July marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of Telstar 1, the world's first active communications satellite, built by AT&T and Bell Laboratories. The modern Telstar fleet is operated by Loral Skynet.
The first Telstar was launched from Cape Canaveral. AT&T and Bell Labs worked jointly with NASA, the British Post Office and the French National PPT (post office) on the project. The satellite broadcast the first live television signal, a picture of the American flag, from Andover, Maine to Goonhilly Downs, England and Pleumeur-Bodou, France. It also carried the first long-distance telephone call via satellite between AT&T's then-chairman, Fred Kappel, and then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson.
The satellite remained in orbit for seven months and relayed images of baseball games, news broadcasts, scenes of the World's Fair in Seattle and a presidential news conference. Approximately 200 million people watched as the United States and 16 European countries exchanged live signals of national monuments, including the United Nations building, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. Then-President Kennedy praised the achievement for its contribution to international communications.
Telstar 1 was different from passive satellites at the time, which were large balloons that reflected radio signals. Telstar received signals from the ground, amplified them and sent them back to earth. The technology set the standard for communications satellites today.
Since its launch, changes in technology have widely improved satellites' abilities. Telstar 1 could transmit either one television channel or 500 simultaneous telephone calls. It weighed 171 pounds, used a 15 W power source and cost $6 million. Some of today's satellites can carry more than 500 television channels and thousands of data circuits, weigh 8,300 pounds, can last 15 years, are powered with 10,000 W and cost roughly $200 million.
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