Once solely the realm of competitors in the Space Race, Earth’s atmosphere took on a whole different purpose when Telstar 1 left the surly bonds of gravity atop a Thor-Delta rocket on July 10, 1962. The first dedicated communications satellite in history would forever change the way people reached each other, paving the way for international television broadcasts, telephone calls and fax transmissions that are ubiquitous today.
A host of countries and corporations worked in conjunction to get Telstar 1 off the ground, taking advantage of the new technology to create the first live transatlantic video feed. Agencies from the British, French and American governments worked alongside AT&T and Bell Telephone Laboratories to create the spherical satellite, while relay stations were built in each of the three nations – at Andover, Maine for the United States, Goonhilly Downs for England and Pleumeur-Bodou for France.
Approximately 35 inches long and weighing a paltry 170 pounds, Telstar 1 used an array of tiny two- and eight-square-inch solar panels to produce the miniscule 14 watts of energy required to make it operate. (Many of today’s communications satellites are lifted into orbit by much larger vehicles, allowing them to be five times larger and a whopping 58 times heavier.) Forced into a spin to help it maintain its elliptical medium-altitude orbit, the single transponder within alternated between relaying telephone calls and telephone signals.
The launch, the first privately-sponsored in history, occurred at Cape Canaveral on July 10th. Telstar 1 soon reached its operating height, just shy of 600 miles above the earth’s surface at its nearest point. Technology of the era did not allow for geostationary orbits – a gravitational arrangement by which the satellite moves at the same speed as the planet and, thus, broadcasts to the same area throughout its lifetime – so Telstar 1 orbited the earth in an elliptical pattern every two hours and 37 minutes. Thanks to the odd orbital shape, it came less than 600 miles from the planet at the nearest point (a short 20-minute window it could be effective) and swept almost 3700 miles away during its “dark time.”
Only able to emit a signal for such a brief window left the agencies involved with limited options for testing Telstar 1. The first television images were relayed on July 11th, with Plemeur-Bodou receiving images of a flag waving outside Andover Earth Station. Two weeks later, in the middle of the afternoon in eastern North America and late in the evening in Europe, a live transatlantic broadcast featuring Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley from New York and Richard Dimbleby from Brussels became the first public transmission. Pictures of the Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower opened the show, followed by some baseball between the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs, then remarks from President John F. Kennedy before moving on to locations in Canada.
Its launch could rightly be considered the first use of Cold War technology without military implications, but Telstar 1 went out of service in late February 1963 with a catastrophic failure of its transistor – ironically a victim of high-altitude nuclear tests by the United States and Soviet Union. Though the world has moved on to the larger satellites that power today’s smartphones and thousand-channel digital televisions, the US Space Objects Registry maintains Telstar 1 is still in orbit today.