Telstar: A History of the Most Important Satellite You’ve Never Heard of
Before 1962, there was no such thing as a live broadcast from far-flung areas of the globe. Even live TV between two big cities like New York and London was a science-fiction fantasy. But that changed with an all-but-forgotten 170 lb. satellite and a worldwide broadcast that briefly brought the planet closer together as one global community.
I. 1945: A Science Fiction Odyssey
Although 28-year-old Arthur C. Clarke didn’t plan on being the father of global satellite communication, the science-fiction writer’s first published work unexpectedly laid the foundation for modern, worldwide satellite broadcast.
In the fall of 1945, Arthur C. Clarke, fresh out of the Royal Air Force, submitted a manuscript to Wireless World magazine proposing global communication through geostationary satellites. He’d already floated the paper among select members of the British Interplanetary Society and had received positive feedback.
Clarke, who had pioneered radar technology for the RAF during WWII, based his ideas on the work of Herman Potocnik, an Austro-Hungarian rocket engineer who was among the first scientists to propose practical solutions for human space habitation.
Clarke titled his manuscript, “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?” In it, Clarke points out that current radio technology was not scalable and could not meet the increasing need for reliable global communication.
The problem with radio waves is that they travel in straight lines. So — because of the curvature of the earth — we can only send signals roughly 50 miles from a broadcast station before they veer off into space.
Using radio waves alone, worldwide communication is impossible. We’d have to place broadcast stations every 40 miles all over the earth in order for the signals to reach everyone. But even if that doesn’t sound ridiculous, broadcast across the ocean would still be impossible.
However, Clarke’s theory was fairly simple.
Clarke proposed that communication “space stations” be put in orbit around the earth. Terrestrial communication stations could transmit signals to the stations that would, in turn, re-transmit signals back down to Earth.
However, the key to Clarke’s theory was that space stations had to be “geostationary.” Clarke pointed out that if you placed the space stations in a 42,000km (26,000mi) orbit, their orbit would match the speed of the earth’s rotation. As such, the space stations would appear stationary to an observer on the ground.
His article was published in October 1945. But aside from a small cohort in the scientific community, Clarke’s paper didn’t have any impact on mainstream culture. However, Clarke went on to become one of the most revered science fiction writers of the 20th century. He went on to write the “Space Odyssey” series, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two, as well as the Nebula and Hugo award-winning Rendezvous with Rama and a number of other novels, short stories, and non-fiction works.
Today, geostationary satellites reside in the 42,000km orbit that makes worldwide communication possible. Scientists have named this ring around the earth the Clarke Belt. However, despite Clarke’s brilliant theory, it would be nearly 20 years before satellite broadcast would become a reality.
II. Transistors and Echoes
The blank screen leaped to life and the crowded hotel room of anxious physicists fell to a hushed silence. The image was grainy; the scientists squinted and jockeyed with one another to see it more clearly.
Then the picture slowly came into focus on white clouds against a gray sky. A large dome came into view — AT&T’s satellite receiver station in Andover, Maine — and as the camera panned downward, the American flag filled the screen, blowing lightly in the summer breeze.
In the flickering light of the TV, James Early began to tear up.
Early — a lead member of the Telstar project at Bell Labs — had just witnessed the first satellite TV broadcast.
On the morning of July 10, 1962, a NASA Thor Delta rocket launched into the upper atmosphere with the delicate Telstar satellite held in its nose and deposited it in an elliptical orbit at just under 6,000km (3,700mi) from earth (still 22,300 miles short of the as-yet-unnamed Clarke Belt).
The launch and successful broadcast was the result of over two years of hard work and political battles at Bell Labs and NASA. But it proved that live transoceanic communication was not only possible but entirely feasible.
James Early, sitting back in the hotel, had little time to revel in the amazing technological milestone he had helped bring to life. The first broadcast only lasted a few minutes. In fact, because Telstar was in such a low orbit, it made a full revolution every two hours and 37 minutes, meaning it was only in position to broadcast for about 20 minutes each orbit. Although it was a far cry from the constant stream of television we have at our fingertips today, that short broadcast was a scientific triumph and the first step toward a true, live worldwide broadcast.
Telstar’s roots lay in NASA’s first successful two-way communication satellite, Echo 1. Launched in early 1960, Echo 1 was a joint venture of NASA and AT&T’s Bell Labs. But calling Echo 1 a “satellite” is a bit of a stretch by today’s standards.
The word “satellite” usually brings to mind images of tiny Sputnik, beeping in the vast darkness of space, or gargantuan modern satellites with sprawling solar panels spinning around the earth. In contrast, Echo 1 was literally a giant metallic balloon.
The balloon was made of Mylar about 1/10th the thickness of a human hair, roughly 100 feet in diameter, and weighed 138 pounds when inflated. It hung in the atmosphere only 1,000 miles above Earth and, under the right conditions, was even visible to the naked eye. Echo 1 had no signal transmission capability and acted solely as a giant mirror that NASA bounced radio signals off of between the East and West coasts of the US.
Despite its limited ability and less-than-amazing technology, Echo 1 was a huge success and the world press praised it as a leap forward in technological innovation. Once two-way satellite communication proved possible, Bell Labs set out to improve the technology by creating a high-altitude satellite with reception and broadcast capabilities. They called it Telstar.
The Birth of Telstar
The Telstar project began in earnest during the summer of 1960, under the team of John Robinson Pierce, Rudy Kompfner, and James Early. All three team members were pioneers in transistor technology — the technology at the heart of the Telstar communication system.
Not only had Pierce headed the team that initially invented the transistor, he’d also helped Early break the 1Ghz transistor power barrier after he bet Early a bottle of Scotch that it couldn’t be done (Early won the Scotch). And Komfner had invented the Traveling Wave Tube in 1943 — a breakthrough in transistor amplification (Pierce had recruited Kompfner to Bell Labs as a result). This was the transistor dream team.
However, having the transistor dream team in place, didn’t ensure the success of Telstar. There were still many scientific and political problems to overcome, not the least of which was NASA’s pride.
III. Bribing NASA
John Robinson Pierce was an elder statesman at Bell Labs in the early 60s. Tall, thin, and good natured, he carried about him an air of down-to-earth confidence that made him a natural leader. Having a reputation as a genius also gave him a lot of clout.
Pierce worked on Echo 1 alongside NASA scientists, and in 1960 he served as the technical leader of the Telstar team — perhaps the most ambitious project Bell Labs had ever taken on.
Because of his previous work with NASA, Bell Labs leadership invited Pierce to attend a meeting at NASA headquarters to discuss launching Telstar into space as early as 1962. However, despite the success of the NASA/Bell Labs partnership on Echo 1, the meeting did not go as planned.
Although Echo 1 was a NASA-sponsored project, Bell Labs — who had worked with NASA on the signal transmission and reception — got most of the media attention and public praise for the project. By the time the two organizations met to discuss the Telstar project, NASA’s jealousy had festered into a serious wound to their pride.
The Relay Roadblock
Not unlike a vindictive child, NASA informed Bell Labs that they were going to take their toys and go build their own satellite, called Relay. Pierce and the Bell Labs team were more than dumbfounded. They knew NASA didn’t have the know-how to build a successful satellite themselves. NASA’s specialty was rockets, and they were far too focused at that point on putting a man into space to spend any serious effort on telecommunication technology. But without NASA’s rockets, Telstar had no way of getting into space, and the project was dead in the water.
With few other options, Bell Labs decided to bid as a contractor on Relay. But they continued to work on Telstar, hoping that they could still get it into space without NASA’s help. However, in the early 60s, there weren’t any other organizations on the planet that had been as successful with rockets as NASA.
After negotiating with several private companies, the US Air Force, and even asking a visiting Russian scientist about the possibility of launching a US satellite on a Soviet rocket, Bell Labs was left with few options. So Bell Labs leadership thought they’d give NASA another try. Pierce wasn’t privy to the conversations going forward, but Bell Labs decided to take a different tack: bribery.
A Tantalizing Proposition
Like most spoiled children, if you promise them dessert, they’ll be more willing to come back to the table and eat their vegetables. So it was with NASA. Bell Labs offered to pay the entire cost of launching Telstar — $3.5 million (over $27 million in today’s dollars). Plus Bell Labs would give NASA free, unfettered access to the satellite once it was in space. The offer was so tantalizing that NASA even agreed to launch Telstar on July 10, 1962 — a full 5 months ahead of the planned launch of Relay.
Pierce was overjoyed. Telstar would finally get into space. Then Walter Cronkite made it famous.
IV. The Short, Happy Life of the Telstar Satellite
“All we can see … on those monitors … are square windows of light. Is there something in there we can’t see?” intoned a skeptical Walter Cronkite on live TV.
Despite a handful of dry runs, the live, worldwide Telstar broadcast looked like it may be a bust for the newly-minted anchor of the CBS Evening News, and he tried to fill time until the uplink began to work.
Chet Huntly, the NBC co-anchor for the event, broke in, “I have just received word, Mr. Cronkite, that the French are ready, and the program can now start.”
A picture of the Statue of Liberty appeared on the left side of the screen.
“Eurovision, Eurovision, we are now putting up our Statue of Liberty,” announced Cronkite, awaiting action from the broadcast station in Brussels. Seconds later, a picture of the Eiffel Tower in Paris filled the right side of the screen, confirming that the signal was working on both sides, and the program officially began.
“Good evening, Europe. This is the North American continent, live via AT&T Telstar, July 23, 1962,” announced Cronkite.
Thirteen days after James Early sat in a dark hotel room watching the first broadcast, Telstar got its chance to shine for the rest of the world with the first public transatlantic broadcast in history. The live TV event was a coordinated effort through a partnership between the three major American broadcast networks, the Canadian broadcast system, and Eurovision — a part of the European Broadcasting Union.
The first part of the program was a live broadcast of a Cubs/Phillies baseball game at Wrigley Field. The stadium announcer came over the loudspeaker and told the crowd that the game was being seen live on the other side of the Atlantic. The crowd burst into thunderous applause and enthusiastic shouts. It then cut to a presidential press conference from the State Department building in Washington D.C., where President Kennedy took questions from reporters. Then it moved on to live pictures from across North America: a shot of the US-Mexico border, the World’s Fair in Seattle, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing in front of Mount Rushmore, actors rehearsing MacBeth in Ontario, and a handful of other slices of everyday life.
Then, just as abruptly as it had started, the 18-minute broadcast ended as Telstar flew out of range on its 125th orbit around Earth.
At six o’clock that evening, a second broadcast featured live pictures from Europe, including the Louvre, the Sistine Chapel, the Tower of London, and other historical landmarks.
“It told us unmistakably that all of humanity were members of a single global community,” wrote James Early in 1990.
The Death of Telstar
Telstar was a technological achievement that changed the way the world saw itself. It brought everyone on the planet — however briefly — together and made all who saw it feel as if the world were smaller and more intimate than they could have imagined.
Sadly, the triumph of Telstar was short-lived.
Pierce originally envisioned Telstar broadcasting for many years alongside 25 or so duplicates around the globe, creating a web of orbiting Telstars all over the earth. But by the end of 1962, Telstar was inoperable.
Unknown at the time of its construction, Telstar launched one day after a US nuclear test in the upper atmosphere. Telstar survived long enough to prove that transatlantic satellite communication was viable then it succumbed to the radiation created by the nuclear test that fried its transistors.
Today, there are over 550 communication satellites orbiting the earth. They broadcast television, movies, live sports, political hearings, reality shows, music videos, and connect you to the internet. Some are no bigger than a microwave oven and others are as large as school buses with solar panel arrays as big as football fields. But the 170 lb. Telstar satellite is the father of them all.
Despite its fried transistors, Telstar still orbits the earth today, and it will continue to do so for the next 200 years when its orbit will decay as it succumbs to earth’s gravity.
On the day it finally plunges to earth in a glorious fireball, the final remnant of the biggest milestone in the history of global communication will be gone forever.
More background on Telstar:
- Something New Under the Sun: Satellites and the Beginning of the Space Age
- NPR Audio: Cronkite recounting his memory of Telstar
- Archive news footage: here and here.
- The Big Bounce: Project Echo [documentary]
- National Geographic, May 1962: Telephone a Star