Cell phones, Internet, satellite television - they’re all technologies our society takes for granted. But about half a century ago, those types of communications were pure science fiction. Telstar, the world’s first global communications satellite, set us on a path to change that, and on Thursday the National Air and Space Museum marked the 50th anniversary of Telstar’s first television transmission.
Telstar’s July 1962 launch marked the birth of telecommunications, sending the first global transmission of a television signal. That first picture came from Andover Earth Station, Maine, to the Pleumeur-Bodou Telecom Center, Brittany, France. The satellite also handled telephone and fax signals.
Some of the first public video from the satellite included remarks from then-President John F. Kennedy, and a baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs.
Thursday’s event at the Air and Space Museum linked speakers at the Museum through satellite in Washington to other symposium participants at that same telecom facility in Brittany used 50 years ago.
At the symposium, Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough told listeners in Washington and across the Atlantic just how important the launching of Telstar was to our lives today.
“The launching of Telstar was a turning point in the history of global communications. It was a turning point in the history of the globe,” Clough said. “We all know the power of the live image to change our image of the individual, group or a country. We know global communications can create global community, if even for a brief time, and unite us in joy, tragedy and triumph.”
The satellite’s launch even inspired an instrumental song by an instrumental group known as The Tornados. ‘Telstar’ was the first single by a British band to reach number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and was also a number one song in the UK.
The launch coincided with the height of the Cold War and at a time when the Soviet Union was beating the United States at every turn of the Space Race. Just a year before, the Soviets launched the first human into orbit, and while the United States followed up with a human flight of its own less than a year later, it wasn’t until the launch of Telstar that the United States beat the Soviets in a space category.
“It was a sense of relief,” said Paul Ceruzzi, chairman of the National Air and Space Museum's Space History Division. “Americans were depressed about news from Russia. The implication was, ‘If Russia could put these things into space, then maybe they could shoot missiles at us.’ This is something we won.”
It was an American victory in a game in which the Soviets could never catch back up, as U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon in July 1969.
The satellite handled over 400 telephone, telegraph, facsimile and television transmissions in its short lifespan. Telstar is still orbiting Earth today but stopped functioning in November 1962, when the satellite failed due to the effects of radiation.