Production

Communications Satellites

From Cold War Threat to Routine Broadcast Tool

The year 2017 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the first artificial earth object to orbit this planet. Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4th, 1957, from what is now known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, formerly a part of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The only function of the object was to repeatedly transmit a beep tone every three tenths of a second.

DAYTON, Ohio — Sputnik I exhibit in the Missile & Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The launch came during the cold war period between the USA and the Soviet Union. Sputnik signaled to the world the space race had begun.

Man made satellites have been a part of life on earth ever since. Experimental satellite technology by military organizations gave way to commercial communications and television as science fiction became science fact and captured the public’s imagination.

Satellites were a natural for establishing relay stations that overcame microwave’s line of sight limitations. Microwave transmission is limited to 30 to 40 miles due to the curvature of the earth and the fact the microwave signals only travel in a straight line.

The only way to extend distance between transmit and receive points was to get the transmitter and receiver to much higher elevations resulting in microwave installations on mountaintops, tall towers and skyscrapers. Otherwise, the signal would have to be retransmitted by a series of towers (called “hops”) as was done with the AT&T Long Lines service in the early 1950’s that ultimately connected the U.S. west coast and east coast.

In the mid fifties, Dr. John R. Pierce and his associates at Bell Laboratories were working on the concept of a system of satellites to carry those same microwave signals (albeit at a much higher power level) into orbit.  A signal could be sent from and to ground stations directly and would require only one hop – the satellite itself – between the transmit and receiving station.  But it wouldn’t be until the fall of 1960 before Pierce and his teams at Bell would be able to try out their theories.  In his obituary in the Stanford University Report, Pierce was referred to as the “father of communications satellites.

America’s first answer to Sputnik was Project SCORE (Signal Communication by Orbiting Relay Equipment). Although designed to communicate, it was more experiment than communications satellite. But it was the harbinger of things to come. Sent aloft by the new Atlas launch vehicle on December 18th, 1958.   The Atlas had only been tested twice.  The first one exploded but the second one completed its mission.  SCORE would be the first attempt at two way communications using equipment that would be considered ancient by today’s standards.

First, it was all vacuum tube based and used tape recording and playback equipment. Most signals were intended to be received, recorded and then played back. However, it also had the capability of multiple data teletype channels as well as audio messages received and retransmitted live and in real time. The world learned of the success of the project when it was used to relay a Christmas message of peace from U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to the world.

The first satellite actually designed for communications purposes was nothing more than a large, reflective surface in the form of a balloon that passively reflected or “bounced” the ground signal back to the earth. It was built by Bell Laboratories, the research and development arm of the massive Bell Telephone System and had its first successful launch on August 12th, 1960.

GTS (Goldstone Tracking Station) Echo 1 site Antenna tracking – time exposure – star trails – August 12, 1960.
NASA Photo by Gordon Maughn

Known as Echo 1, it was essentially a balloon made of aluminized mylar (plastic film), along the line of the metallic foil type balloons sold as gifts today. The material for Echo 1 was formulated for its microwave reflective qualities and, once deployed in its 944 to 1048 mile high orbit, the fully inflated satellite was the size of a ten story building.

Echo 1 was able to provide the first round trip space transmission. The received signal was extremely weak due to the long (2000 mile), unamplified signal path between Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, CA, and Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey.

Echo was a “passive” satellite. It only reflected the signal and did not have the electronics on board to amplify and retransmit a received signal. A satellite that could accomplish that feat was considered and “active” satellite and able to receive, amplify and retransmit, providing a true microwave hop.

The first active satellite was a military satellite successfully launched on October 4th, 1960, by the U.S. Army.   Dubbed Courier 1B and built the Philco Electronics Corporation, the satellite had teletype, voice and photo facsimile capabilities but no television.

The second active satellite to be launched was arguably the most famous. Telstar 1 was built by AT&T and was part of a multinational consortium made up of AT&T and its Bell Laboratories, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the British General Post Office and the French National PTT (Post, Telephone & Telegraph). It was the first privately sponsored space launch and took place on July 10th, 1962 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The next day, on July 11th, an initial test of the transatlantic television signal was made successfully. When the test shot concluded with a close up of the American Flag,  the first connection of this kind ever was deemed a success and Telstar was “ready for its closeup.”

While the test made news, something even bigger was in the planning stage.  The public rollout took place with special ambitious broadcasts  on July 23rd.  Due to Telstar’s orbit varying from a low point (perigee) of 595 miles (958km) to a high point (apogee) of 3506 miles (5643km) and circumnavigating the earth every 158 minutes, Telstar was only in line of sight of both transmitting and receiving transatlantic earth stations for about 20 minutes on each orbit. The program was therefore broken into two parts. The first would be a program from North America to Europe. The second would take place about two and a half hours later on Telstar’s next orbit and be Europe’s turn to send their program to North America.

The first image Europe saw was a live split screen of the Statue of Liberty in New York City beside the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Americans only saw the left side of the screen as the satellite could only carry one channel of television at a time, a fact that seemed to be lost on the program’s hosts when they seemed to expect to see Eiffel Tower show up on the right side of the split screen.

The program was wildly successful and was watched by tens of millions on all three U.S. television networks, Canada and in 16 European countries. It was a momentous occasion that produced headlines around the world. On page one the New York Times the headline read “Satellite in Orbit Beams TV from U.S. to Europe Pictures Clear in France.”

Planning for the television programs began a month in advance, even before Telstar was launched. It was a tremendous undertaking for a television industry still in its adolescence (modern television had only been around for just over 10 years).

In a rare show of unity, the American networks suspended their competitive programming to produce and air the show live simultaneously and even contribute all of their leading news anchors – Walter Cronkite from CBS, Chet Huntley from NBC and Howard K. Smith from ABC.  The program transmitted by the U.S. was produced under the supervision of a three network committee made up of Ted Fetter of ABC, Gerald Green of NBC and lead by Fred Friendly of CBS with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. contributing. Friendly was already famous in 1962 for his work as Edward R. Murrow’s producer at television’s beginning.

The program which had no real title was given one after the fact by the Boston Globe – “Television Space Extravaganza.” Even though the critics and the public gushed over the program on both sides of the Atlantic, the program had its share of technical problems.

President John Kennedy was holding a press conference that afternoon and was scheduled to lead the program. However, due to early access of the satellite signal, the producers went to a baseball game in Chicago first. By the time they got back to Kennedy’s press conference, he had already made his opening remarks regarding Telstar and no one saw them live in the U.S. or Europe.

Also, during the program, a lack of synchronization between locations caused the picture to roll every time a new city was introduced. Nowadays sync rolls are a thing of the past as a result of GPS synchronization provided by what else?  Satellites.

Most of the segments originated from locations where a “point of presence” or POP existed. A POP is a location where AT&T had a connection installed to its nationwide network of microwave relays and coaxial cable. Those locations made it much easier to get the signal back to NBC in New York, the network providing the program origination control facilities. However, one location was way off the beaten track. In the Black Hills of South Dakota there is a famous carving of four U.S. Presidents into the side of the mountain. In front of the carving, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was set to sing.

But station KOTA-TV, the CBS affiliate in nearby Rapid City had no POP. Their only connection to the outside world was by single directional microwave hops from Denver, Colorado, almost 400 miles away. According to Bill Turner, former station manager of KOTA, originating the segment required that all live network programming to the station be suspended for several days while the microwave hops were physically turned around so the station could transmit to the network instead of receive it.

The Telstar name was cool and futuristic and became chic instantly. Paris fashion designers produced Telstar ensembles. A British rock band, the Tornados hit number one on the popular British and American music charts with “Telstar,” and it filled the airwaves later that summer. Telstar lent its name to a Ford automobile, an early Coleco video game system and an Adidas soccer ball that looked very similar to the satellite.

Plans were discussed to put many Telstars in orbit so the entire globe could exchange signals any time of the day or night. But even with the success of Telstar 1, events were already in motion that would take AT&T out of the international satellite business and Telstar out of the spotlight of communications satellites.

A little over a month after Telstar 1’s success, the U.S. Congress passed and President Kennedy signed the Communications Satellite Act which created a new Federally supervised organization COMSAT (Communications Satellite Corporation) an eternal monopoly over any U.S. participation in international satellite transmission.  AT&T would later become a player in domestic satellite communication which the act did not cover.

The other event was the launch of the first geostationary communications satellite only two years after Telstar. At the time Telstar was sent into orbit, geostationary satellites were thought to be many years away. But the launch of Syncom 3 on August 19, 1964, changed all that. The Hughes Aircraft Company in California began working on the concept in early 1959.

In 1945, Arthur C. Clarke, best known as the writer of “2001: A Space Odyssy,” theorized that a satellite orbiting at 22,236 miles (35,786km) above the equator would appear to remain stationary to points on the ground. This is called a geostationary orbit. It is not to be confused with a geosynchronous orbit that can also include an inclined orbit and still requires the use of moving antennae. Geostationary is a type of geosynchronous orbit that allows ground antennae to be locked at one point in the sky. The ring of geostationary communications satellites occupying the circumference of the globe over the equator and beam television images to us from around the world is called the Clarke Belt in Clarke’s honor

Syncom 3 was considered a test satellite. Its most notable usage was to relay live television coverage of the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, to the world. It was turned over to the U.S. Department of Defense on January 1st, 1965. But it proved that geosynchronous would be the future of communications satellites.

It only took eight short years to go from the very first artificial satellite, Sputnik, able only to emit short “beeps,” to Syncom 3’s transmission of the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games live and in color. As the years passed, satellites became routine.  They became merely another tool in the toolkit of television production.  But for the population of the world, communications satellites enabled common men and women to relate to space in a way that affected them directly.  Not only did satellites change the way we look at television, they changed the way we see the world.


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Richard Wirth had barely learned to read when his parents brought the glowing box into the living room. By the time he finished elementary school he had read all the books about television in his…

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