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From Telstar, a new age of telecommunications (pictures)

The humble little satellite could handle just a single black-and-white TV channel, but it was the cutting-edge technology of its day. JFK gave it a spin 50 years ago today.

Jon Skillings
Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET, where he's worked since 2000. A born browser of dictionaries, he honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS, AI and 5G to James Bond, aircraft, astronauts, brass instruments and music streaming services.
Jon Skillings
Telstar_01.jpg
1 of 8 Courtesy of Alcatel-Lucent

Telstar satellite

In 1962, the satellite era was still in its infancy. It had been only five years since Sputnik had arrived in orbit, and though there had been a smattering of launches since then (for the U.S., that included Explorer 1, Courier, and TIROS), NASA scientists and other researchers were still laying down their base of knowledge and there were many firsts yet to be achieved.

So it was with Telstar, which, after Sputnik, may be the second most famous satellite in history. On July 12, 1962, Telstar relayed the first transatlantic television signal, which traveled from the Andover Earth Station in northwestern Maine to the Pleumeur-Bodou Telecom Center in Brittany, France.

Telstar_Kennedy.jpg
2 of 8 Courtesy of Alcatel-Lucent

JFK on Telstar

Among the first TV images to travel via Telstar were a still image of Mount Rushmore, shots of an American flag waving in the wind, and pictures of French singer Yves Montand. (Apparently, Telstar could only handle rather brief TV signals.) The early transmissions also included video from a July 23, 1962, press conference held by President John Kennedy, which, in the portentous words of the Universal-International News newsreel account, allowed "most of Europe [to] witness democracy at work."
Telstar_dome.jpg
3 of 8 Courtesy of Alcatel-Lucent

Antenna dome in Maine

This is the ground station in Andover, Maine. Inside the distinctive dome was a sizable microwave antenna that, according to NASA, tracked the Telstar satellite for the half-hour or so that it was passing overhead during its elliptical low-Earth orbit.
Telstar_Parade_of_Progress.JPG
4 of 8 NASA

Parade of progress

This representation of the Telstar 1 satellite -- others would follow in later years, up through Telstar 18, launched in 2008 -- was created for use at the Parade of Progress show in Cleveland, likely within a couple years of that first transmission. (It's not clear from the information available whether this was a painting, a diorama with a scale model, or some other kind of presentation.)

About three feet in diameter and weighing 170 pounds, Telstar had two power sources for its electronics equipment. The primary source was a solar array with 3,600 solar cells, and backup power was available from a battery system. The satellite was spin-stabilized, according to NASA, to maintain its orientation.

Telstar_03.jpg
5 of 8 Courtesy of Alcatel-Lucent

Telstar meets rocket

Technicians mount Telstar onto a rocket for its launch into orbit. A creation of Bell Telephone Laboratories for AT&T, Telstar was the first privately sponsored, commercial payload to go into space, carried aloft by a government-funded NASA rocket.
Telstar_launch.jpg
6 of 8 Courtesy of Alcatel-Lucent

Liftoff

Telstar 1 lifts off on a Thor-Delta rocket on July 10, 1962, two days before relaying that first TV signal across the Atlantic. It wasn't in service long. In 1962, its on-board electronics failed because of exposure to radiation. In its four months of operation, Telstar 1 handled over 400 telephone, telegraph, facsimile, and television transmissions.
Echo03.jpg
7 of 8 NASA Langley Research Center

Echo, the satelloon

Although Kennedy and Telstar had teamed up for a genuine historic landmark, another president and another satellite had preceded them. The Echo 1 balloon, sent into space in August 1960, was the very first U.S. communications satellite. Not long after that launch, Echo (referred to jokingly by some as a "satelloon") allowed President Eisenhower to make the first voice communication via satellite.
Telstar_02.jpg
8 of 8 Courtesy of Alcatel-Lucent

The grandaddy of satellite communications

This humble little sphere could handle just a single black-and-white television channel, along with a modest 600 voice calls, but it was the cutting-edge technology of its day, the first active, direct-relay communications satellite. And it got the ball rolling toward the broadband, multichannel, hyperconnected world of today.

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