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How Communications Satellites Helped the World Mourn JFK

Posted on Wed, November 21, 2018
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"Where were you when JFK was shot?"

For a generation of Americans, this question—indelible and emotional—entered into our cultural vocabulary after November 22, 1963, in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It prompted you to share where you were and what you may have been doing at that wrenching, history-changing moment. But it also spoke to how you heard the news—perhaps a frantic phone call from a family member or friend, a newspaper, radio, or television.

For many it was the latter. By the early 1960s, tens of millions of U.S. homes had a TV. It had become the primary means through which events of the day were experienced, as individuals, communities, and nations. But a new technology—communications satellites—was beginning to broaden the circuits of communication from national to international audiences. Within a few short years, continent- and ocean-spanning television coverage became an increasing part of our daily lives—a goal that was an essential element of the President’s broader space program. JFK became part of this transformation in ways he could not have imagined: His assassination on November 22 and his funeral on November 25 occurred at a moment in which "live via satellite" entered into a Cold War world that already seemed ever smaller and ever more fragile. His international popularity in life and the intense, broadly-shared grief in his passing threw into high relief the potential impact and significance of this new technology.

In the days to follow, Relay made vivid this "shrinking world," sending live coverage of the funeral to more than 300 million worldwide.

A single satellite provided this "live" experience: the Relay 1 communications satellite, launched into orbit by the United States in December 1962. A key purpose was to test techniques of international television transmission, and Relay was the second U.S. satellite to explore this possibility (the 1962 Telstar was the first). The satellite could "relay" transmissions to Europe and, in a communications first, across the Pacific Ocean to Japan.

Jacqueline Kennedy, holding the hands of her children John and Caroline, exits the White House on the day of President John F. Kennedy's funeral.

Jacqueline Kennedy, holding the hands of her children John and Caroline, exits the White House on the day of President John F. Kennedy's funeral. Walking through the doorway on the extreme left is Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Credit: Abbie Rowe, National Park Service, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.

Through 1963, Relay focused exclusively on sending television programming between the U.S. and Europe. The programs tended toward the highbrow, including fare such as the news show Meet the Press and highlight tours of the treasures of the Louvre and the National Gallery of Art. But as chance would have it, the first transmission of a television program to Japan was scheduled for the afternoon of November 22, a couple of hours after President Kennedy’s death. In the lead-up to the broadcast, U.S. and Japanese officials considered this first momentous enough to include a short, taped message from JFK. Speaking outside the White House, his pre-recorded message highlighted the need in a "shrinking world" for more "intimate" relations with Japan and other nations, an objective that communications via satellite would facilitate.

But in the wake of the assassination, Kennedy’s message was dropped from the program. In its place, a newspaper noted "viewers saw brief panoramic views of the Mojave transmitting station and the surrounding desert area." Later that same night, NBC sent to Japan via Relay a short program on the day’s horrific events.

Burial and folding of the flag ceremony for President John F. Kennedy.

Burial and folding of the flag ceremony for President John F. Kennedy. Photograph includes: (right side, front to back) Jacqueline Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Eunice Shriver, Patricia Lawford, Jean Smith, Superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery John C. Metzler, (front row middle to right) President of West Germany Heinrich Luebbe, General Charles de Gaulle of France, Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie, President of the Phillipines Diosdado Macapagal, and mourners. Gravesite, Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Credit: Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

In the days to follow, Relay made vivid this "shrinking world," sending live coverage of the funeral to more than 300 million worldwide. As comparison, in 1969 approximately 500 million saw the Apollo 11 Moon landing—the result of a new, world-wide system of more sophisticated operational communications satellites. Relay’s ocean-spanning reach yielded headlines such as "Entire World Encompassed by Mourning" and reports that "Roman Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Shintos, Buddhists, Jews—even tribal chieftains in central Africa—conducted memorial services for the late President." The satellite amplified this collective outpouring of respect and grief across political and religious differences. Live coverage took viewers through the funeral procession, initiating at the U.S. Capitol, to a Roman Catholic service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, and ending at Arlington Cemetery.

Kennedy family members leaving the funeral ceremony for President John F. Kennedy, entrance of capital building.

Kennedy family members leaving the funeral ceremony for President John F. Kennedy. Photograph includes: (L-R) Jean Smith, Robert F. Kennedy, Patricia Lawford, Caroline Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy, Jr. East Front Entrance of Capital Building, Washington, D.C. Credit: Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

The broadcasts, in a dramatic first, reached "both sides of the Iron Curtain". In Moscow "where darkness had fallen, Soviet citizens gathered around their seven million sets to hear a commentator describe the Washington ceremonies." Viewers in Poland, East Germany, and other Soviet Bloc nations witnessed "the funeral cortege, the sound of bells tolling, and the sight of Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy and her two children."

In West Berlin, the funeral coverage drew more than 200,000 mourners to John F. Kennedy Square, a plaza renamed for the president after his famous June 1963 "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a Berliner") speech. In Italy, television coverage blanketed the country and the Italian announcer’s voice "broke as viewers saw Mrs. Kennedy leading her two children into church." Similar scenes occurred in other places in Europe, Japan, and South America.

Relay’s role in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination highlighted the power of sharing trauma and deep emotion across the international landscape—the immediacy of television images served as a brief testament to human commonality. But this was the height of the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis had occurred the previous year and the Space Race was in high gear. A writer for the Soviet newspaper Izvestia captured some of the confusions of the period, offering on communications satellites: "The technological wonder of the 20th century came into our lives with America’s mourning and brought us the cry of battle, a battle between light and darkness raging this week on the other side of the earth." Though a propagandistic statement, it did capture how people in that moment saw the advent of communications satellites—as a potent technology for increasing human connection and understanding as well as making immediate the period’s tensions and dangers.

The story of Relay and JFK’s funeral will be in the new exhibition One World Connected, slated to open 2022 as part of the Museum’s ongoing transformation project.