WASHINGTON, Jul 12 – Fifty years ago Thursday a beach ball-sized satellite carried the first television images across the Atlantic, kicking off a new era of global communications decades before the Internet.
The Telstar satellite — built by Bell Telephone Laboratories for use by AT&T — was also the first privately sponsored space mission, and was seen as part of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The satellite was launched on July 10, 1962 and two days later beamed the first television satellite signal — carrying images of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower — through bases in Andover, in the northeastern US state of Maine, and Pleumeur-Bodou in the Brittany region of France.
The US Air and Space Museum and the Pleumeur-Bodou Telecommunications Museum plan to hold a joint symposium via satellite in honor of the anniversary, and the French embassy has launched a website on the satellite, Telstar50.org.
The 77-kilogram (170-pound) satellite flew at low orbit and the signal could only be picked up during the 20 minutes or so that it was overhead.
It carried part of a press conference by US President John F. Kennedy on July 23, 1962, in which he called the satellite “yet another indication of the extraordinary world in which we live.”
“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.
However, the space race did not always reflect such inspiring rhetoric, and Telstar’s onboard electronics failed a few months later due to radiation from high-altitude US and Soviet nuclear testing.
The satellite carried over 400 telephone, telegraph, facsimile and television transmissions before its mission came to an end, and according to the US Space Objects Registry, it remains in orbit.