1960s, claims that the LAFE-75’s first volume, which addressed the philosophical and technical aspects of SACI, was “[…] a literal translation of the ASCEND Report.”12 With only minor changes being introduced to the Brazilian version, Garcia dos Santos shows that only the sections relating to India and Indonesia have been deleted, the acronym ASCEND was replaced by SACI each time it appeared in the text, and an introduction of some pages has been added where the link between the satellite and the solution of educational problems was reinforced. 13
He goes on to say that, “it is as if Stanford University were the nerve center where the promotion of teleducation satellites radiates forth to all continents, giving this promotion a scientific status and cultural credentials that feasibility studies from the laboratories of firms directly concerned in their manufacture could not claim to furnish.” 14 The author says that, “what strikes the reader of this report is that it has none of the quality of university work, if one understands by this the discussion of the theoretical foundations of a line of reasoning and the effort to analyze and understand a problem. The ASCEND report is, rather, a viability study whose main ambition is to sell a specific technology.” 15
I find it interesting how the sense of technology determinism appears not as something we happen to experience only in the complexities of the current trendy discourse of the Big Tech, and how revisiting the past allows us to imagine alternate futures. While the use of satellite-enabled technologies was nearly impossible to roll out and monitor on a nation-wide scale, the SACI project started first via radio and TV through the microwave system; thus, the use of the ATS-3 and ATS-6 came only years after the first documentation of the SACI project.
Fig. 4. Collage of photos and illustrations about the SACI project by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. This collage circulated on a printed publication by INPE on June 17th, 1974, showing school children and classroom settings and a sketch of NASA ATS-6 satellite. The title of the story was ATS-6 em Órbita: Via Satélite, o SACI Estará no Ar (ATS-6 in Orbit: Via Satellite SACI will be in the Air) (Source: INPE)
During the transition between the 1960s and 1970s, the government perceived the adoption of satellite education as a potential solution for national integration, given that the number of illiterate citizens in Brazil was considered an obstacle to the country’s modernization, especially in the North and Northeast regions. In fact, during the 1960-70s period, most of the Brazilian population transitioned from rural to urban life, largely due to the industrialization process combined with modernization of agriculture.16 Despite the relatively fast growth, a significant portion of the country barely had access to electricity and water and there was already a gap between those with literacy in rural and urban areas. 17
With a focus on the then-poorest Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte, in the northeastern part of the country, the use of radio and television for tele-education purposes received the name of Rio Grande do Norte Educational Experiment (EXERN). It aimed to test the use of radio and television in education, in order to improve the quality of teaching, training teachers and offering the first four grades of primary education. It reached 70 of the 150 municipalities in the state, in the coastal, wild and hinterland areas.
Fig. 5. Map of the State of Rio Grande do Norte, showing the location of some of the major radio and TV stations as well as signal repeaters.
Classes in the state’s hinterland were distributed via relays installed in strategic locations, reaching an area of about 60% of Rio Grande do Norte, mainly in places where, at the time, there was no electricity. This required TV sets to be powered by vehicle batteries, replaced every 15 days. This operation required a well-articulated logistics based in the city of Natal as well as in the pole cities in order to guarantee the continuity of the project in the interior of the state. 18 CNAE/INPE was capable of daily use of about 30 minutes of the capacity of ATS-6. As a result, SACI broadcasted 1,241 radio and TV programs to 510 schools in 71 municipalities by 1976.19
Despite its bold efforts for the time, the project was extinguished in 1978 due to the high maintenance costs of satellites and the arguably cultural differences in the profile of the programs produced in the interior of São Paulo, but transmitted in the Northeast region, without taking into account local specificities.20 The technological legacies of SACI, despite all apparent challenges, paved the way for the development of educational programs in open TV that became popular throughout Brazil, such as Telecurso (1978), TV Escola (1995), and Telecurso 2000 (1995). 21
Fig. 6. Parabolic antenna used to receive images from the ATS-6 satellite. Research shows that those were the first satellite dishes installed in Brazil. As shown by Adalto Gouveia in the document INPE-10467-RPQ/248, “several schools in the countryside were provided with satellite dishes and their associated equipment, in order to receive classes directly from the ATS-6 satellite. This was in 1973, when nobody knew what the use of such technology was.” (Source: INPE)
However, a critical look into this satellite project reveals a much more nuanced perspective. Although some people claim that the government chose the state of Rio Grande do Norte because it had certain features characteristics of the conditions of education most of the country and also because it was financially impossible to conduct it nationwide, Brazilian philosopher Marilena Chauí argues that the choice was political and ideological, given that it was in the state of Rio Grande do Norte that the Popular Movement of Education, inspired and oriented by the work of Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, was most successful in the 1960s.22 Freire’s main argument was that education functions as an important tool for bolstering the working-class’ awareness of their surroundings.
In other words, by putting in perspective what happens to the worker in everyday life through new learning modes that are understandable within their own reality as individuals, they then, in turn, start to understand the political and social worlds in which they inhabited which he or she lives in. Therefore, literacy was the first step in developing this critical thinking. His book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) became a critical piece of scholarship and one of the most translated Brazilian academic works into English language, influencing scholars researching in fields as diverse as sociology, education, law, and media studies.
As it is now well-recognized by many in Brazil, the concept of popular education was threatening in an oppressive military regime. Popular education as a general conception of education tended to be opposed to adult education, which was driven by state education, and has occupied the spaces that official adult education has not taken much seriously. In fact, “one of the original principles of popular education has been the creation of a new epistemology based on the deep respect for common sense that bring the popular sectors into their daily practice, problematizing it, trying to discover the theory present in popular practice, a theory not yet known by the people, thereby problematizing it while incorporating a more rigorous, scientific and unitary reasoning.”23
In other words, one interpretation is that “the [SACI] project should be implemented in order to erase the politicizing education of previous years from local memory.”24 While I did not explore this issue further in my thesis when discussing satellite-enabled connectivity in rural areas, it is fascinating to think about how the development, use and maintenance of technological systems are imbued in ideologies and power structures, and how that can serve, challenge, or warp activities of nation states and how they are persuasively presented to the public.
Technological systems must not be immune to the political intricacies and ideologies of nation-states and, as such, demands more nuanced and interdisciplinary understanding to account not only for what is being sold as a technical-enabled inclusion program. As argued by many science, technology and society (STS) researchers, it is important that we cultivate a more participatory understanding on the implications of who is in control, how these systems get designed, operated, repaired as well as for whom and for which purposes they serve.
As it is similar for what I argue in my thesis when exploring the case of the SGDC-1 in relation to public rural schools in Brazil, I reinforce the arguments made by other media scholars that it is crucial that new forms of the scholarship are at play concomitantly so we can better unravel the contentious social, ideological, economic, and cultural implications of satellite development over time and across different points of view and disciplines. Such a scholarly exercise may help increase our understanding of how nation-states and companies enact or hinder new forms of power in space and how, in return, the technologies they create might impact or re-write life on Earth.
All in all, with the broadcasting of radio and television programs to primary schools in the then-called remote areas, the use of satellite technologies in Brazil in the late 1960-1970s gained traction and government attention for the need of establishing telecom policies focused on remote communities. Since 2015, as we see powerful governments and the Big Tech massively investing on the use of satellite Internet by deploying LEO satellite constellations, and also in the face of the teleworking conditions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, revisiting projects like SACI provides us with useful avenues to grasp the mistakes and successes from the past and reimagine a more inclusive and participatory future–regardless if one benefits from broadband living in a tall apartment building in São Paulo connected or the hinterlands of the North and Northeast regions of Brazil.
- McLuhan, letter to J. Tyrwhitt (23 December 1960), in Letters of Marshall McLuhan, ed. M. Molinaro, C. McLuhan and W. Toye (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 277–8
- Parks, L., & Starosielski, N. (Eds.). (2015). Signal traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. University of Illinois Press.
- “Space Solutions for the World’s Problems: How the United Nations Family Uses Space Technology for Achieving Development Goals.” United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, 2005. Accessed on April 5, 2020, https://www.unoosa.org/pdf/publications/IAM2005E.pdf
- Lisa Parks, “Obscure Objects of Media Studies: Echo, Hotbird and Ikonos.” In Strange Spaces, pp. 113-128. Routledge, 2016, https://doi.org/10.1093/fs/58.4.572.
- Dunbar, Brian. “ATS.” NASA Archives. Accessed May 14, 2020. https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/missions/ats.html.
- Krige, John, Angelina Long Callahan, and Ashok Maharaj. “Satellite Broadcasting in Rural India: The SITE Project.” In NASA in the World, pp. 235-246. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2013.
- “Satellite Broadcasting: Implications for Foreign Policy, hearings before the Subcommittee on National Security Policy and Scientific Developments of the Committee on Foreign Affairs,” In 91st Congress, May, vol. 13, p. 15. 1969. Reference on page 298. Accessed May 7, 2020.
- Mattelart, Armand. Mapping World Communication: War, Progress, Culture, p. 163. University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
- de Paiva, Marlúcia Menezes. “As Primeiras Iniciativas da Teleducação no Brasil: os Projetos SACI e EXERN.” Educação em Perspectiva 4, no. 2 (2013).
- Mattelart, Armand. Mapping World Communication: War, Progress, Culture, p. 163. University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
- Eduardo Paulon Girardi. “Atlas da Questão Agrária.” Universidade Estadual Paulista. Accessed August 2020. http://www2.fct.unesp.br/nera/atlas/caracteristicas_socioeconomicas_b.htm
- “Programa de Recuperação de Excedentes 1974-1979.” Ministério da Educação. Accessed August, 2020. http://www.dominiopublico.gov.br/download/texto/me001908.pdf.
- “Histórico Da TVU.” TVU.RN – TV Universitária. Accessed May 14, 2020. http://www.tvu.ufrn.br/pagina.php?a=historia.
- Terezinha Saraiva, “Educação a Distância no Brasil: Lições da História.” Em Aberto 16, no. 70 (1996), 21, accessed March 23, 2020, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/dcae/3d099f2cffaceffb154064a98a5c5faefe07.pdf .
- Vani Moreira, “O Desafio da Educação a Distância no Brasil.” Revista Educação em Foco 7, no. 1 (2002): 1-13, acessed March 28, 2020, http://www.ufjf.br/revistaedufoco/files/2010/02/011.pdf
- Chauí, Marilena, and André Rocha. Manifestações Ideológicas do Autoritarismo Brasileiro: Escritos de Marilena Chaui. Vol. 2. Autêntica, 2017.
- Gadotti, Moacir. “Paulo Freire e a Educação Popular.” Produção de Terceiros sobre Paulo Freire; Série Artigos (2007), p. 24. Revista Trimestral de Debate da FASE. Accessed May 13, 2020, http://formacaocontinuada.net.br/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/paulo-freire-por-moacir-gadotti.pdf