Satellite TV is 50 Years Old

On July 10, 1962, a beach ball-sized satellite called Telstar launched into space. Two days later, that satellite beamed the first television satellite signal, carrying images of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty through satellite bases in Andover, Maine and Pleumeur-Bodou, France. A few days later, on July 23, it carried a portion of the press conference held by then President John F. Kennedy, in which he called the satellite “yet another indication of the extraordinary world in which we live.” The satellite weighed around 200 pounds and few at low orbit; the signal could only be picked up during the 20 minutes or so that it was over either of the base areas.

Now, of course, companies like DIRECTV and DISH Network beam hundreds of channels 24 hours a day, many in high-definition picture that could not have been imagined in 1962. But everything began here, with this one satellite built by Bell Telephone Laboratories for use by AT&T, on the first privately sponsored space mission. The satellite could carry one television channel and many telephone lines; it carried more than 400 telephone, telegraph, facsimile and television transmissions before its mission came to an end, when, a few months after its launch, the Telstar’s onboard electronics failed due to radiation from high-altitude US and Soviet nuclear and radioactive testing.

It’s strange to think now just how much of our communication goes through satellites. Now that most people have cellular phones, terrestrial phone lines are slowly becoming obsolete, with calls bouncing from towers to satellites and back down. Fifty years ago, there was one telecommunications satellite in the sky. Now, there’s no telling how many there are. This is one area where we have made progress; now it is possible to communicate with nearly anyone, anywhere, around the world; this was part of JFK’s dream when the satellite was launched.

“This satellite must be high enough to carry messages from both sides of the world, which is, of course, an essential requirement for peace,” he said at the time. Truer words have rarely been spoken.

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