Telstar I 311.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On July 10, 1962, a new era of global communications was ushered in with the launch of the Telstar I satellite. Later that same day, the satellite – launched on board a NASA Thor-Delta rocket – transmitted the world’s first intercontinental television signals, the first satellite telephone call and the first satellite fax message.
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Telstar, a combination of the words “telephone” and “star,” was seen as a great leap forward in communications at the beginning of the space age, but also as a necessary step toward strengthening and expanding telecommunications technologies at a time when use was quickly outpacing capacity.
In 1962, the United States had 550 cable and radio channels for transatlantic telephone calls handling some four million calls annually. One television signal required approximately 600 of the voice channels available at the time. These demands for and the perceived profitability of expanded telecommunications – more than scientific advancement – is what led to the development and launch of the first operative telecommunications and television satellite.
Telstar was a private initiative, fully funded by AT&T. The company,
whose scientists designed nearly every component of the orbiting
communications channel, contracted with NASA to launch their spherical
device into space for an estimated $3 million. In this regard, Telstar
was revolutionary in another way – it began the privatization of space.
Once launched, however, Telstar became a symbol of national pride in the
United States. Within hours of Telstar being launched into orbit, the
first satellite phone call in history was placed by US Vice President
Lyndon Johnson to the chairman of AT&T. Also that day, the first
recorded television images ever were transmitted across the Atlantic; a
video of an American flag blowing in the wind put to the soundtrack of
the Star Spangled Banner (the US national anthem) was broadcast to a
receiving station in France.
Speaking of the potential for global communications technology to change
the world, then-US president John F. Kennedy spoke the day after
Telstar’s launch about his hopes for it. “The achievement of the
communications satellite while only a prelude already throws open to us
the vision of an era of international communications.”
“There is no more important field at the present time than
communications and we must grasp the advantages presented to us by the
communications satellite to use this medium wisely and effectively to
insure greater understanding among the peoples of the world.”
The globalization that technology eventually led to, however, was still
far off. Although the first intercontinental television broadcast came
two weeks after Telstar’s launch, its commercial implementation and
availability were constrained by the limitations of equipment at the
With only one satellite orbiting the earth at the time, there was only a
window of roughly 20 minutes in each of Telstar’s two hour and 40
minute orbits. In order to provide satellite coverage only between the
United States and Western Europe, dozens of satellites would need to be
Another issue with the first satellite was its transmission strength and
the powerful receivers necessary to pick up its retransmitted signals.
While it was easy enough to transmit signals into space, in order for
them to be sent back to another location on earth, significant energy
was necessary. Telstar, weighing just over 77kg and fairly small in
size, was able to send radio signals with a strength of only one
trillionth of a watt. The only antenna capable of picking up such a
signal at the time required massive and highly sensitive equipment.
The first few receiving stations were comprised of a 340-ton antenna
enclosed in a protective radome the size of a 14-story office building –
not quite the small satellite dishes found attached to many homes
The last challenge that Telstar and satellite engineers would face,
however, came from an unexpected place – nuclear weaponry. Around the
time of Telstar I’s launch, the United States and Soviet Union were
conducting high-altitude nuclear detonation testing. The blasts, which
took place at roughly the same orbit as Telstar’s, left behind high
levels of radiation that negatively affected the new and sensitive
technology on the satellite. A Soviet nuclear blast in late 1962 put the
satellite out of commission. It came back online early the next year
but only for a few months before succumbing once again to the high
Since Telstar’s historic launch in 1962, thousands of satellites have
been launched into orbit. While only some 550 live satellites are
estimated to be operating, the number of dead satellites (including the
original Telstar) remaining in orbit is in the thousands.
Advances made in satellite technology and the reductions in the cost of
developing, launching and utilizing satellites today have truly changed
the world in the nearly 50 years since Telstar I. Satellite television
channels beam images of revolutions taking place on the other side of
the world directly into our homes, our cellular phones and cars are able
to give us directions with the help of Global Positioning System
satellites, and communications are now available in even the most remote
parts of the earth.