First Commercial Communications Satellite Is Launched Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Telstar 1, the world’s first commercial communications satellite, opened the age of live, worldwide television with the first transmission between the United States and Europe.

Summary of Event

In 1945, Arthur C. Clarke proposed that a satellite orbiting high above the earth could serve as a communications relay station, overcoming the line of sight limitation on television transmission. Writing in the February, 1945, issue of Wireless World, Clarke said artificial satellites “could give television and microwave coverage to the entire planet.” The first practical demonstration of the satellite relay principle came on December 18, 1958, when the United States Air Force launched the Project Score satellite. A 68-kilogram radio relay on Score accepted and retransmitted signals, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Christmas message to the world, between ground stations in Texas, Arizona, and Georgia. Telstar 1 Satellites, artificial;telecommunications Telecommunicati ons;satellites [kw]First Commercial Communications Satellite Is Launched (July 10, 1962) [kw]Commercial Communications Satellite Is Launched, First (July 10, 1962) [kw]Communications Satellite Is Launched, First Commercial (July 10, 1962) [kw]Satellite Is Launched, First Commercial Communications (July 10, 1962) Telstar 1 Satellites, artificial;telecommunications Telecommunicati ons;satellites [g]North America;July 10, 1962: First Commercial Communications Satellite Is Launched[07290] [g]United States;July 10, 1962: First Commercial Communications Satellite Is Launched[07290] [c]Communications and media;July 10, 1962: First Commercial Communications Satellite Is Launched[07290] [c]Science and technology;July 10, 1962: First Commercial Communications Satellite Is Launched[07290] [c]Space and aviation;July 10, 1962: First Commercial Communications Satellite Is Launched[07290] Clarke, Arthur C. Pierce, John R.

In 1956, even before the launching of the first satellite, John R. Pierce at the Bell Telephone Laboratories Bell Telephone Laboratories of the American Telephone and Telegraph American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) urged development of commercial orbital radio relays. He saw communications satellites as a replacement for the ocean-bottom cables then being used to carry transatlantic telephone calls. In 1950, a total of 1.5 million transatlantic calls were made, but this was expected to grow to 3 million calls by 1960, straining the capacity of the existing cables; 21 million calls were made by 1970.

Communications satellites offered a viable alternative to building more transatlantic telephone cables. Economic calculations indicated that a satellite system, capable of handling one thousand calls simultaneously, and the ground stations could be built for about $100 million and maintained for $20 million per year. The potential revenue from such a system was estimated to be about $100 million per year. A satellite could also relay television, which could not be done by the transatlantic cable.

On January 19, 1961, the Federal Communications Commission Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized AT&T to establish, at its own expense, an experimental satellite communications link across the Atlantic Ocean. The Bell Telephone Laboratories initiated Project Telstar, the first commercial communications satellite, in an agreement with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Aeronautics and Space Administration;satellites (NASA) in July, 1961, under which AT&T was to develop and construct the Telstar satellite and ground communications stations. AT&T would pay NASA $3 million for each Telstar launch. The Telstar project involved about four hundred scientists, engineers, and technicians at the Bell Telephone Laboratories, twenty more technical personnel at AT&T headquarters, and the efforts of more than eight hundred other companies that furnished equipment or services. By July, 1962, AT&T had invested more than $50 million in research, development, and construction of the satellite and support facilities.

Telstar 1 was shaped like a faceted sphere, 88 centimeters in diameter and weighing 80 kilograms. Most of its exterior surface, sixty of the seventy-four facets, was covered by thirty-six hundred solar cells to convert sunlight into 15 watts of electricity to power the satellite. Each solar cell was covered with artificial sapphire to reduce the damage caused by the high-energy particles in the Van Allen radiation belt. As an experimental satellite, Telstar 1 carried a variety of instruments to evaluate its performance and monitor the effects of radiation on its electronics. The main instrument was a communications transponder, a radio receiver operating at 6,390 megahertz, and a transmitter operating at 4,170 megahertz, capable of relaying six hundred simultaneous telephone calls or one television channel. The transmitter output was only 2.25 watts, less than one-thirtieth that of a household lightbulb.

Large ground antennae Telecommunications;antennae were required to receive Telstar’s faint signal. The principal ground station was constructed by AT&T on a hilltop, informally called Space Hill, in Andover, Maine. A horn-shaped antenna, weighing 380 tons, with a length of 54 meters and an open end with an area of 1,097 square meters was mounted so that it could rotate to track Telstar across the sky. To minimize the stresses from wind and weather, the antenna was built inside an inflated dome, 64 meters in diameter and 49 meters tall. It was, at the time, the largest inflatable structure ever built. A second, smaller horn antenna in Holmdel, New Jersey, built by Bell Telephone Laboratories for experiments with the Echo 1 balloon satellite, was modified to receive signals from Telstar.

In February, 1961, the governments of the United States and England agreed to a collaboration between the British Post Office and NASA for testing experimental communications satellites. The British Post Office constructed a 26-meter-diameter steerable dish antenna of their own design at Goonhilly Downs, near Cornwall, England. Under a similar agreement, the French National Center for Telecommunications Studies constructed a ground station, almost identical to the Andover station, at Pleumeur-Bodou, Brittany, France.

The Telstar satellite was assembled and vibration tested at AT&T’s Hillside, New Jersey, laboratory and then moved to Murray Hill, New Jersey, for transmission checks. The satellite was then placed in a thermal-vacuum chamber, where it was cooled to 149 degrees Celsius, heated by arc lamps mimicking the sun, and exposed to a vacuum simulating the space environment.

Following testing, Telstar 1 was moved to Cape Canaveral, Florida, and attached to the Thor-Delta launch vehicle built by the Douglas Aircraft Company. The Thor-Delta was launched at 3:35 a.m. eastern standard time (EST) on July 10, 1962, carrying Telstar 1 into an elliptical orbit with a low point of 953 kilometers and a high point of 5,655 kilometers. Telstar 1 took 157.8 minutes to circle the globe. The satellite was within range of the Andover antenna from 60 to 260 minutes a day. Telstar came within range of the Andover station on its sixth orbit, and a television test pattern was transmitted to the satellite at 6:26 p.m. EST. At 6:30 p.m. EST, a tape recorded black-and-white image of the American flag with the Andover station in the background, transmitted from Andover to Holmdel, opened the first television show ever broadcast by satellite. Live pictures of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson, Lyndon B. Television;satellite relays and other officials gathered at Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., followed on the AT&T program carried live on all three American networks.

Up to the moment of launch, it was uncertain if the French station would be completed in time to participate in the initial tests. At 6:47 p.m. EST, however, Telstar’s signal was acquired by the station in Pleumeur-Bodou, and Johnson’s image became the first transatlantic television transmission. Pictures received at the French station were reported to be so clear that they looked like they were sent from only 40 kilometers away. Technical difficulties prevented reception of a clear signal at the English station.

American television viewers saw their first satellite transmissions from Europe on the night of July 11, 1962. At 6:35 p.m. EST, the French station broadcast a seven-minute taped program which included Yves Montand singing “La Chansonette.” The English complained that this broadcast violated an agreement that the first Europe-to-America transmission would be a program produced by Eurovision, scheduled for the following week. The French replied that their transmission was only a “test.” The English, who had corrected the difficulties at their station, transmitted the first live television between Europe and the United States on the next orbit. At 9:21 p.m. EST, American viewers saw an English test pattern.

The first formal exchange of programming between the United States and Europe occurred on July 23, 1962. This special eighteen-minute program produced by the European Broadcasting Union included Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, West Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, England, and Yugoslavia. It consisted of live scenes from major cities throughout Europe and was transmitted from Goonhilly Downs to Andover via Telstar. The European program, broadcast live on network television in the United States, depicted the heritage of Europe.

On the previous orbit, a program entitled “America, July 23, 1962,” "America, July 23, 1962" (television program)[America, July 23, 1962] showing scenes from fifty television cameras around the United States, was beamed from Andover to Pleumeur-Bodou and seen by an estimated 100 million viewers throughout Europe. Telstar 1 functioned until February 21, 1963, except for an interruption from November 23, 1962, to January 4, 1963.


Telstar 1 was the first space project originated and paid for by private enterprise. Telstar’s launching marked the entry of private enterprise into space, and communications satellites quickly became the first viable space business venture. On the first day of trading after Telstar’s launching, AT&T stock rose from 109.875 to 113.25 on the New York Stock Exchange.

The day after the launch of Telstar 1, President John F. Kennedy Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;space program initiated a study of the new opportunities and problems arising from satellite communications technology. This study resulted in passage of the Communications Satellite Act Communications Satellite Act (1962) on August 27, 1962. The act established the Communications Satellite Corporation Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) as the only United States entity permitted to enter into international communications agreements. This law effectively prohibited AT&T from operating its own commercial international telecommunications system. AT&T continued with the development of a second experimental satellite, Telstar 2, but the Andover station was eventually sold to COMSAT.

COMSAT became the manager of the space segment of the International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium (INTELSAT), with an initial membership of eleven nations. By 1970, seventy-four nations, representing more than 96 percent of the world’s telecommunications traffic, had joined INTELSAT. Within a decade, a single INTELSAT IV communications satellite demonstrated a transmission capacity of six thousand two-way telephone calls, exceeding the capability of all the world’s international underwater telephone cables, or twelve simultaneous color television programs.

The significance of global satellite communications, however, went far beyond the world of private enterprise. In signing the COMSAT legislation, President Kennedy forecast: “The ultimate result will be to encourage and facilitate world trade, education, entertainment, and many kinds of professional, political and personal discourses which are essential to healthy human relationships and international understanding.”

Telstar 1 and its successors revolutionized the television news and sports industries. Prior to the communications satellite, television networks had to rely on shipping film across the oceans, meaning delays of hours or days between the time an event occurred and the broadcast of pictures of that event on television on another continent. Now, news events of major significance, as well as sporting events, can be viewed live around the world. The impact on international relations also was significant, with world opinion becoming able to influence the actions of governments and individuals, since those actions could be seen around the world as the events were still in progress.

More powerful launch vehicles allowed new satellites to be placed in geosynchronous orbits, circling the earth at a speed the same as the earth’s rotation rate so, when viewed from the ground, these satellites appeared to remain stationary in the sky. This allowed continuous communications and greatly simplified the ground antenna system. By the late 1970’s, private individuals were able to build small antennae in their backyards to receive television signals directly from the satellites. Telstar 1 Satellites, artificial;telecommunications Telecommunicati ons;satellites

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clarke, Arthur C. Voices from the Sky: Previews of the Coming Space Age. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. This collection includes essays that explore the social consequences and impact on international relations of the instant, worldwide communications made available with satellites and describe Clarke’s early role in suggesting such satellites. It includes a reprint of one of Clarke’s 1945 Wireless World articles describing communications satellites.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Rick, and Frank Vaughn. All About Home Satellite Television. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: TAB Books, 1983. This well-illustrated volume describes the history of satellite television, explains the various types of satellites, and discusses the evolution of communications satellites from the earliest efforts to the modern, high-power satellites that can be received by individuals with personal antennae.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edelson, Burton I. “Global Satellite Communications.” Scientific American 236 (February, 1977): 58-68. This well-illustrated article traces the growth of the communications satellite industry, with particular emphasis on the economics of operation and the INTELSAT series of communications satellites.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gatland, K. W., ed. Telecommunication Satellites. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964. A detailed history of the first five years of communication by satellite. Chapter 3 focuses on Project Telstar, describing the satellite and its instrumentation, its orbit, and the reason for its eventual radiation-induced failure. Chapter 7 discusses the prospects for Europe, including descriptions of the European ground stations, a chronology of the first two weeks of transatlantic communications via Telstar 1, and photographs of the first black-and-white and color television signals transmitted across the Atlantic to the English station at Goonhilly Downs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jaffe, Leonard. Communications in Space. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. This well-illustrated monograph, written by the official who directed NASA’s communications satellite effort from 1959 to 1963, describes the history of communications satellites and the expected societal impact of worldwide satellite communications. Includes an extensive reference list, and is intended for general audiences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ordway, Frederick I., III, Carsbie C. Adams, and Mitchell R. Sharpe. Dividends from Space. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1971. Chapter 8 traces the history of communications satellites, the formation of the COMSAT and the INTELSAT, and the economic development of the communications satellite industry. Intended for general audiences, this book emphasizes the economic and public benefits of satellite communications.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pierce, J. R. The Beginnings of Satellite Communications. San Francisco: San Francisco Press, 1968. This insider’s account, written by the director of communications for the Bell Telephone Laboratories, describes the motivation for commercial communications satellites and traces their early history, with particular emphasis on the Telstar project.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whalen, David J. The Origins of Satellite Communications, 1945-1965. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002. Part of the Smithsonian History of Aviation and Spaceflight series, this volume details the beginnings and development of communications satellite technology. Bibliographic references and index.

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