This Week in History: Satellites connect the world

Telstar I, funded by AT&T and launched by NASA in 1962, transmitted the world’s first intercontinental television signals and satellite telephone call.

Telstar I 311 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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.
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.
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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 time.
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 in orbit.
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 today.
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 radiation levels.
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.