On this day in 1963, Syncom 2, the world’s first geosynchronous communication satellite, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a Delta B booster. With its historic launch, Syncom also launched a communications revolution that would collapse the forces of time, cost, and geography and introduce a world of modern communications technology.
Syncom 2 was the second of three communications satellites developed by the Hughes Aircraft Company in the early 1960s. They were developed to demonstrate the feasibility of space-based communications technology from geosynchronous orbit, an orbit around the Earth with an orbital period of about one day.
The launch of Syncom 2 was decades in the making. As early as 1929, Austrian engineer Hermann Noordung hypothesised that an object placed over the equator some 35,789 kilometres high and traveling at a speed of 11,069 kilometres per hour would synchronise with Earth’s daily rotation. To a ground observer, the object in synchronous orbit would appear stationary.
In 1945, English scientist and writer Arthur C. Clarke took Noordung’s theory a step further, postulating that three spacecraft set equidistant in synchronous orbit would virtually blanket the planet with continuous radio and television coverage. By the post-Sputnik era of the late 1950s, when space technology and travel was at fever pitch, Hughes Aircraft Company (later Hughes Space and Communications Company) embarked on this ambitious new project. Harold Rosen, Donald Williams, and Thomas Hudspeth were assigned the historic project. By 1961, the team had designed and built a prototype satellite, displayed at the Paris Air Show. In August of that year, they won a $4 million contract from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the United States’ Department of Defense to build three synchronous communications satellites. Their objectives: To place a satellite in synchronous orbit, demonstrate on-orbit stationkeeping, and perform communications and engineering tests.
The first Syncom 1, launched in February 1963, was lost on the way due to an electronics failure. The second, Syncom 2, launched on 26 July 1963, was a success. It measured .71 metre in diameter and weighed 35 kilograms. During its orbit, NASA conducted voice, teletype, and facsimile tests, as well as 110 public demonstrations to show its capabilities. Syncom 2 also relayed the first successful TV transmission through geosynchronous satellite. In August 1963, US President John F. Kennedy telephoned Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar Balewa aboard USNS Kingsport docked in Lagos Harbor. It was the first live two-way call between heads of state by satellite. Syncom 2 was followed up with Syncoms 3 and paved the way for a new Leaset Satellite program. But it was with the launch of Syncom 2 that global communications were revolutionised in one ambitious project.