Telstar Opened Commercial Space

Telstar was the world’s first commercial satellite. Photo courtesy of Bell Labs.

July 10, 2012, marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first commercial communications satellite, indeed the first commercial satellite launch of any type, Telstar 1.

Less than two weeks later, at 3 p.m. EDT on July 23, Telstar 1 beamed a program of live transatlantic television images between Western Europe, the United States, and Canada. To those people old enough to remember that historic broadcast, myself included, that broadcast likely made as indelible an imprint on their minds as any of the other major “firsts” of those earliest years of the Space Age. The achievements of Telstar, which in addition to the first television images also transmitted the first transatlantic telephone calls and fax images, showed people that Space Age technology could have a “soft” side in the useful context of everyday living. After all, almost everyone watched television and made phone calls. Its benefits were clear and immediate; they were not military secrets or something that would not be apparent or tangible for many years to come.

A Thor-Delta rocket launched Telstar on July 10, 1962. Photo courtesy of NASA.

There was so much prelaunch media hoopla surrounding Telstar that many of the people in my small-town Texas neighborhood gathered at night in a vacant field and watched the satellite pass overhead, much as we had gathered to see Sputnik 1 almost five years earlier. I was preparing to enter the fourth grade in the fall, and nothing could have been more exciting to an 8-year-old boy than this newest chapter of the Space Age.

One of the main reasons that the transatlantic broadcast of Telstar made such a vivid impression on the American public, and the public of all the Western nations, was because it was the first time that a major Space Age event was not (in an upfront manner anyway) related to the Cold War, although any technological breakthrough by the Soviets or the U.S. had propaganda benefits. There was no ominous background commentary by the television network newscasters about whether the Soviets were ahead of the U.S. in the Space Race during the Telstar broadcast, just opening shots of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower followed by a baseball game.

The Cold War was represented in an oblique way by the scenes shown of one of President John F. Kennedy’s news conferences, but he was not discussing the Soviet Union, Cuba, or China; he was discussing monetary policy. The broadcast was supposed to begin with the president’s news conference, but a delay caused the broadcasters to switch to a baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies. In the United States, television news anchors Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite hosted the Telstar broadcast. Cronkite later described the broadcast as “that rarest of all television moments, the kind that compels viewers to lean forward and stare in a primal wonder and amazement at their screens.”

Never mind that the black-and-white images transmitted by Telstar were sometimes so fuzzy and grainy that they were barely decipherable; the future was here and available for all to see in their very own living rooms. Indeed, I remember thinking secretly that without Walter Cronkite telling me that I was seeing the Eiffel Tower, I was not sure I could have figured out just what I was seeing. But no one wanted to mention such “minor” distractions; I was seeing the Eiffel Tower, known or unknown, live on my parent’s television set. The peoples of the world were being brought closer together, in real time, than ever before, and that is what mattered.

I had just seen the first ads for a new animated television show on the American Broadcasting Company’s fall 1962 schedule, The Jetsons, which would premiere on Sept. 23, and the Telstar program fit in perfectly with the optimistic sense of the future that permeated American popular culture at the time. I was convinced as I watched the transmissions by Telstar that by the time I was able to get my driver’s license, I would be jetting around Texas in a flying car. What Telstar logically had to do with flying cars is anyone’s guess, but it was all futuristic, and the future was happening before our very eyes.

The production of Telstar was the joint effort of two American private firms in cooperation with NASA. The satellite was owned by American Telephone and Telegraph Co. (AT&T) and was manufactured by Bell Telephone Laboratories. Telstar weighed some 170 pounds, was roughly three feet in diameter, and was powered by 3,600 solar cells. AT&T paid NASA to launch the satellite onboard a Thor-Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Telstar relayed its transmission signals among three ground stations in Andover, Maine, which belonged to Bell Labs; Pleumeur-Bodou in Brittany, France; and Goonhilly Downs in southwest England.

The French transmitted the first television images across the Atlantic via Telstar. Photo courtesy of Embassy of France in the United States.

Following the Aug. 10 launch, the first broadcasting tests were successfully conducted the next day, and Aug. 23 was then agreed on by the major television participants – the three American networks, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the Eurovision Network – to be the date of the first live satellite television transmissions, following additional testing. The French, however, were unable to restrain themselves and despite howls of protest from the British, jumped the gun and beamed a seven-minute live broadcast on Aug. 12 featuring actor/singer Yves Montand, which was shown live by the American networks.

A few months of Telstar mania followed the broadcasts in Western Europe and the United States. The elation over Telstar so infused American culture that even an instrumental recording titled (what else?) “Telstar” by the Tornados shot to No. 1 in the nation on Billboard magazine’s Top 40 chart and held that position for three weeks during November 1962, the first chart-topping record by a British group in the United States.

All types of stories circulated through the popular culture regarding the origins of the record’s “space-like” sounds; the most common story claimed that the sound effects were actual recordings of the sounds made by Telstar while traveling in space, which were recorded after their transmission back to Earth. Some of the people involved with the original recording later claimed that the record’s producer recorded his ballpoint pen running around the rim of an ashtray and then played the recording in reverse, which was not nearly as glamorous as hearing the actual satellite transmissions.

Even more amazing, in terms of Telstar’s global influence, is that “Telstar” had already hit No. 1, remaining there for five weeks, on the British charts in August 1962, before it crossed the Atlantic and became an American hit record.

Even the relatively rarified field of philately (stamp collecting) was swept by Telstar enthusiasm. According to the National Postal Museum’s website, 20,000 people visited New York City’s 14th annual National Postage Stamp Show, held in November 1962, to see John Glenn’s Friendship 7 space capsule and a full-sized model of Telstar, and the U.S. Postal Service issued two special commemorative stamped envelopes to mark the launch of Telstar. France issued a special stamp in honor of its contributions to the success of Telstar, and almost every French colony from French Polynesia to French Guiana and French West Africa to the French Antarctic Territories issued their own stamps in honor of the mother country’s involvement with the Telstar broadcast.

France and many of its colonies issued stamps in commemoration of Telstar. Photo courtesy Embassy of France in the United States.

Sadly, Telstar was unable to steer clear of the Cold War. The satellite’s transmissions began failing and became increasingly erratic after passing through increased radiation in the Van Allen Radiation Belt caused by the high-altitude U.S. nuclear test known as Starfish Prime and additional subsequent Soviet and U.S. high-altitude tests. The satellite’s transistors failed completely on Feb. 21, 1963, an extremely brief life for an object that generated so much publicity and interest. Its successor, Telstar 2, was launched May 7, 1963.

Fifty years later, Telstar 1 still orbits the Earth as a piece of space junk; amazingly it has survived long enough to become part of the space debris that is the cause of so much concern today to the international space community.

—Steven Strom