Living during the communications revolution, it sometimes seems impossible to imagine how quickly the world has changed. Today is the 50th anniversary of an important step towards the instantly connected world of today: on July 10, 1962, a Thor-Delta rocket (launched from Cape Canaveral) carried the communication satellite Telstar 1 into orbit. The satellite was built by collaboration between AT&T, Bell Labs, NASA, the British General Post Office, and the French National Post, Telegraph, and Telecom Office. It was the first satellite ever to relay television, telephone and high-speed data communications. It was the first time that humans could beam such complicated information across an entire ocean via electromagnetic transmission.
Telstar was tiny and crude by today’s standards. The entire spacecraft weighed only 77 kg (170 lbs). The power generated by its solar panels was a mighty 14 watts (which is about what is necessary to operate a dim fluorescent nightlight). Since Telstar 1 was in non-geosynchronous orbit, its ability to transmit transatlantic signals was limited to a 20 minutes window during each 2.5 hour world orbit (and because satellite broadcasting stations only existed in England, France, and on the East Coast, the rest of the world didn’t matter) . Most contemporary telecommunications satellites are in geosynchronous orbit (and stay in place despite the solar wind thanks to thruster burns), but Telstar came in an era before all of that. The satellite’s first broadcast (on July 23rd) consisted of President John F. Kennedy talking about the dollar’s rapidly appreciating value. The initial broadcast also showed a baseball game, the American flag, Mount Rushmore, and, of course French singer Yves Montand.
Telstar 1 had a brief and memorable life broadcasting one grainy channel of black and white television and relaying perhaps a few hundred phone lines, but it has not been broadcasting since 1963. High altitude nuclear tests carried out during 1962 supercharged the Van Allen belt and overwhelmed the fragile electronics on the craft. As of May 2012 Telstar was still in orbit around Earth—presumably it is still up there, circling our planet, simultaneously a communications milestone and a cold war victim.