The launch of the Telstar satellite on July 10, 1962 heralded a new age for communications. Prior to Telstar, live television broadcasts had been confined within continental borders, hindered by the inability of television's high frequencies to bounce off the ionosphere. Although transatlantic telephone cables to Europe existed, as late as 1957 the system could accommodate a mere 36 calls at any one time. Telstar was designed as the first link in a vast network of satellites capable of relaying images and telephone calls around the globe.
While the Soviet Union's Sputnik thrust satellites onto the world stage, its faint chirping beeps served little purpose other than as a tracking signal. However, beyond the immense political ramifications, Sputnik proved that a manmade object could not only be placed into orbit, but it could function in the hostile environment of space. The possibilities for satellites were far reaching—they could be distant sentinels tracking volatile weather formations, spies in the sky for the military, or communication repeater outposts.
The concept of utilizing satellites for communication purposes first appeared in an article penned by space visionary Arthur C. Clarke in October 1945. Entitled "Extra-Terrestrial Relays" the article, published in the trade journal Wireless World, predicted three geostationary communication satellites would provide simultaneous worldwide radio broadcasts by the year 1995. Less than 20 years after the publication of this article, science fiction was well on its way to becoming scientific reality, with Telstar blazing the trail.
Realizing the potential of satellites, U.S. telecommunications giant AT&T (American Telephone & Telegraph) initiated funding for a project named Telstar in the fall of 1960. AT&T coined the term "Telstar" by combining "telecommunications" and "star." Their ambitious network of satellites would be an expensive venture, but AT&T's monopoly status at that time allowed the company to simply pass research and operating costs on to the consumer. AT&T even reimbursed NASA $3 million for the use of its Thor-Delta launch vehicle.
From its initial relay, Telstar electrified the world. For the first time an image generated on one side of the Atlantic could be instantly viewed on the other. The telecasting feat answered critics who questioned the practical applications of the Sputnik induced space race. As a propaganda tool, Telstar bolstered America's sagging image as a technological innovator. The Soviets could claim the world's first artificial satellite, but its scientific value paled when compared to the technologically sophisticated instrument designed by American minds.
Reflecting Vice President Lyndon Johnson's statement of Tel-star being "another first in the American conquest of space," the first image telecast from three thousand miles above the Earth was an American flag waving in the foreground of AT&T's antenna tracking facility near Andover, Maine. "America the Beautiful" and "The Star Spangled Banner" acted as the musical score for the sequence. Although European tracking stations were unable to receive this broadcast, France was able to establish a link at 7:47 PM EDT. The following evening, July 11, American television viewers were treated to their first live images of Europe courtesy of Telstar; they watched entertainer Yves Montand singing "La Chansonette."
A technological wonder, relaying both television signals and telephone calls, the basic premise of the Telstar network was flawed. Telstar was capable of transatlantic relay for a mere 102 minutes a day. In order to create a stable communications network AT&T estimated 50 to 120 Telstars would need to be placed into orbit. The geostationary concept of Arthur C. Clarke, where a satellite is in synch with the Earth's rotation at a height where it could cover 42 percent of the planet's surface, required only three satellites. On July 26, 1963, Telstar became obsolete as Syncom II became the first satellite to transmit from a synchronous orbit some 22,235 miles in space.
President John Kennedy looked to Telstar as an "outstanding example of the way in which government and business can cooperate in a most important field of human endeavor." Telstar benefitted both the United States and AT&T greatly. The satellite restored America's image as a leader in technology, an image severely battered in the wake of a series of humiliating space firsts achieved by the Soviet Union. An extensive advertising campaign by AT&T featured Telstar linking progress and AT&T firmly in the subconscious of the American public. While geostationary communication satellites quickly eclipsed the Telstar network concept, subsequent satellites failed to achieve the public notoriety of Telstar.
—Dr. Lori C. Walters
Clarke, Arthur C. "Extra-Terrestrial Relays." Wireless World. October 1945, 305-308.
Findley, Rowe. "Telephone a Star." National Geographic. Vol. 121,No. 5, May 1962, 638-651.
Gavaghan, Helen. Something New Under the Sun: Satellites and the Beginning of the Space Age. New York, Copernicus, 1998.