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Echo II: When satellites were young and shiny (photo)

This was no balloon for a birthday party or a Thanksgiving parade. The Echo II put the bounce in early satellite communications.


Back at the start of the Space Age, satellites weren't always the high-tech wonders that they are today.

Behold the 135-foot Echo II, NASA's "rigidized balloon," which served as a passive communications satellite. Here, it's seen undergoing a tensile stress test in a dirigible hanger at Weekesville, N.C. Microwave signals sent from Earth bounced off the orbiting metallic balloon to another point back on Earth.

NASA sent Echo II into orbit on January 25, 1964, and it was in service until June 1969, when it re-entered the atmosphere and burned up. Its predecessor, the slightly smaller Echo 1A, was aloft from August 1960 until May 1968. (That earlier Echo, NASA says, allowed President Eisenhower to make the first voice communication via satellite.)

When deflated and folded, the satellite could be packed into the 41-inch-diameter canister seen in the foreground, according to NASA.