1962: Satellite Transmission

[The first television picture relayed from earth to space and back occurred on July 10, 1962.] The first television picture relayed from earth to space and back occurred on July 10, 1962. The transmission, which showed the American flag waving in front of the Earth Station in Andover, Maine, was made possible when NASA launched AT&T's Telstar, the world's first active communications satellite, at four thirty-five that morning.

The idea of an active satellite, which doesn't simply reflect signals but amplifies and retransmits them, was conceived by science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in 1945. And in 1955, John Pierce of Bell Telephone Laboratories sketched the possibilities for satellite communications in a scientific paper. Two years later, the Russians launched Sputnik, and the space race began. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) soon began launching American satellites.

Pierce, meanwhile, had convinced AT&T management to proceed. In January 1960, AT&T and NASA agreed to a joint project. AT&T would design and construct an experimental satellite and pay NASA to launch it. It would be the first privately sponsored space launch.

[Telstar satellite is mounted on NASA's Thor-Delta rocket.]
AT&T's Telstar satellite is mounted on NASA's Thor-Delta rocket for its journey into space.

Researcher Eugene O'Neill led a team at Bell Telephone Laboratories that designed Telstar, a 34 1/2-inch, 170-pound satellite that fit NASA's Delta rocket. Telstar would receive microwave signals from a ground station, amplify them and rebroadcast them. The team calculated an orbital path the rocket could reach, and located an ideal site for the U.S. ground station near Andover, Maine.

Here they built a massive 160-foot-diameter horn antenna, protected from the elements by the largest air-supported structure ever built. And on that morning in July 1962, the team held its collective breath as countdown led to a perfect blastoff. Telstar was in space.

That evening, AT&T President Frederick Kappel picked up a phone in Andover and placed a call. Vice President Lyndon Johnson in Washington, D.C., answered. The call - the first ever transmitted through space - was relayed via Telstar. Within 30 minutes, Telstar produced several other firsts: successfully transmitting faxes, high- speed data, and both live and taped television. Portions of the television transmission were successfully received in France — the first live transmission of television across an ocean.

[Telstar satellite is mounted on NASA's Thor-Delta rocket.]
Project Director Eugene O'Neil gives a "thumbs up" after learning Telstar's first television transmission was received in France.

More elaborate television demonstrations followed later that month, including countries from Norway to Italy sending programs westward, and the United States sending programs east.

Telstar went out of service on Feb. 21, 1963, its mission accomplished. After a second successful experiment, Telstar II, AT&T retired from the field of satellite development and concentrated on leasing bandwidth for use in international telephony.