First Passive Communications Satellite Is Launched Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The world’s first passive communications satellite was launched, paving the way for the fundamental transformation of the telecommunications and entertainment industries by creating the possibility of instantaneous global broadcast and communication.

Summary of Event

On August 12, 1960, the first Echo 1 passive communications satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral (later Cape Kennedy), Florida, atop a Delta Thor launch vehicle. Then U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;space program spoke via a prerecorded message, which was conveyed from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Aeronautics and Space Administration;satellites (NASA) communications facility at Goldstone, California, to Holmdel, New Jersey. The first-ever two-way message was sent the next day, August 13, between Richardson, Texas, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The world’s first reported picture transmission took place on August 19, this time originating at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and received in Richardson, Texas. With these amazing technological advances, Echo opened a new era of world communications. Satellites, artificial;telecommunications Echo I program[Echo 01 program] Telecommunications;satellites [kw]First Passive Communications Satellite Is Launched (Aug. 12, 1960) [kw]Communications Satellite Is Launched, First Passive (Aug. 12, 1960) [kw]Satellite Is Launched, First Passive Communications (Aug. 12, 1960) Satellites, artificial;telecommunications []Echo 1 program[Echo 01 program] Telecommunications;satellites [g]North America;Aug. 12, 1960: First Passive Communications Satellite Is Launched[06630] [g]United States;Aug. 12, 1960: First Passive Communications Satellite Is Launched[06630] [c]Space and aviation;Aug. 12, 1960: First Passive Communications Satellite Is Launched[06630] [c]Communications and media;Aug. 12, 1960: First Passive Communications Satellite Is Launched[06630] [c]Engineering;Aug. 12, 1960: First Passive Communications Satellite Is Launched[06630] [c]Science and technology;Aug. 12, 1960: First Passive Communications Satellite Is Launched[06630] O’Sullivan, William J., Jr.[Osullivan, William J., Jr.] Pierce, John R.

The Echo program developed initially from a project on air density run by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, later to become NASA), in response to the International Geophysical Year International Geophysical Year (IGY). (The IGY was an international program to increase knowledge about the earth and its environment.) William J. O’Sullivan, Jr., of the NACA Langley Research Facility, had studied prospective projects designed to measure the air density of the atmosphere and proposed a large, inflatable balloon to detect the aerodynamic drag. Although two launches with an Echo-type balloon were attempted, launch-vehicle failures plagued the efforts.

In further study, O’Sullivan decided that radio beacons, attached to the balloon, would allow tracking during a greater period of each orbit. A reflector of some type, bouncing signals back to the transmitter, could increase the tracking to an almost continual basis, he concluded. After that, it followed simply that the balloon could bounce back communications signals, and the concept of Echo 1 was born. Two new requirements became necessary: The balloon had to be increased in size and made more reflective.

John R. Pierce, of Bell Telephone Laboratories Bell Telephone Laboratories , had considered the concept of a passive communications satellite since 1955. (A passive satellite is one that simply bounces signals back to Earth. An active communications satellite receives and transmits.) As early as April, 1958, a small, 3.66-meter inflatable sphere was deployed, launched by a Nike-Cajun launch vehicle. Balloon satellites were launched twice more in 1958, one in May, still only 4.1 kilograms, but reaching a height of 80 kilometers. The second, on October 22, was called Explorer 6 (not related to the later Explorer program). It was only 3.66 meters in diameter and did not achieve the correct orbit.

By 1959, Bell Telephone Laboratories and NACA scientists were working jointly on the Echo project. NACA scientists at Langley worked on three developmental projects for the Echo: a sufficiently reflective material, a mode of inflating the balloon, and a delivery canister. E. I. du Pont supplied the material, an aluminized Mylar film 0.5 millimeter in thickness. The G. T. Schjeldahl Company G. T. Schjeldahl Company fitted together the 82 gores of material to form the globe, which was 30.48 meters in diameter. The sublimating medium (a medium that goes from solid to gas without going through a liquid phase) was chosen: benzoic acid. The canister was made of metal, impregnated with plastic. This spherical container was constructed by Kaiser-Fleetwing Kaiser-Fleetwing[Kaiser Fleetwing] .

A 0.76-meter balloon was launched aboard a Vanguard launch vehicle, but the Vanguard failed. Between April and September, 1959, Langley personnel constructed a 30.48-meter inflatable sphere, destined for another deployment. Project Shotput Project Shotput , lofted by a Sergeant-Delta launch vehicle on October 28, flew to 400 kilometers before the sphere ruptured. The second Project Shotput was launched on January 16, 1960, with the same launch vehicle, and again achieved 400 kilometers in height before the cannister ruptured. A bit more than a month later, on February 27, a third Shotput flight resulted in a radio transmission originating in Holmdel, New Jersey, and sent to Round Hill, Massachusetts. Once again the sphere ruptured.

Static inflation test of the Echo I communications satellite before launch in 1961.

(NASA/Langley Research Center)

On April 1, 1960, the by now uniform-sized sphere (30.48 meters) was successfully launched and inflated at 380 kilometers in altitude. Launch vehicle malfunction, this time by a Thor-Delta, caused the failure of the Echo A 10 on May 13, destroying the spacecraft upon reentry when the attitude control jets on the second stage failed. Finally, on August 12, Echo 1 was launched and fully deployed. The metal cannister was injected into orbit after deployment of the balloon, as planned. For four and a half months, the satellite was utilized for experimentation by the Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) in California and Bell Telephone Laboratories. Despite damage from micrometeoroid particles (minute particles in space), the Echo 1 was still useful for communications experiments, including PAGEOS 1, which garnered geodetic information such as mapping data. The programmed cost for the entire Echo 1 project was $21,998,000. Echo 1 reentered the earth’s atmosphere on May 24, 1968.

Echo 1 was a balloon of 30.5 meters in diameter, constructed of bright silver aluminum-covered Mylar polyester film and weighing 76 kilograms. It was folded into a gray, magnesium canister, which measured 0.67 meter in diameter and weighed almost 11 kilograms. Residual air, benzoic acid, and anthraquinone were used to inflate the giant sphere. The extremely bright surface of the balloon reflected 98 percent of the signals transmitted at 20,000 megacycles. Two radio beacons, each weighing 312 grams, were each powered by five nickel-cadmium batteries, in turn powered by seventy solar cells per beacon. These radio beacons were used for survey and tracking purposes. The two beacons were attached to 25-centimeter disks that were mounted on opposite sides of the balloon. A small whip antenna was provided for each beacon.

The Delta launch vehicle carried three stages, with a gross liftoff weight of approximately 50,817 kilograms. The entire vehicle stood 28 meters tall, and had a diameter of almost 2.5 meters. The solid fuel first-stage Thor booster was modified for the Echo project and delivered 333,708 newtons of thrust. Liquid propellant powered the second-stage rocket engine, with 1,685 newtons of thrust. Powered by the AJ 10 142 engine, this stage was 0.8 meter in diameter. The radio command guidance and the flight controller were contained within the second stage. The third stage, which injected the canister into orbit, was an Altair solid fuel rocket power plant. Injection was achieved with 674 newtons of thrust during forty seconds of firing. The canister separated with spring action, freeing the sphere, which was then inflated.

Two more Echo 1 satellites were launched during 1962. Echo (Big Shot 1) was launched on January 15, and Echo (Big Shot 2) on July 18. Plans for further Echo-type satellites were dropped as active communications satellite technology was developed.


Probably the most immediate impact of the Echo 1 program was the visual proof of the utilization of space for peaceful purposes. Echo 1 could be seen from Earth and proved to be an impetus to the exploration of space, exciting the interest of the world and the pride of the American public.

The success of Echo 1 gave rise to six different types of communications satellites between 1962 and 1963. American Telephone and Telegraph developed the low-altitude, random-orbit Telstar. Hughes Aircraft put a high-altitude, stable-orbiting Syncom into the skies. Project Relay was an active repeating satellite, built by Radio Corporation of America. The NASA Rebound program was based on the Echo satellite itself but was soon abandoned for more advanced technology. Project Advent Project Advent , a Department of Defense program, utilized an active repeater, developed by Bendix. A sixth, vastly different defense program conceived of placing a mass of small copper wires into an equatorial orbit, forming a belt.

President Eisenhower foresaw a need for legislation concerning the ownership and operation of space communications satellites. At the end of his term of office, he set early guidelines for this new age of space, just prior to the inauguration of incoming president John F. Kennedy Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;space program . The ownership of devices designed by a private company, under contract to government entities such as NASA, came under scrutiny. President Kennedy advanced what amounted to the first space legislation on February 7, 1962, when he made a proposal to Congress that would establish free enterprise in space. The proposal would permit private companies to own and operate satellites and ground stations. A private corporation would be set up by the government, with both private-sector and corporate ownership. A long legislative battle ensued, with communications companies lobbying strongly for their interests and with many legislators concerned about an uncontrollable monopoly.

Space exploration received a hefty boost, because a large launch vehicle, necessary to put larger, heavier satellites into orbit, became a higher priority. The end result was the development of heavy launch vehicles such as the Saturn, which put astronauts on the Moon.

Probably the most long-lasting result of Echo 1 was the increased cooperation and communication among nations. Exchanges in culture via television broadcasts, language modification, and licensing agreements to handle the increased demand on the frequencies used in space communications systems (between 1,000 and 20,000 megacycles) are three examples of the aftereffects of Echo. These effects helped spur cooperative space efforts such as the Apollo-Soyuz joint American-Soviet mission. Senator Warren Magnuson from Washington stated in 1961: “The communications satellite, in my opinion, can be the most valuable instrument of good will and understanding in the history of the world.” Satellites, artificial;telecommunications Echo I program[Echo 01 program] Telecommunications;satellites

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caprara, Giovanni. The Complete Encyclopedia of Space Probes and Satellites. New York: Crown, 1986. A beautifully illustrated, oversized book. Chapters are arranged by type of satellite. A pleasure to use.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cox, Donald W. The Space Race: From Sputnik to Apollo . . . and Beyond! Philadelphia: Chilton, 1962. A political history of the major space events and of their impact on the international scene. Technical details are at a minimum. College-level reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ezell, Linda Newman. NASA Historical Data Book. Vol. 2. NASA SP-4012. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1988. A comprehensive study of all the NASA programs during a critical decade in space development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ley, Willy. Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel. Rev. ed. New York: Viking, 1958. Written by one of the most prolific writers on space and space travel. Gives a layperson’s view of the development of rocketry and satellites as well as understandable explanations of satellite orbitry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenthal, Alfred. Satellite Handbook. Greenbelt, Md.: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, 1981. A complete listing of NASA space missions between 1958 and 1980. Gives launch vehicle and spacecraft description, project objectives, spacecraft payload, test results, and major participants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whalen, David J. The Origins of Satellite Communications, 1945-1965. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002. An entry in the Smithsonian History of Aviation and Spaceflight series, this text covers the first twenty years of the theory and practice of communications satellite technology. Bibliographic references and index.

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