Since October 1997, the Space History Division has been celebrating a number of fiftieth anniversaries: Sputnik, Vanguard, Yuri Gagarin’s flight, Alan Shepard’s Mercury Flight. Next July we hope to celebrate another. On July 10th, 1962 at 11:47 GMT, the world’s first transmission of a television image by satellite took place, using the Telstar satellite. Prior to Telstar’s launch that summer, NASA experimented with a passive reflector—“Echo” to transmit signals over the horizon, but engineers soon realized that the most practical way to transmit television, with its high bandwidth requirements, was by an “active satellite”: one that would receive a signal and then retransmit it to a ground station on another continent. (Most people know the name “Telstar,” if not for the satellite, then for the hit instrumental song by the Tornados, with its “space age” synthesizer sound.)
Last week I had the great fortune to visit the French village of Pleumeur-Bodou, on the Brittany coast, where that first transmission was received. The microwave antenna in the US, at Andover, Maine, was dismantled years ago, but the one in Brittany has been preserved and is in excellent condition (although it is no longer used). Because Telstar flew in a low-Earth orbit, it was only visible to the ground stations for a few minutes at a time, unlike today’s geostationary satellites, whose 24-hour orbits position them in the same place in the sky at all times. So the antenna had to track the satellite carefully as it passed overhead. Unlike modern dish-shaped antennas, this one was shaped like a giant horn, based on the design of microwave repeaters built by AT&T for long-distance telephone in the U.S. Entering the 64-meter (210 foot) diameter protective Dacron dome, and climbing onto the giant horn was an experience I will never forget. It worked. The initial test on July 10 was followed by images of the U.S. flag waving, Mt. Rushmore, and a “live” portion of a press conference held by President Kennedy. The French, in turn, transmitted a tape of Yves Montand singing “La Chansonnette.” After a string of Soviet firsts in space, this was one the U.S. could claim as a first, finally. A modest beginning, but look at what Telstar has brought us. We take it for granted that whenever there is a major event happening anywhere in the world: a Royal wedding, a benefit rock concert, an earthquake—anything—we expect to see it “live.” Marshall McLuhan prophesized that the “cool” medium of television would make us all inhabitants of a “global village.” That did not happen right away, which led people to dismiss his predictions as mere fancy. But with the combination of satellite telecommunications, the Internet, and Facebook (the last two appearing after McLuhan’s death), who would say that he was wrong? And it all began with Telstar.