Telstar Celebrates 40 Years

Satellites made us 'citizens of the world'


Forty years ago, engineers held their breath and entered a new era, beaming the world's first transatlantic television signal via the Telstar 1 satellite from Andover, Maine, to a twin station in Pleumeur-Bodou, France. The demonstration that satellite systems could provide communication between continents was an overwhelming success.

"Three words at the bottom of a TV screen - 'live via satellite' - heralded something special, important and momentous," said Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers President Ray Findlay, live via satellite himself from England during a ceremony marking the 40th Anniversary of the transmission of July 11, 1962. "It was the signal that the human family was being convened. Telstar made us citizens of the world."

About 100 people from all over the U.S. gathered for the ceremony on the town green in Andover to dedicate a plaque placed by the IEEE about three miles from the site of the original Telstar earth station. A live satellite link connected the ceremony in Andover to simultaneous ceremonies in Goonhilly in the U.K., and in Pleumeur-Bodou, France. A TV monitor was placed under a tent just a few feet from the marker. A temporary broadcast hub was set up in a second floor office at the Congregational Church, adjacent to the town green.

"Forty years ago, I was one of those at Andover watching, waiting, holding our breath, hoping - yes hoping - that Telstar would be a success. Then as Telstar came over the horizon and a command was given to turn it on, there was a whoop that filled the radome. It works! We had done it," said Walter Brown, former director of radiation physics research at Bell Labs and one of several speakers at the ceremony.

Telstar 1 is tiny by today's satellite standards at 175 pounds and 34 inches in diameter. It operated for seven months, whereas today's satellites can weigh more than five tons at blastoff and operate for 15 years. Launched aboard a Thor Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral, it took two hours and 37 minutes to orbit the earth. Its elliptical orbit consisted of a perigee at 500 miles above Earth and an apogee at 3,000 miles. The earth station at Andover could access Telstar 1 for about 20 minutes when it passed overhead.

At Pleumeur-Bodou, the giant radome still stands as a museum, whereas the immense radome in Andover was torn down in the mid-1980s. However, Worldcom operates a large teleport today in Andover with antennas as large as 30 meters. WorldCom acquired this facility from Comsat.

The NEC-encoded live TV transmission of this IEEE Milestone event went out on a T1 line donated by Oxford Telecom from Andover to Portland, Maine, then back to the WorldCom uplink again in Andover, and then out via one of three donated 3 Mbps carriers on an Intelsat satellite high over the Atlantic Ocean to the two receive sites in Europe.

John Foster, senior engineering technician at the WorldCom uplink in Andover, sat with all his equipment in the Congregational Church. David Belanger, a WorldCom equipment specialist, assisted Foster, who controlled the live feed to and from the town green in Andover, along with a separate wireless video link that ran from the church to a monitor in the town hall across the street.

The actual ceremony in Andover on July 11 lasted just over an hour, but for three days starting July 8, Loral Skynet had been broadcasting its own hour-long Telstar memorial event using Telstar 5. To date, there have been 14 Telstar satellites. Loral acquired the Telstar fleet from AT&T years ago.

In the Andover Town Hall sat one of the two surviving initial Telstar satellites. This satellite arrived on the morning of the IEEE ceremony in the back of a minivan. It had been sent north from the headquarters of Lucent Technologies in New Jersey, where it has been on display in the lobby for years. The other remaining old Telstar is on display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Both of the Telstars in space are probably still there, according to Brown, who developed and installed many of the instruments on Telstar that measured the environment of space and the impact of that environment on the reliability of satellites.

The effect of radiation on the performance of active spacecraft was a major concern in 1962. On the day prior to the launch of Telstar, the U.S. government had conducted a high-altitude nuclear test over the Pacific using a device known as Starfish. Starfish did great damage to Telstar 1. In short, the test fried the command decoder onboard, according to an account in "Engineering and Science in the Bell System," which Lucent Technologies reprinted and circulated at the dedication. By that November, the Telstar command sequence was exhibiting a serious anomaly. Telstar 1 did not respond to any commands after February 21, 1963. A second Telstar was launched the following May, and performed its mission for two years.

While the IEEE plaque centers on the TV milestone, Telstar 1 was also used that same day for the first long distance telephone call via satellite between former AT&T Chairman Fred Kappel, and then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. This took place at 9:30 p.m., just a few minutes before the first Telstar TV transmission.

On the 40th Anniversary, the portrait of Dr. John R. Pierce hung in the Andover Town Hall. At Bell Labs, Pierce served as director of electronics research and as executive director of research at the Communications Principles and Systems Division, among other positions. He is widely known as the father of satellite communications, and he made Telstar a reality. He was awarded the Edison Medal, the National Medal of Science and the IEEE Medal of Honor in 1975, to name just three. Dr. Pierce died on April 2 at the age of 92.