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When Telstar met JFK

Fifty years ago today, the little Telstar satellite relayed the first TV transmission across the Atlantic. It wasn't long before President Kennedy had his black-and-white electrons beamed from the U.S. to Europe.


When you're watching the London Olympics later this month on your big-screen TV, you probably won't give a second thought to how those images got to you from across the ocean. Hit the Power button on your remote, and presto -- the 4x100 relay, live, and in the moment.

It wasn't always so.

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, watching faraway events as they unfolded was an exotic thing, a rarity marked by the phrase "Live, via satellite." Look back just 50 years, and you'll find the satellite that got it all started: Telstar. After Russia's Sputnik, it might be the one satellite that most people actually know of by name. (Sorry, Courier, Explorer, Echo, and TIROS.)

It was 50 years ago today that Telstar, which had been lofted into low-Earth orbit two days earlier, relayed the first-ever transatlantic television signal, flung skyward and eastward from the Andover Earth Station in the Maine hinterlands to the Pleumeur-Bodou Telecom Center in Brittany, France.

That first Telstar wasn't around all that long. Within four months, its on-board electronics had been done in by radiation. (Besides being a conduit for communications, Telstar also served as a guinea pig to help researchers understand the effects of Van Allen Belt energy on communications satellites.) But in that time, according to NASA, it facilitated over 400 telephone, telegraph, facsimile, and television transmissions.

Built by the legendary Bell Telephone Laboratories for AT&T, Telstar itself was a modest little near-sphere, just under 3 feet in diameter and weighing in at only 170 pounds, powered primarily by solar cells spread around its surface. It could handle only a single black-and-white television channel, plus about 600 voice calls.

Among the very first television images transmitted: an American flag waving in the wind; a still image of Mount Rushmore; French singer Yves Montand, looking suave. And on July 23, 1962, President John F. Kennedy stepped up to a podium in the U.S. so that a snippet of a press conference (just a snippet, you see, because live TV in those very early days apparently couldn't be of any great duration) could be viewed live in Europe. It wasn't JFK's most stirring oration, but he did emphasize the historic nature of the moment:

I understand that part of today's press conference is being relayed by the Telstar communications satellite to viewers across the Atlantic and that this is another indication of the extraordinary world in which we live. This satellite must be high enough to carry messages from both sides of the world, which is of course a very essential requirement for peace, and I think this understanding which will inevitably come from the speedy communications is bound to increase the well-being and security of all people, here and those across the oceans, so we're glad to participate in this operation developed by private industry and launched by government in admirable cooperation.

That's right. Fifty years before Elon Musk's SpaceX sent a capsule to the International Space Station on behalf of, and in conjunction with, NASA, Telstar was the first privately sponsored space mission.