First Communications Satellite Launched

On this day in 1962, Telstar 1—the first of many communications satellites called Telstar—was launched on top of a Thor-Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. In subsequent years, many rockets were launched into space from the same site, including all the Apollo missions, starting with the tragic Apollo 1 launch pad test on 27 January 1967.

Telstar was an unmanned craft, sent into Earth’s orbit as the first satellite to relay television signals all around the world. It brought in the new age of international communications via telephone and television, allowing picture and voice transmissions from America to Europe and back again. It was funded by the AT&T Corporation (the American Telephone and Telegraph Company)—in association with Bell Telephone Laboratories, the British General Post Office, the French Post, Telegraph and Telecom Office, and NASA—in order to allow transatlantic satellite transmissions, and it was the first privately sponsored spacecraft launch.

As well as Telstar itself, there were three ground stations to receive its signals: at Andover in Maine, at Goonhilly Downs in South-Western England, and at Pleumeur-Bodou in North-Western France.

Every two and a half hours, Telstar completed an orbit of Earth, but it was only available for the 20 minutes when it was over the Atlantic. It was first tested the day after it took flight, on 11 July 1962, and it successfully transmitted live television footage of a flag from outside the Andover Earth Station to Pleumeur-Bodou.

A couple of weeks after, on 23 July 1962, Telstar was used for the first ever transatlantic television broadcast to the public. It started with still images of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, and these were supposed to be followed by live footage of President John F. Kennedy speaking at a press conference. However, the signal was acquired earlier than expected, and the President was not quite ready, instead it was switched to a televised baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. There was a pitch by Cal Koonce, a hit by Tony Taylor, and then the scene switched to JFK in Washington DC—presumably to the great annoyance of Phillies and Cubs fans.

At the time, the Cold War was also unfolding, and this was to have unfortunate consequences for Telstar 1. High-altitude nuclear tests by the Soviets and the Americans—who exploded a bomb by the strange name of Starfish Prime—caused raised levels of radiation that overwhelmed the satellite’s sensitive transistors at the end of the year. It was eventually retired on 21 February 1963, but it is still orbiting us to the present day.

As a side note, surf-rock group The Tornadoes released their feel-good instrumental hit “Telstar” in November 1962, and it became the first single by a British Band to top the US Billboard Hot 100.