The Satellite That United the World

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Many of history's most iconic moments have something in common. They were broadcast to the world live by satellite.

But this technical feat that we take for granted was not even possible all that long ago.

In fact, the entire era can be traced back to July 10th, 1962, the day TV went global. And here it is, television. The exciting new medium of television had been in regular use since the 1940s. But there was a problem. Live TV could only be transmitted by cables or by terrestrial repeaters. And both methods were impractical over very long distances.

In the first half of the 20th century, a radical idea had been proposed in scientific circles. What if an object could be put into outer space that would act like a giant mirror, bouncing signals from one point on Earth to another? At the time, no manmade object had actually been in space, but technically, it seemed possible. In the late 1950s, hundreds of engineers and scientists at AT&T Bell Laboratories were put to work on an ambitious new project. The first active communication satellite in space. The project was called Telstar. By today's standards, the design was rudimentary and consumed less power than the average modern laptop. But at the time, it was cutting edge, featuring then-new technologies such as solar cells, transistors, and a telemetry system for collecting data. No less impressive was the ground equipment needed to track, transmit, and receive signals from the Telstar satellite. Massive yet exceptionally precise satellite dishes were constructed on both side of the Atlantic Ocean in order to capture and amplify Telstar's faint signal as it whizzed and bobbed through its elliptical orbit. In the early morning of July 10th, 1962, Telstar One was launched atop a Thor-Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the same site from which the Apollo 11 astronauts would depart for their trip to the moon almost exactly seven years later, a feat that would be broadcast live to the entire world, thanks in part to Telstar's groundbreaking achievement. Armstrong is on the moon, Neil Armstrong. Around 15 hours after its launch, Telstar relayed the first live satellite video transmission in history, a congratulatory telephone call between U.S. Vice President Lyndon Johnson and the Chairman of AT&T, which had funded the project.

Good evening, Mister Vice President. How do you hear me? You're coming through nicely, Mister Cap-ul. Well, that's wonderful, the first telephone message in the world over an active satellite. Two weeks late on July 23rd, a 20 minute multi-national program was broadcast to hundreds of millions of viewers in Europe and the Americas. Good afternoon. Soon we'll be saying good evening to Europe on the first exchange of live programs between the television networks of the United States and their affiliated stations and the European Broadcast Union. The lineup included a brief glimpse of a baseball game at Wrigley Field. Let's give all the baseball fans in Europe a big hello from Chicago. Remarks by U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

I understand that part of today's press conference is being relayed by the Telstar communication satellite and this is another indication of the extraordinary world in which we live. And live scenes from landmarks around the U.S. and world.

A new era had officially dawned. Putting another bit of history behind it, Telstar will now rest for two and a half hours while its solar batteries build up energy for another epic. Telstar was celebrated as a monumental achievement, became a sort of high-tech celebrity, praised by politicians, journalists, and scientists, and referenced widely in popular culture.

That's no moon, it's a space station. Live by satellite soon became a regular feature on network television, for everything from breaking news. Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall. To sporting events. With the ever-present shadow of the Cold War looming large, Telstar also marked a rare early victory in the Space Race for the United States, which by that point had been beaten by the Soviet Union with the first satellite in space, the first animal in space, and the first man in space.

Unfortunately, the first Telstar satellite was damaged by residual radiation from a thermo-nuclear bomb test the day before its launch, which led to the satellite's early demise within a few months. Nevertheless, it demonstrated to the world that live communication by a satellite was feasible, proving the concepts laid out by early visionaries. Soon to follow were more advanced communication satellites, such as the Hughes Syncom, whose much higher geosynchronous orbit allowed for true 24/7 global TV coverage far beyond Telstar's limited broadcast window due to its orbit path. Although Telstar's technology was soon eclipsed, the project also marked another important first: the first privately sponsored space mission carrying a commercial payload. At a cost to AT&T of about $25 million per launch in today's money. Despite early concerns by policymakers about the potential domination over space communications by private industry, the success of the Telstar project and the urgency to compete against the Soviet Union helped to usher in an age of competitive cooperation between the U.S. government and the private sector in developing space technology. That continues to today with companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, One Way, and countless other start-ups. Thanks to the new commercial space race, satellites have once again become the center of attention. The cost to build and launch new satellites continues to drop, widening the playing field for eager entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who are developing satellite networks to provide broadband internet to the estimated four billion people who lack reliable access. Other new satellite projects are devoted to everything from tracking greenhouse gas emissions to urban traffic flows to refugee movements. Thousands of satellites are currently in orbit, with thousands more likely on their way in the near future. SpaceX alone has filed for FCC permits for almost 12,000 new satellite in coming years. Meanwhile, almost 60 years later, the long dormant Telstar One is still floating around our planet, a celestial artifact from a moment in history that launched the world as we see it today. .

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