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Live, via satellite!

A largely unheralded 50th anniversary passed us by last month. On Oct. 4, 1957, Americans woke up to headlines that the Soviet Union had successfully launched the world's first space satellite. Not much of a payload by today's standards, Sputnik I was a basketball-size, 183lb orb that contained what would be viewed today as a Stone Age telemetry transmission capability.

Leading up to Sputnik

The Sputnik launch was rooted in events that had occurred several years earlier. In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions decided to establish July 1, 1957, through Dec. 31, 1958, as the International Geophysical Year (IGY). The period was selected to coincide with the predicted peak timing of the current sunspot cycle. Subsequently, in October 1954, the council challenged its members to launch an artificial earth satellite during the IGY for the purpose of mapping the earth's surface.

On July 29, 1955, the White House confidently announced plans to launch an earth-orbiting satellite. This new satellite program was intended to be the U.S. contribution to the IGY, and the White House said that the scientific data would benefit scientists of all nations.

In that era of A-bomb shelters and air raid drills, such a success by our reviled cold war enemy was the height of embarrassment to the United States. The Russians quickly trumped Sputnik I the next month when they launched another Sputnik satellite. The world was stunned on Nov. 3, 1957, when Sputnik II, a half-ton satellite, carried the first living passenger into space — Laika, a stray dog from the streets of Moscow. The U.S. embarrassment was prolonged when it failed its first attempt to launch a satellite in December 1957. Finally, on Jan. 31, 1958, the United States successfully launched Explorer I.

This began the space age and the evolution of satellite technology to the state of the art we know today. But think about what it was like to provide up-to-the-minute broadcast coverage in the days before there was a plethora of satellites, with transponders available for easy scheduling, enabling live coverage of events around the world.

The real-time race

Satellite coverage of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer enabled the largest audience ever, an estimated 750 million people worldwide, to watch the fairytale spectacle playout in real time. The challenge of that broadcast was a far cry from the one faced by CBS and NBC news departments when some years earlier, during those Byzantine-era presatellite days, the networks struggled to provide same-day coverage of the coronoation of Queen Elizabeth II in London.

In order to provide the first same-day coverage of an event on another continent, the networks undertook a planning and logistics nightmare. The year was 1953, the introduction of videotape was still several years away, and film and kinescope capture ruled. The networks sent production teams to London, chartered aircraft with seats removed to make room for film processing and editing equipment, and the race was on between CBS and NBC to see who could air the first coronation footage. One of the more comical episodes, although I am sure not comical to those involved, occurred at the conclusion of the coronation when the taxi rushing the CBS film and crew to London's Heathrow Airport ran out of gas!

Interestingly, although it was NBC who edged out CBS by just minutes to be first on-air with coronation footage, it was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that had actually trumped both of the U.S. television networks.

The CBC aired film that had been flown from London to Goose Bay, Canada; Goose Bay to Labrador, Canada, by jet aircraft; on to Montreal by Canadian fighter jets and then helicoptered to the CBC network facility. Determining in the final minutes that CBS was about to beat them, after several frantic phone calls, NBC secured the lines and the OK to pick up and air the CBC's coverage. A hollow NBC victory at best, it was CBS that aired its own shot and edited film report of the coronation during its evening broadcast and earned plaudits in the following day's “New York Times.” The June 3 edition of the “Times” reported that CBS' coverage of the coronation was the “birth of international television.”

Sputnik I's batteries ran out by Oct. 26, 1957. With a useful life of just 22 days, we have come a long way since that first historic and shortly lived beep … beep … beep …

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

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